Labour commits to smallest class sizes in State's history, but won't rule out 3rd level fees

Labour commits to smallest class sizes in State's history, but won't rule out 3rd level fees
Tánaiste Joan Burton and Minister Jan O’Sullivan pictured at the launch of ‘Standing Up for Education’, Labour’s plan for investment and reform of Ireland's education system in The Strand Hotel, Limerick. Picture: Brian Gavin, Press 22

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, political reporter

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has refused to rule out introducing controversial third level student fees if Labour is re-elected due to the long-stated need to reform the university and colleges funding system.

The Limerick TD declined to say that third level fees will be not imposed at the launch of her party's education policy document today.

Under the current third level system, students must pay a contribution - previously known as a student registration payment - of between €2,000 and €3,000, a rate that has surged from a fraction of that cost a decade ago.

However, colleges and universities have warned the funding is not adequate to meet demand.

In summer 2014, then Labour education minister Ruairi Quinn commissioned ex-ICTU general secretary Peter Cassell to examine alternative ways to pay for third level education, and to report back by the end of 2015.

However, while leaks of interim reports have suggested that if the State does not increase system funding by between €500m-€1bn a year student fees and a potential student loan system may have to be introduced, the document will not now be concluded before this summer.

Responding to questions in Limerick alongside Tánaiste Joan Burton, Ms O'Sullivan said while "there shouldn't be barriers to access to third level or any other level of education", she could not rule out the introduction of fees or a loan system.

"Labour is going to wait until we get that report. We're not going to pre-judge the outcome of the Cassell report. We're not ruling anything either in or out," she said.

The Government party's education plan includes commitments to end the use of prefab schools, deliver the smallest class sizes in the history of the State, and extend free part-time third level education to those at work for up to 100,000 people.

Ms O'Sullivan also said her party would cut the student contribution fee by €500 in the next budget "to take some of the pressure from parents".

She said the commitment differs from Mr Quinn's pre-election 2011 promise not to raise the contribution, before doing so months later, as "we are in a very different economic space than five years ago" and that in 2011 her party colleague had to prioritise ensuring children "had a school to go to".

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