Quinn to reveal third-level blueprint

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn will outline his first major blueprint for the shape and funding of the third-level sector this week following consideration of a number of major reports.

While the Economic and Social Research Institute has backed a student loan system, Mr Quinn previously said he does not favour this option.

The scheme in an ESRI report for the Higher Education Authority, published on Friday, would see students repay state loans covering college fees once they reach certain income levels.

Mr Quinn has reservations about the implications of the debt for students from lower-income backgrounds.

It remains to be seen, however, if the ESRI suggestion that loans cover living costs as well as college fees might convince Mr Quinn of the merits of such a scheme. More than 40% of third-level students get help with expenses through the grants system, but groups just above the income thresholds for grant are under-represented at college.

Mr Quinn’s only pronouncement on student fees since taking office has been that the student contribution will continue to rise, from €2,250 this year to €3,000, despite pre-election promises he would oppose rising fees or cuts to grants.

Any new considerations could emerge when he addresses the heads of universities and institutes of technology in Dublin on Thursday. He has called them in to set out his vision for higher education reform, having considered a number of reports.

The ESRI report is one of many produced in response to last year’s Government strategy on higher education, known as the Hunt Report, and Mr Quinn has said the wider review must follow policies set out in it. But the political difficulties posed by the fees question could be matched by those around mergers among the 30-plus colleges he funds.

A HEA analysis of colleges’ responses to planned restructuring found them focused on their own futures, rather than on overall efficiencies.

But Mr Quinn has ruled as too radical the suggestions of an international panel of experts on proposed mergers. The panel’s report recommends merging TCD with UCD, UCC with CIT, and a number of other mergers.

The experts also propose a National University of Technology, rather than a number of technological universities as suggested in the Hunt Report.

The ESRI said the Hunt Report’s prediction of a €500m annual rise in the cost of running the sector by 2020 was too high, suggesting steadier student number rises will mean an additional €100m a year instead.

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