O'Keeffe refuses to rule out fees

 

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said today he did not consider resigning over the Goverment's commitment not to introduce third-level fees and that some form of student contribution remained his objective.

Mr O’Keeffe signalled earlier this year he was considering some form of fee structure for the country’s universities and institutes of technology. However, the Government's revised Programme for Government has given a commitment not to introduce university fees, not to increase pupil-teacher ratio numbers and to begin recruiting 500 teachers immediately.

Speaking this morning, the Minister said the decision on third-level fees was being "put into abeyance at the moment".

"In the light of the current financial circumstances and the effect on families, it was decided that during the lifetime of this Government, fees for third level would not be introduced," he said.

Mr O'Keeffe said he still held the view that those who were extremely well-off should pay toward third-level fees "but at the present time, Government has decided that in light . . . of the reviews that are going to take place, in the light of the upcoming difficult decisions that have been taken in the budget, it is a Government decision to postpone this particular issue, but I've no doubt that, in the future, student commitment will have to be an issue for funding the third-level sector".

Mr O'Keeffe, speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, said he did not consider resigning when the Programme for Government changed the stance on fees. "I became very conscious myself of the difficulties that families are facing and what was going to happen into the future," he said. "I'm an absolutely a driven politician, a driven Minister, I want to ensure there is prudent management of the system."

The Minister added that he was consulted in relation to the talks with the Greens over the revised programme.

Mr O'Keeffe said it was on the basis of a 2007 wealth survey, which identified 33,000 millionaires, that he had said it was not appropriate to be funding the education children of those who could "well afford" fees.

"Many of those millionaires no longer exist . . . and I think it's a sensible and sane decision [to postpone fees] given what is coming down in the budget," adding: "I see student contribution as forming a very appropriate part of third-level funding into the future."

Mr O'Keeffe also refused to rule out an increase in the registration fees, which are currently set at a maximum of €1,500 per student. "If the institutes and colleges are not providing services at €1,500 per student, they won't go up, If they can prove the services are above that, then obviously that's a consideration that we'll take into account."

The Minister said he had proposals for the third-level sector that he would submit to a strategy group. "We've never had a strategy for third-level education in this country, so I've set up this strategy group, they're to report to me by the end of the year, they'll give me a vision of how the third-level sector should be structured into the future."

The Minister said he had met university and institute presidents in Tuam and had indicated areas where "substantial savings" can be made in areas such as procurement, shared services, and collaboration.

Referring to the extra 500 teaching posts in primary and secondary schools, Mr O'Keeffe said they would cost some €30 million. He refused to be drawn on how these would be funded or the effect that the new posts and the decision not to introduce third-level fees would have on his Department's budget.

Mr O'Keeffe said he would be discussing funding during talks with Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan on the budgetary estimates, and that he would be reminding his colleagues in Cabinet of their commitments to education spending.

Responding, Fine Gael spokesman on education Brian Hayes accused the Minister of attempting to kick the registration fees issue into touch.

In a statement, he said Mr O'Keeffe's remarks "makes it clear that he is either clueless when it comes to third level funding and the registration fee or he is misleading all those in the area".

"The Minister stated that the Government cannot increase the €1,500 registration fee which is completely untrue. This statement comes on the heels of two other Cabinet colleagues, namely Ministers Gormley and Ryan, who, yesterday, refused to rule out further hikes in student registration fee," Mr Hayes said.

"It is astonishing that the Minister for Education would make such a claim. On Morning Irelandthis morning, Batt O'Keeffe attempted to kick to touch the issue of registration fees saying it relates to student services. He then made the astounding claim that he cannot hike the fee. It is completely false to say that the fees are up to colleges, it is entirely a Government decision.

"Last year, Fianna Fáil and the Greens made the unilateral decision to hike the fee to €1,500, a decision that was nothing to do with services, was not requested by the colleges and was all to do with 'fees by the back door?'," the Fine Gael frontbencher said.

Labour spokesman Ruairí Quinn said a rise in third-level fees by the back door was now a prospect thanks to the Greens.

Mr Quinn said there was no guarantee in the new Programme for Government "that the old trick of increasing the college registration fee won't continue. Third level fees already exist. They are just disguised as registration fees".

"Students have to pay for registration fees, books, accommodation, travel and other expenses. Adding fees on top of this will make it even harder for students to further their education and reach their full potential," he said.

"I would call on Minister Batt O'Keeffe to clarify that the Programme for Government rules out any form of third level fees, including a hike in the registration fees over the lifetime of this Government."

Among the other key elements of the revised Programme for Government document are a commitment to restore the grant assistance for school books, which was withdrawn in September 2008.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) today said it had cancelled planned protests at Institutes of Technology around the country following the decision not to reintroduce third-level fees. The USI had organised rallies at Limerick today, Tralee tomorrow and Waterford on Wednesday.