Cassells report on third-level funding lays out the options

Oireachtas committee is given mandate to act decisively in addressing crisis

 

Experts can propose but politicians must decide. For a minority government reliant on the goodwill of others – mainly Fianna Fáil – to pass legislation, the future financing of higher education presents a difficult political challenge. Two years ago, an expert group with Peter Cassells as chair, was asked to outline a funding strategy for the sector. That report, which came too late for the outgoing Fine Gael majority government to consider, has become a legacy issue for its politically-weakened successor, ultimately, to decide.

In the meantime, Education Minister, Richard Bruton hopes an Oireachtas committee can examine the report, and reach agreement on a sustainable funding model for higher education. That will prove a major early test of “new politics” in the 32nd Dáil. The sector, many contend with justification, is in crisis due to lack of adequate funding. Mr Cassells has said change in the funding model is inevitable, and outlined the scale of the challenge; with €1 billion required for investment in the sector over the next 15 years. As the expert group report makes clear, investment is needed both to ensure it can support national economic and social development, and facilitate increased public access to higher education.

At present, almost half of all workers have a third-level qualification. And the numbers attending third-level are forecast to grow by almost a third over the next decade. The problem, however, is the quality of higher education has declined, as funding difficulties have accelerated, with resources falling since 2008. That decline is reflected in deteriorating student-staff ratios, inadequate facilities, and high non-completion rates in courses. In addition, years of austerity have put students and families under greater pressure to meet the €3,000 annual fee and living expenses that taking a third-level course entails.

The expert group in examining the extra funding needed, considered three options. One involves student loans, which would mean scrapping fees, with higher education free at the point of entry for all students, and with loan repayments related to the income in employment of a graduate.

A second option would make higher education free at the point of access, but would also mean the State’s funding of the sector – now 64 per cent – rising to some 80 per cent. That compares with a much lower State funding cost – 55 to 60 per cent – for the student loan option. The report noted that in Ireland, “the removal of tuition fees in 1996/97 was not followed by a significant narrowing of the participation gap between social classes.” The third option is “free” education which is entirely funded by the State.

The expert group’s recommendations, greatly facilitates an informed debate by the Oireachtas committee. Mr Cassells with many others hope this “will lead to decisive action” – and quickly.

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