A solution to the third-level education funding crisis is more likely to be reached in the long term than one the Government can find quickly, Education Minister Richard Bruton has admitted.
While a report of experts who considered the options for the past two years is about to be published, he said he is committed more immediately to improving access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and making better use of existing funding.
The warnings by higher education bosses that the quality of what institutions do is diminishing due to financial shortfalls has again been reflected in the most recent international rankings. Since 2007, the total funding for the average student has fallen more than one fifth by about €10,000 a year, even though most students now pay fees of €3,000 each — up from €1,500 in 2011 — unless they qualify for a grant.
The report of the group chaired by Peter Cassells, which consulted widely before coming up with a range of funding proposals, is to be the deliberated by the Oireachtas education committee.
The minister sees this plan, set out in the programme for government, as the best approach in the current political climate. But he acknowledges the problems that need to be resolved.
“It’s a bit like health, the Government is going to need a framework for the long term,” said Mr Bruton.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t do things in the short term within the higher education arena to seek to deliver improvements, while still needing to reach a longer term consensus about funding models.”
Although he has not hinted whether he prefers a bigger increase in public funding for the sector, or higher fees for students in return for the increased earning potential for college graduates, he did refer to one of the known options set out by the Cassells report.
“In the past Fine Gael has not been opposed to a loan model but that’s now clearly open for everyone to discuss,” he said.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and some political parties strongly oppose this model, in use in other countries, saying even delaying fee repayments after graduates start working is a deterrent to participation by some groups.
Mr Bruton accepted past moves to find a way of funding higher education have failed due to political opposition.However, he hopes consensus can be built.
“It’s one of the things that a number of the parties in the Dail have said they are up for, to have that long-term look,” he told reporters yesterday. “And in a minority situation every party comes to the table with equal value, I think that’s the merit of this. It isn’t that everything I say will be assumed to be wrong on the other side, nor vice-versa, we have to get away from that sort of politics.”
Mr Bruton said he would be seeking new investment in the sector from fellow ministers at the Cabinet. However, in addition to TDs and senators, he will also seek talks with employers about what contribution they can make.
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