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The future of third-level education could mean no fees

Alternatively, it might mean student loans. A new report by an expert group puts three options up for consideration.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

THE FUTURE OF education in Ireland – and its cost to students – has been looked at by an expert group tasked by the government.

It says that the way the system is currently funded is simply not sufficient, and it has come up with a list of options for the government to consider to make sure things work better in the future.

The expert group was chaired by Peter Cassells and was a commitment under the current programme for government.

Education Minister Richard Bruton pointed out that over recent years, the higher education sector responded well to massively increased student numbers in the context of tightened budgets.

This has been a great achievement but is not sustainable, and we are now starting to see difficulties emerge in achieving public policy goals in areas like skills and disadvantage.

What can be done?

The expert group gave three possible funding options for the government to consider:

  • A predominantly state-funded system with no student fees, as used by Nordic countries
  • Increased state funding with continued student fees, as used in the Netherlands
  • Increased state funding with deferred payment of fees (loan system), as is used in Australia

The report – which can be read here in full – ruled out maintaining the status quo.

‘Not fit for purpose’

Peter Cassells, chair of the group, said:

The funding system is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to recognise the current pressures facing higher education institutions… and the pressures on families and students, not just because of the €3,000 fee but also the high living and maintenance costs associated with studying… These pressures are now seriously threatening the quality of the system.

The report also notes that we cannot stand still as the number of people participating in higher education continues to grow.

The figures speak for themselves. The numbers entering higher education grew from 15,000 in 1980 to 42,500 in 2014. The participation rate for 18-20 year olds has grown from 20% in 1980 to a current level of 58%.

The report stated “falling resources since 2008, a deteriorating student staff ratio, inadequate facilities and other pressures are having a severe impact, particularly on the ability to provide high-quality undergraduate programmes”.

However, investing in education results in higher returns through higher tax contributions and less need for welfare benefits due to higher lifetime earnings and better employment prospects for graduates.

Minister Bruton said he believes that additional funding for the higher education sector “must be accompanied by new performance-based funding mechanisms and new targets for improved outcomes for the users and funders of the service”.

He set out examples of targets such as:

  • Increase participation in higher education by the most disadvantaged socio economic groups by over 7 percentage points
  • Increase the numbers of entrants studying on a flexible basis (online, part-time) by 25%
  • Increase the number of students undertaking a work placement or work based project as part of their course by 25%

State-funded system

This first funding option would provide education free of charge to students.

This option is straightforward, but the report notes that some may not support it because it does not take into account the “private benefits which accrue to those with higher education, and in consequence, would be unfair to citizens who do not receive a higher education”.

Increased funding and continuing student fees

Under option two the funding would be spread between the State and students.

But this option would require “a robust system of student supports and fee waivers to assist students from lower income families”.

However, higher education would not be free at the point of entry which could put some people off attending. There could also be issues surrounding the waiver system.

Student loans system

Option three would work in the same way as Australia’s higher education funding.

Education would be free at the point of entry. Afterwards the amount of fees paid back would depend on the graduate’s income.

However, graduates moving to another country and not paying back loans would be a downside to this system. It would also add to the national debt.

What about the future?

The report suggests that whatever option is chosen, there needs to be a significant increase in the level of state funding.

It suggests introducing a levy on private employers as they are “major beneficiaries of… the high proportion of graduates in the Irish workforce”.

The report also says that student support maintenance grants should be increased and better targeted.

Cassels concluded: “I believe we now have an opportunity to recommit and reinvest in higher education.”

Added Minister Bruton:

If we are to deal with these issues, and if we are to fund higher education to the level necessary to help deal with these massive social and economic challenges, we are going to have to look at new funding models. This is a major challenge and I believe we need to try to find a broad consensus on how to address it.

- Additional reporting Aoife Barry

Read: Should businesses help to fund higher education? The TUI thinks so

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Elizabeth O'Malley

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