THE Government is considering raising student registration charges again to achieve savings in the near €9 billion education budget.
The possibility of raising the fee for third-level student services is likely to cause outrage on campuses across the country as it has already doubled since 2005, including a two-thirds increase last year from €900 to €1,500.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is already planning a major protest in Dublin next Wednesday against further hikes to the registration fee or cuts to student grants beyond the 5% already taken off them this year.
But further grant reductions cannot be ruled out, with a source close to Government signalling a raft of cuts which are likely to provoke strong resentment.
“Just a few weeks ago, the thinking would have been that student charges have gone up significantly already in the last 18 months, but absolutely nothing can be ruled out at this stage,” the source said.
An education source said that money would have to be found elsewhere if third-level funding is to be hit hard. However, the estimated €80 million that could be raised for colleges by adding €600 to the existing fee would not even make up for half of the 10% cut most higher education bosses expect to their budgets.
Another area being closely examined is school bus fares, which have trebled for some categories of students to €300 a year since 2007.
Education Minister Mary Coughlan’s officials have met the Department of Finance to discuss last year’s An Bord Snip Nua proposal to charge all primary and second-level passengers €500 a year and reduce annual taxpayer subsidies for school transport by around €25m.
But doing so would still leave tens of millions of euro to be cut from the Department of Education’s €8.75 billion non-capital budget, of which around three-quarters is spent on pay and pensions.
The difficulty is compounded by the need to hire extra school teachers to match growing student numbers and protect pupil-teacher ratios that are guaranteed not to be cut in the revised programme for government.
It is understood that no discussions have taken place between the coalition partners about revising education commitments secured by the Green Party in the October 2009 agreement, but the party’s education spokesperson Paul Gogarty said last week that very tough measures were likely because of the inability to hit public service pay under the Croke Park agreement.
Although An Bord Snip Nua’s recommendation to close and amalgamate hundreds of small primary schools would yield no immediate savings because of consequent building and transport cost increases, it is understood the idea has not been ruled out in the medium to longer-term by Ms Coughlan or her officials.
She caused surprise when she announced two weeks ago that the number of Vocational Education Committees (VECs) is to be cut from 33 to 16, instead of being reduced to 22 as proposed by An Bord Snip Nua, although the annual saving is not likely to top €5 million.
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