Expert urges action to end third-level funding impasse

Decisions and action are needed before a stalemate on higher education funding leads to further impact on students, the author of a key 2016 report to Government has warned.

Peter Cassells, chair of the expert group whose report has been awaiting political decisions for two years, said the status quo is not a cost-free option. 

He said present funding arrangements affect the quality of student experience, exclude young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and impose costs on Irish graduates’ future career opportunities.

Education Minister Richard Bruton asked the Oireachtas education committee two years ago to find consensus on funding policy before he brings policy proposals to Cabinet.

 After months of hearings in 2016 and 2017, no report has come from the committee, which has asked Mr Bruton’s department for economic assessment of the options.

They include a significant rise in state investment to facilitate removing the €3,000 fee for undergraduate students; retaining student fees along with a more moderate increase in public investment; or a moderate rise in state funding matched by higher student fees that would only be paid after graduates reached a set income threshold.

Mr Cassells told an Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) conference on third-level funding that while there is general agreement that an extra €600m a year is needed by 2021 and €1bn annually by 2030, we must move beyond different stakeholders continuing to have a particular model as their first preference.

“Every funding instrument has a tangible negative aspect — taxes, fees or student debt repayment, or a combination of these,” Mr Cassells said.

“It is not realistic to cite the negative character of any one instrument in isolation — as if there were a way of funding higher education that did not draw resources from some source.”

He pointed to a need for colleges to continue reforms, and for dramatic improvement to the unequal access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, among other challenges.

“We should have an open and considered discussion on this challenge but one that ultimately leads to decisions and decisive action,” he said.

Higher Education Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor told the IIEA conference there has been a 9% cumulate increase in public spending on the sector subsequent to the crisis years of 2008 to 2014.

A €100m increase this year over what was being spent when Mr Cassells’ report was published will help accommodate 2,100 extra full-time students this year, she said.

But, she said, the sector must make the strongest possible case for future investment. “The case for increased investment in any sector for any purpose must be built up step-by-step in a strongly evidenced-based way. It must demonstrate clearly...the significant positive outcomes to be achieved and why they are worth pursuing or indeed essential to achieve,” she said.

Earlier yesterday, a coalition for Publicly-Funded Higher Education survey showed 82% public support for increased investment on behalf of taxpayers.

The group, which includes student and third-level academic unions, found weakest support among the self-employed, but over half of them agreed strongly with higher state funding for the sector.

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