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Government talks to AIB about public-private partnership for student loans

The government started talking with AIB last December with the idea that students would pay back loans based on their future income.

Students protesting the proposed hike in student fees at the Department of Finance last November
Students protesting the proposed hike in student fees at the Department of Finance last November
Image: Julien Behal/PA Wire

THE GOVERNMENT IS exploring the use of public-private partnerships with banks to provide loans for students in higher education.

Labour Party sources have confirmed the government is examining research into student loan schemes in other countries with a view to establishing such a partnership with an Irish bank.

“A dialogue was opened with AIB at the time of the last Budget when the postgraduate grants were abolished but there have also been conversations about student loan schemes that include undergraduates,” a source said.

Any national agreement involving the government would likely involve a guarantee, which is seen as unlikely in the short-term due to potential hostility to the idea from the troika of the EU, ECB and IMF.

The Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), a new national grant-awarding authority established in the wake of the 2011 Student Support Act, is also seen as a body that could facilitate any future national loan scheme.

Sources indicate that the government’s research into PPPs is looking at ways to predicate repayments on future income and facilitate special deals or exceptions for public professions such as teachers, nurses and Gardaí.

USI President Gary Redmond confirmed that negotiations had taken place “twice, maybe three times” around the issue of a postgraduate loan scheme, in which the government indicated that it was pursuing the possibility with a NAMA-linked bank. He said that he “hadn’t had any conversations” on the matter since January and had been told that the government was not in a position to act as guarantor.

Mr. Redmond denied that he was aware of any intention on the government’s part to pursue a broader student loan scheme. “Our discussions with the government focused on postgraduate loans, something USI policy supports. For undergraduates we are still guided by the ‘free fees’ policy and have had no discussions”.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn ruled out a student loan scheme in August 2011.  He did, however, acknowledge that it was “hard to see” how higher education could meet the its targets without new sources of funding. Fine Gael passed a motion in support of student loans at their recent Ard Fheis in March, while a motion at the Labour conference about the reintroduction of fees was referred back to committee.

The Department of Education has not yet made a comment on the plan.

Pilot scheme in Trinity College Dublin

Separately, advanced negotiations have taken place in Trinity College Dublin involving Bank of Ireland and the Students’ Union about pioneering a student loan scheme which may serve as a potential test case for the PPP scheme.

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Discussions in Trinity College began just before Christmas at the initiation of the College’s Treasurer. The proposed scheme is meant to fill the gap between students currently eligible for grants and those who are struggling to afford the Student Contribution, which currently stands at €2,250 but will rise to €3,000 by 2015.

The programme intends to pilot with a group of around 300 students and will require parents to guarantee repayments, which will initially be in the region of €50 per month and not affect the principle sum. The loans are expected to be repaid in the short-term, with negotiations focused on a period of three to five years after the end of the degree – although this has yet to be finalised.

It had been proposed that certain courses would be excluded from the scheme, but this option has now been ruled out. Loan schemes already exist in the college for courses in Medicine and Dentistry but the proposed agreement would be broader in nature.

The parties involved in the discussions had provisionally set the date of June 26th for the announcement and intended to examine the possibility of linking the loans’ repayments to future income. During the discussions Bank of Ireland said that it did not expect for the initial loan arrangement to be lucrative and that their incentive for entering the deal was to get students banking with the company. It is unclear at this stage what the proposed interest rate on the loans would be.

Trinity College’s programme might only be the first in a broader movement towards student loans at third-level.

Trinity College’s Communications Office said that the College were “especially sympathetic to students and their families in relation to the overall cost of a university education”. They said that they had an “ongoing dialogue” with Bank of Ireland in which “options are regularly explored that may be best suited to the needs of our students.”

Read more on this article on TrinityNews.ie >

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Rónán Burtenshaw

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