Further student fees considered as Minister refuses to rule out options


THE RETURN of college and/or additional student charges is back on the political agenda after Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn refused to rule out these options.

In a surprise move, Mr Quinn rowed back on a pre-election pledge when he opposed the €500 increase in the student contribution charge from next September. He also made a personal commitment to reverse the increase in discussions with student leaders during the campaign.

Yesterday, he said these promises no longer stood as he had less room for manoeuvre than envisaged.

The Minister’s U-turn comes after warnings from university presidents and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) that a cap on student numbers may be necessary as debt-ridden colleges struggle to cope with record student demand. Numbers are expected to surge by 72 per cent over the next 20 years.

While stressing he didn’t want a financial barrier limiting access for poorer students, Mr Quinn hinted that additional charges might be under consideration for those who can afford to pay.

In recent days, the Minister has asked the authority to prepare a report on the funding crisis in higher education. This will feed into Cabinet discussions on new funding in the autumn.

Mr Quinn said on RTÉ yesterday there would be no charges above the €2,000 student contribution fee next September. But he refused to give any guarantees on costs in 2012 and beyond.

The Hunt report in 2010, which charts a 20-year strategy for the sector, backed student fees and a student loan scheme.

The existing funding model, it noted was “unsustainable”, warning that continuing cuts in State support would damage overall standards. The report said annual funding must increase by €500 million annually – from €1.3 billion to €1.8 billion by 2020. It also said funding should almost double to €2.25 billion a year by 2030.

In an address to the Royal Irish Academy on the Hunt report yesterday, Mr Quinn also promised a review of the CAO system which determines entry to third-level colleges.

This will form part of a major programme of education reform which also includes a recasting of the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams, he said.

Mr Quinn added that it would take about six years to roll out the reform programme he envisaged.

The CAO points system, he said, was having an adverse impact on learning at second level, on the Leaving Cert examination and on the readiness of new entrants into higher education.

The benefits of any Leaving Cert curriculum reform would be undermined, he said, if we did not address the demands and pressures that the points system placed on teachers and students.

“I have asked for a full and frank consideration of this issue within the higher education sector in the coming months. We need to be prepared to think in terms of radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements,” he said.

The CAO system, he added, was designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver entrants. Mr Quinn said that while the system had served us well and enjoyed widespread public confidence, a need existed to think in terms of how we would manage for a more diverse group of students. These students had new levels and forms of demand for flexible learning and non-traditional routes of entry.

Mr Quinn also said that a small number of institutes of technology could be transformed into new technological universities as proposed by the Hunt report.

But he warned that they would need to meet strict criteria.

“We must be vigilant and ensure that excellence continues to be the hallmark of our higher education institutions and of our system of higher education,” the Minister added.

“We cannot afford to be influenced by conventional prejudices, territorialism or institutional ambition for new status without new substance.

“A technological university must first and foremost be a university in the quality of its programmes, teaching and research, albeit one with a quite different mission to our existing universities.”