Students should not be saddled with debt, says Minister

Thousands of students march in Dublin to oppose any plan for a student loan scheme

Thousands of students marched through Dublin city to voice their opposition to a student loan scheme and the poor investment in third level institutions.

 

Any new funding model for third-level education should not involve UK or US-style student loans, Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has indicated.

In a statement issued as thousands of students marched through Dublin to voice their opposition to a loan scheme, Ms Mitchell O’Connor said the Government was adamant no “undue financial pressure” should be placed on parents and students.

“We simply do not want our students graduating burdened with the kind of debts that we have seen in other countries,” she said.

She said the Government was awaiting a report from the Oireachtas education committee on the Cassells report in the future funding on higher education.

This sets out a number of potential funding options including a loans scheme or a fully State-funded third-level system.

“Once we have that report, I will bring it to Cabinet and will make it one of my top priorities to ensure that there is a fair outcome for students and their parents,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor said

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which organised Wednesday’s march, said any loan scheme will result in crushing student debt and push more graduates to emigrate.

Students from colleges, universities and institutes of technology took to the streets in a noisy and colourful march which culminated in a rally near Government Buildings on Merrion Square.

Gardaí locally estimated the crowd to be in the region of at least 5,000, though protest organisers estimated the turnout to be closer to 20,000.

Chanting

The crowd chanted slogans including: “Leo, Leo, debt is not the way to go” and “education is a right, education is worth a fight!”. Many carried placards such as “I’ve got bills, they’re multiplying” and “right, lads... Australia?”.

USI president Michael Kerrigan said the €3,000 student registration charge paid annually by most students and their parents amounted to one of the most expensive third-level systems in the world.

He said Ireland was already the eighth most expensive higher-education system globally and the second most expensive in the European Union.

“The registration charge has increased by 275 per cent since 2008. What have we got to show for it? Falling university rankings, facilities which are not fit for purpose. Something has to change.”

He said 10 out of 14 institutes of technology are in serious financial difficulty being starved of funding.

Mr Kerrigan said that in a country where generations may never get a mortgage or a home, saddling children with debt linked to a loan scheme was not the answer.

The USI wants the Government to rule out any income contingent loan scheme in Budget 2018 and to reduce the student registration charge by a minimum of €250.

Olivia Potter-Hughes, president of the the National Union of Students/USI in Northern Ireland, told the gathering that the cost of education has soared since students loans were introduced in parts of the UK.

“We live in an unsustainable system of loans and debt. I have completed one year in university and have nine grand in debt. That will have tripled by the time I leave. And it will be nearly £30,000 by the time I get to start paying it back,” she said.

Cassells report

The Oireachtas education committee has been examining the Cassells proposals in a series of hearings, but it is understood that work on a report has yet to commence.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said said he wants a political consensus on any recommendation, though there is little sign of this to date.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne said yesterday that his party has yet to be convinced over the merits of an income-contingent loan scheme.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he does not support a UK- or US-style student loan scheme that would leave students with major debts.

However, he has not ruled out the kind of loan scheme envisaged in the Cassells report which envisages a smaller scale of borrowing.