The latest review to consider student fees — set up by Ruairi Quinn weeks before leaving Government — was a political delaying tactic, the former minister’s top policy adviser confirmed.
It was denied in the summer that ex-education minister Mr Quinn’s setting up of an expert group on higher education funding was a way of avoiding unpopular decisions on student fees or loans, although it was not expected to report to Government until before the 2016 general election.
Chaired by Irish Congress of Trade Unions ex-chief Peter Cassells, the group is considering likely future third-level student numbers, costs of running the sector, along with what mix of public funding and student fees would be needed, and how any new fees system would be operated.
In his book about life in the department in his three years as Mr Quinn’s policy adviser, John Walshe outlines how the group’s establishment was decided, despite the Higher Education Authority having done work on the issue in the past.
“Politically, Ruairi’s team felt that a cross-departmental group would be entirely unhelpful, and that a group of external experts could do the same work, while also bringing badly needed visibility and public understanding to the issue.
“Either way, much of this work had been done before, and setting up a new group was in part a way of postponing the hard decisions on funding,” he wrote in An Education, launched by Mr Quinn this week.
In November 2012, an Economic and Social Research Institute report for the HEA suggested a loan system under which students would pay back the cost of their college tuition on reaching agreed levels of income.
However, Mr Quinn opposed such a scheme on the evidence from other countries of the possible discouragement of students from poorer backgrounds going to college, over fears of large loan debts.
His successor, Jan O’Sullivan, has denied the Cassells group was a political kick-to-touch, telling the Irish Examiner in September she intends to make any tough decisions needed around funding and fees ahead of the 2016 election.
Mr Walshe’s book says Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s backroom team ensured Mr Quinn’s proposals to include capital assets in means tests for student grants never even got to the Cabinet for discussion, fearing a potential electoral backlash from farming organisations and rural voters.
A similar Fine Gael concern meant Mr Quinn — who said in July he would not seek a place in the reshuffled Cabinet — never got to open a debate on small rural schools as he was blocked from getting Cabinet approval to publish his department’s report on the issue.
Mr Walshe also describes “a history of mutual antagonism” between leadership of the institutes of technology in Carlow and Waterford. Ms O’Sullivan had to appoint a second person last week, former HEA chairman Michael Kelly, to try and get them back on track after WIT suspended the merger work last month.
Waterford-based Sinn Féin senator David Cullinane said that, despite Government support for a multi-campus TU in the South-East, there has been opposition to the idea from the beginning within the department and the HEA.
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