THE target of having almost three-quarters of people of school-leaving age attending third level by 2020 is ambitious.
But more so because of the related costs than for any other reason, given that interim targets have already been surpassed. With an estimated €500 million in additional funding needed annually to sustain that welcome growth in participation, the headache facing government is where to find the money.
Mr Quinn made pre-election commitments that Labour would oppose any return to tuition fees, in a campaign which saw Fine Gael propose a graduate taxation system, with repayment of some of their degree costs based on a person’s income levels.
The minister’s personal belief is that such a system effectively exists already, through the higher amount of tax paid by those who have been to college on earnings boosted by their qualifications.
But Mr Quinn’s request for a report on the sustainability of the current funding system suggests he may be minded to do one of two things. While he is rightly trying to drive greater efficiencies in the higher education sector and seeking the establishment of strict targets that do not impinge on institutional autonomy or academic freedom, the funding elephant will still dominate any room where third level education is under discussion.
The minister may either have to revise the targets for higher education participation or bow slightly to Fine Gael’s plans for a graduate tax, something he has previously hinted might be acceptable if it did not raise a barrier to any group of students at the point of entry to college.
Again yesterday, he alluded to this principle, leading to speculation that Labour could reverse its position.
An agreed policy between the coalition partners is notably absent from the Programme for Government published in March, apart from the promise to review third level funding by the end of this year. The exercise is being undertaken for Mr Quinn by the Higher Education Authority but it will be the Cabinet’s response to the findings that will define government policy.
However, employers’ group IBEC was quick to point out yesterday that a comprehensive report to the Department of Education two years ago investigated the various student contribution options. IBEC head of education policy Tony Donohoe said there is no time for further delay on addressing higher education funding.
“Students and their families have been faced with significant increases in student fees without any support system, while universities and institutes of technology are trying to cope with increased enrolments on an unsustainable funding model. Ireland needs to broaden its funding base if it wants to meet demand for education and retain quality.”
Mr Quinn has already made his mark in a number of areas, such as the forum on primary school patronage, for moving quickly on vital policy issues.
It might be on this one, however, that he is simply playing for time, knowing that the Labour grassroots will not accept any move to reverse the abolition of college fees — one of the party’s proudest legacies from its time in government during the mid-1990s. However, being content to maintain the current system, in which tens of thousands of undergraduates will have to pay a €2,000 student charge next autumn, will not answer the cries for a realistic solution to our funding problem.
When the HEA report comes to Cabinet in the next six to 12 months, it could be faced with the quandary of allowing our ambitions for an economy driven by world-class graduates fall or making the politically unpopular decision of asking for a far higher contribution from students.
Neither is an enviable option but, as we are so used to hearing in recent years, being in government these days is about making hard decisions.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved