Gogarty holds line over Green veto on third-level fees

 

THE GREEN Party veto on new student tuition charges or loans is non-negotiable – despite warnings from a Government task force that the sector is facing a deepening financial crisis.

Paul Gogarty, the Green spokesman on education told The Irish Timeslast night the party would not countenance any new student charges or loans.

Mr Gogarty said the Coalition partners had agreed in the Revised Programme for Government last year there would be no new student tuition charges during the lifetime of this Government.

He said the Green Party veto on student fees was agreed readily and without any difficulty by Fianna Fáil Ministers in the discussions. The issue was regarded as closed, he said.

The Hunt report was drawn up by the National Strategy Group for Higher Education, chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt. It says the third-level sector needs up to €500 million extra per year until 2020 to cope with 65,000 additional students – and to allow it play a pivotal role in economic recovery.

It backs a system of student tuition charges including an income-related loan scheme; graduates would repay the fees once they reached a certain income threshold.

The report was welcomed last night by the seven university presidents. It was important, they said, that the report underlined the extent of the financial crisis facing the sector.

Bur Mr Gogarty said new tuition charges or Australian-style “study now, pay later” loan schemes could lead to a “brain drain” of students. It would also act as a barrier to those from lower-income groups concerned about building up debt.

He said the introduction of a new system to replace the €1,500 student registration charge made no sense at this time as it would see a net loss of funds.

Minister for Education Mary Coughlan will bring the Hunt report to Cabinet next month. Several Ministers including Batt O’Keeffe and Noel Dempsey back new charges. Fine Gael also supports a graduate tax. But Ms Coughlan says the Green veto is not up for negotiation.

Last night the university presidents said the current funding model was unsustainable.

Ned Costello, chief executive of their representative group, the Irish Universities Association, said: said: “Based on the surge in applications to the CAO and increased numbers of students going to college, there will be less funding available to support each student.

“This is before the question of further government cutbacks is even considered. It is patently obvious that a system whereby student numbers continually increase and the resources available continually fall is unsustainable.

“This is especially the case when international studies have found that our higher-education system is already one of the most efficient, globally.” Mr Costello said the universities looked forward to the report’s publication and were anxious to engage with the Minister in response to its findings.

Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, said there had been a 15 per cent increase in student numbers in the past two years. The sector, he said, was making significant productivity gains, despite a series of cutbacks. But he stressed that a British-style student cap was not likely as colleges here are incentivised financially to take on more students.

Dr Hunt is a former adviser to Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the Department of Finance. Other members of the strategy group include Brigid McManus, secretary general of the Department of Education; Michael Kelly, chairman of the Higher Education Authority; Dr John Hegarty, provost at Trinity College Dublin; and Paul Rellis, managing director of Microsoft Ireland. The report did not accept the case for university designation made by some institutes of technology .