The introduction of a student fees loan scheme looks increasingly possible as Fianna Fáil has indicated its willingness to consider the option.
The proposal is one of three solutions to a looming annual €1bn higher education shortfall set out in the report of an expert group chaired by Peter Cassells, which Education Minister Richard Bruton published this week for consideration by the Oireachtas Education Committee.
Mr Bruton wants consensus on any plan to bring to Cabinet for decision but, while Labour and Sinn Féin oppose such a scheme, Fianna Fáil is cautiously open to the idea which is also favoured by its youth wing.
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne believes details would have to be worked out about how the State would finance income-contingent loans, to be paid back by students once they begin earning a minimum salary.
However, he said there is a huge burden on families trying to pay the €3,000 annual undergraduate fee.
It has to be paid by around half of undergraduates, but the other half have it paid on their behalf by the State as they qualify for grants.
“We’re open to looking at the loan system but there’s a lot of work to be done on this before we find out whether we can do this,” Mr Byrne told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme.
He said terms and conditions had to be considered to determine how much people would end up paying, and what impact there would be on the ability of people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college.
Ógra Fianna Fáil this year proposed an income-contingent loan scheme, meaning strong opposition is unlikely from younger members.
It suggested a €20,000 cost for a four-year college degree, to be repaid from earnings over €30,000 a year, with higher repayments due as salary increases.
Labour Youth urged Fianna Fáil to rule out student loans, saying they have not worked in the UK, US or Australia, but have saddled students with debt and discouraged people from studying at third-level.
“We believe publicly funded third-level education, as is the norm in most European countries, is the fairest and most sustainable funding model,” said Labour Youth national chairwoman Grace Williams.
“It is clear Fianna Fáil do not strongly value an equitable third-level education system, which is essential to Ireland’s future economic development.”
The Union of Students in Ireland will be focusing its campaign for the option of a fully State-funded system, instead of a loan scheme, on the various political parties before the Oireachtas committee considers the different choices.
The committee is chaired by Mr Byrne’s party colleague, Fiona O’Loughlin, who said this week she does not favour raising the €3,000 fee, which is currently paid by around half of undergraduates because they do not qualify for grants.
However, increasing the figure was not an option put forward by the Cassells report, which recommended either abolishing it entirely, keeping it at the current level, or replacing it with a system of fees to be repaid under the loan scheme.
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