O'Keeffe says fees would target those with 'excellent salaries'

 

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said today any re-introduction of college fees would not impact on the middle classes.

Mr O’Keeffe said yesterday the introduction of third-level fees for better-off families was being considered but today said any new fees would target millionaires and those with “excellent salaries”.

“I want to assuage the fears of people in the middle classes out there that anything that would be introduced would interfere with them in any way - the bar would be set at a very high level if it was to be introduced,” Mr O’Keeffe told Cork's 96FM.

“The bottom line is that you couldn’t see anybody on €100,000 a year being affected by fees at the present time and I would see the bar being far higher.”

Mr O’Keeffe said his department would conduct a "forensic audit" of third-level spending before making any decision, focusing on specific universities and institutes of technology. He said he expected a report to be completed within 18 months.

“I would never target working class people – I would never bring within the band people who could ill afford to pay,” Mr O’Keeffe added.

“I rather would be looking at people who can – there are many millionaires in this country, the people who are earning excellent salaries, that they would make their contribution to ensure that people who can ill afford could have their grants increased could have participation open and available to them."

Labour Party president Michael D. Higgins said the proposal to re-introduce fees would "represent the final
abandonment by Fianna Fáil of any pretence of a commitment to the principle of equal citizenship".

"How can the proposal to put huge financial obstacles in the way of those families who want their children to go to university be reconciled with the fine statements about citizenship that we heard from the former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, or the support expressed for social inclusion by his successor, Brian Cowen, following his election?"

"It appears that once again at the first sign of a downturn in the economy, Fianna Fáil is targeting education and hard pressed families for financial penalties," he added.

Earlier Progressive Democrats leader Senator Ciarán Cannon reiterated his party’s opposition to the reintroduction of flat-rate fees for third-level education, but he refused to rule out alternative options to tackling the "funding crisis".

Mr Cannon issued a statement yesterday in which he said the reintroduction of fees was not PD policy. “The PDs do not believe, that even in difficult economic times, anything should be done, that would reduce the opportunities for students from all income strands from entering third-level education," he said.

In an interview with RTÉ’s Morning Irelandtoday, Mr Cannon restated this position, arguing that flat-fees were a “blunt instrument” that were unfair to middle-income families. He said 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 the Minister 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.

In an apparent contraction to Mr Cannon’s position, former PD leader and Minister for Health Mary Harney yesterday gave qualified support to Mr O’Keeffe. “Everything has to be examined and clearly it would be inappropriate to rule things in or out at this stage,” she said.

Mr Cannon insisted this morning he had not moderated his position to be in line with Ms Harney’s. He said it would be at least two years before any proposal was brought to Government. “Let’s see what’s brought to the Cabinet table,” he said.

On the income threshold, Mr Cannon said he had “major concerns” that if such a limit were introduced it “may be dropped” over time, bringing more families into the net.

A Green Party spokesman said yesterday that Mr O'Keeffe's plan was not a Government proposal but a statement of the Minister's own views which had not been put to Government. "The reintroduction of fees is not in the programme for government and it is not Green Party policy. It is far too early even to speculate about the return of fees," added the spokesman.