O'Keeffe to discuss student loan plan with universities


MINISTER FOR Education Batt O'Keeffe has reacted positively to the proposed introduction of a student loan system.

But he wants university presidents to "flesh out" their proposals at a key meeting between both sides today.

A ministerial spokesman said the plan for an Australian style loan system was a "constructive contribution" to the debate on tuition charges.

The seven university presidents and Ned Costello, chief executive of their representative body, the Irish Universities Association (IUA), will also detail the funding crisis at third level during today's meeting.

UCD president Dr Hugh Brady - the current chairman of the IUA - will tell the Minister how the colleges face debts totalling almost €20 million this year.

Earlier this week TCD Provost Dr John Hegarty warned staff of the deepening financial crisis facing the college.

Today, the IUA will propose a combination of top-up fees and student loans. Students would repay these loans when they started working - provided they reach a designated income threshold. The meeting will tease out how the new system will work.

Last night the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) said it strongly opposed the introduction of the "flawed" Australian system - known as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) - in this State.

It pointed out that the Australian model has been slated by many critics and is under review in Australia.

Australia's education minister, it said, had questioned its credibility and described the scheme as "at best complex and at worst anomalous, inconsistent and irrational".

USI president Shane Kelly said: "We now find ourselves in an outrageous situation: not only is the Minister's plan to reintroduce fees based on flawed mathematics, but now the university presidents want to implement a flawed Australian loan system that the Australians themselves don't want anymore.

"This latest move by the university presidents further illustrates their commitment to raising money and not to student welfare or equity of access to education."

Angus McFarland, the president of the National Union of Students in Australia, said: "If our system is introduced in Ireland, you are going to see poorer students being extremely financially disadvantaged.

"Free education guarantees fair access, HECS or any payment scheme does not. Everyone should be able to access education if they want it. Clearly, the importation of such a broken and flawed system would be of no benefit to Irish students."

Siptu economist Marie Sherlock accused university presidents of sidestepping the fundamental question of how to "fund, incentivise and support students".

The free fees scheme, she said, has played a crucial part in increasing access to third-level education across all the socio-economic groups.

In its recent Education at a Glance 2008 report, Ireland is highlighted as having the most equitable of third-level education systems by the OECD.