Third level funding: dodging difficult decisions

The argument that a loan system would deter students from poorer backgrounds does not stand up

 

The future funding of third level education is one of the most pressing problems facing Irish society but it is one with which our political system seems unable to deal. Since the short sighted and regressive abolition of third level fees in 1997, the third level sector has found itself increasingly under pressure and the cuts in funding arising from the austerity of the financial crisis years have added to the difficulties.

The need for decisions on the future funding of the sector was highlighted by Oxford Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson, a native of Waterford, in an interview in The Irish Times yesterday. Professor Richardson attributed the recent slide in the world rankings of Irish universities to under-investment and she argued that the costs of third level education had to be shared between individual beneficiaries and governments.

The Cassells report into the future funding of third level education published last year warned that the current system is not fit for purpose. It offered the option of a significant increase in State funding or the introduction of a student loan system. Given that increased Exchequer funding is unlikely, a student loan system based on a percentage of future earnings is the most practicable and socially fair way of responding.

The argument that such a system would deter students from poorer backgrounds attending third level does not stand up. Access was not improved by the abolition of fees 20 years ago. A system where current upfront costs are replaced by a future income related loan scheme could also free resources for new access initiatives. This could improve the social mix in universities.

A recent OECD study measuring the benefits of a third level degree estimated that lifetime earnings for Irish graduates were boosted by about €320,000. It makes sense that those who benefit should pay back a relatively small proportion of their lifetime income in return.

The natural instinct of governments to avoid tough decisions has been exacerbated by the current stalemate in the Dáil. It means our universities will continue to lose ground.

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