Funding decision for third level delayed

A Government decision on how to boost funding for third level is unlikely for at least another year as an economic analysis of options put forward two years ago will not now begin until 2019.

Education Minister Richard Bruton and minister of state Mary Mitchell O’Connor have told the Oireachtas education committee the review it sought six months ago would begin no sooner than early next year.

The TDs and senators want detailed insights on the impacts of funding options in a report published by Mr Bruton in July 2016 from the expert group on higher education funding chaired by Peter Cassells. The Cassells report identified the need for an extra €600m a year by 2021 — whether from public coffers, students or a mix of both — to maintain quality in higher education, rising to €1bn annually by 2030.

In a letter to committee chair Fiona O’Loughlin, the ministers said the department plans to seek technical assistance from a European Commission support service to provide the kind of detailed analysis required.

However, applications to the Structural Reform Support Programme (SRSP) are not being taken until October, so the project could only begin in early 2019 if it is to be funded at all.

“We consider that undertaking the proposed economic evaluation with support from [Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS)] and under the SRSP will facilitate the type of comprehensive examination of the Cassells funding options that the joint committee have requested,” the ministers wrote in a letter seen by the Irish Examiner.

“It will also provide an invaluable opportunity to engage the involvement of a much wider range of international organisations and expertise than would ordinarily be available for a project of this nature.”

After publishing the report two years ago, Mr Bruton referred it to the committee to come up with the political consensus he said was necessary before he would put a proposal to cabinet colleagues.

However, amid mixed political and higher education views, particularly on the option of income-contingent loans to cover increased fees for undergraduate students, no agreement has been reached.

Earlier this week, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) called for next year’s budget to begin redressing a “calamitous” halving of income received by some third-level colleges in state income for each student in the previous decade, due to the combination of more students and less funding. Despite the first increases in public investment in higher education this year, the IUA said €220m would be needed next year alone, €40m of which would only cover pay increases and other Government-imposed cost hikes.

Mr Bruton and Ms Mitchell O’Connor said officials are already working with the SRSS to agree on terms of reference for the proposed evaluation but will welcome input from the committee in recognition of their examination of the Cassells report and findings from hearings with stakeholders.

The evaluation will examine how extra funding would positively affect students, and how the right mix of apprenticeship and worker upskilling programmes would affect demand and funding systems.

However, they said it would also collate more detailed data on projected student enrolments, and evaluate the higher education sector’s future policy and funding needs.

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