O'Keeffe embarrassed over fee revenue forecast out by €400m


MINISTER FOR Education Batt O'Keeffe has admitted his embarrassment in a growing controversy about the potential revenue from the return of third-level fees.

Last weekend, the department released the results of a report prepared by a UCC economist, Dr Noel Woods, which found the return of fees could generate up to €530 million for the exchequer in one year. It later emerged that Dr Woods had miscalculated - the maximum yield, using his own figures, was actually €130 million.

Dr Woods, a health economist, had been asked by the Minister to give him an overall projection of the likely revenue from fees.

Yesterday, the Minister said he feels sympathy for Dr Woods, who had prepared the figures as he was rushing away to a conference.

However, he also admitted his own embarrassment: "Obviously, it's embarrassing. There is no point in saying otherwise . . . When I read the figures, I thought they were high. But I didn't question the accuracy of them at the time.'' The Minister said the controversy was "just one of those things . . . it happens and we move on from it".

It was not that important, he said, as the Higher Education Authority and a tax expert were also preparing projections for him.

In recent days, the Opposition has rounded on the Minister for releasing inaccurate figures to the media. Dr Woods's original projection of €530 million raised eyebrows across the education sector. Five years ago, a report prepared for former minister Noel Dempsey envisaged a figure that was only a fraction of this.

Yesterday, Mr O'Keeffe said he would only consider fees for households with an income in excess of €120,000. In his view, a threshold of €120,000 was probably too low, but he declined to say where any threshold would be fixed.

He confirmed he has held discussions with an Australian education official about a much-praised student loan scheme, whereby students are given incentives to pay fees up front, but can also opt for a loan they repay when they start working. The amount repaid is linked to earnings after graduation.

He was also examining the British "top-up" fees model, where students pay top-up fees of over €3,000.