Incomes of over €100,000 would be target for fees


ONLY FAMILIES earning well in excess of €100,000 a year would be required to pay third-level college fees in the event of their reintroduction, Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe indicated yesterday.

The leader of the Progressive Democrats, Senator Ciarán Cannon, widened the debate by suggesting that a system of student loans on the Australian model should be considered rather than the reintroduction of flat fees.

Mr O'Keeffe was at pains to emphasise that only the better off would be required to pay if the Government ultimately decided to bring back fees to help meet the shortfall in funding the third-level sector.

He told The Irish Times he was embarking on a programme of national debate about the issue and no decision has been taken yet about reintroducing fees or what the threshold would be set at for payment of fees if they were reintroduced.

"We haven't made any decision yet, we're embarking on a national debate but I certainly wouldn't envisage any family on €100,000 a year in joint income having to pay third-level fees and in fact, I would envisage the bar being set much higher than that," he said.

Mr O'Keeffe acknowledged that middle class families had benefited greatly from the abolition of third-level fees but he said that both middle class and working class families would not have anything to fear about their reintroduction. "What I am saying quite clearly is that I would never bring within the band people who can ill-afford to pay. I would rather be looking at people who can afford to pay and there are many millionaires in this country who can afford to pay," he said.

"There are so many millionaires in this country at the present time and the question is being asked of me on a regular basis by ordinary people, why would they pay for their young kids going into private college at second level and then go off free into third-level institutions?

"I don't think any ordinary person out there on the street would disagree with me that people who are extremely well off should be asked to pay a contribution. I certainly wouldn't want people who are struggling already to keep their children in third level, to be asked to pay fees."

Mr Cannon reiterated the PDs' opposition to the reintroduction of flat-rate fees for third-level education, but said alternative options might be required to tackle the funding crisis.

In an interview with RTÉ's Morning Ireland, he said that flat fees were a "blunt instrument" that were unfair to middle-income families. His party had pledged in the last election that third-level fees would not be reintroduced.

"It is the policy of the party that we would not support the going back to that simple flat-fee structure," he said. "That is not to say that we wouldn't be supporting a more innovative and creative approach to funding."

He suggested Mr O'Keeffe could consider the introduction of a system like the one in Australia where students spend a number of years post graduation paying back the fees. Alternatively, he could look to the United States where tax breaks are given to graduates to continue to fund the university they attended.

Labour TD Michael D Higgins said that if the Minister went ahead and reintroduced fees it would represent "the final abandonment by Fianna Fáil of any pretence of a commitment to the principle of equal citizenship."

He said it appeared that at the first sign of a downturn in the economy, Fianna Fáil was targeting education and hard pressed families for financial penalties.

"It should be an elementary principle of any democratic republic that there is universal access to basic services like education," said Mr Higgins.

"If Mr O'Keeffe and his colleagues wants to ensure that the wealthy make a fair financial contribution to Irish society, then the way to do it is by broadening the tax base and closing off the tax shelters," he said.