Time to grasp the funding nettle when it comes to Irish third level education

When weighed up against other options, proposed loan system appears prudent, equitable and based on sound evidence

 

In an ideal world, third-level education would be free for everyone. Colleges would have the funding they need to compete with third-level institutions in other countries. The gap in education outcomes across the social divide would narrow. The output of highly qualified graduates would help create jobs, raise living standards and give Ireland an edge in the global market.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world. When the rainbow coalition introduced “free fees” 20 years ago, it envisaged achieving many of these aims. But the harsh reality is they have not been realised.

The student contribution fee has leapt from £150 (€190) to some €3,000 a year. There has been no significant narrowing in the participation gap between haves and have-nots. Seven years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, means the sector is under acute pressure.

This is the backdrop against which an expert group on the future funding of third-level education is finalising a report to Government. A draft of the document makes the case for sweeping reforms to create the kind of high quality third-level education system the State requires. They include an income-contingent loan system for students, combined with greater maintenance support for those from low-income backgrounds and extra funding from the State and employers.

Under this system, higher education would be free at the point of access for students. Loan repayments for tuition fees would be triggered only when a graduate starts earning more than a minimum income level.

Those who earn below a certain amount would pay back nothing until they earn above a set amount. More generous maintenance grants and a means-test which takes account of capital assets are also proposed.

The proposals – though still at an early stage – are unlikely to be popular with students and some political parties. But, when weighed up against other options, they appear prudent, equitable and based on sound evidence. It is appropriate that those who benefit most from higher education – students, the State and employers – should contribute in some form to the cost.

There are a number of crucial caveats, however. Sustained government investment will be crucial to ensure tuition fees are kept at affordable levels for students. A fair and generous maintenance grant system is vital to ensure low income students are not unfairly disadvantaged. Rigorous regulation will be needed to prevent colleges from hiking fees.

Ireland’s creaking system of third level funding is increasingly unfit for purpose. The status quo, according to Peter Cassells, chairman of the expert group, is unsustainable. If Ireland as a society, a State and an economy aspires to a quality third-level education, it needs urgently to grasp the nettle of how to fund it. Doing nothing is not an option.

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