Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan says she will not shy away from tough political decisions on student fees before the next Dáil election.
An expert group was set up in July to identify future funding models for higher education, but it will be the end of next year before the minister gets its final report.
But while the establishment of the group, chaired by former Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Peter Cassell, was seen in some quarters as a stalling exercise by her predecessor Ruairi Quinn, Ms O’Sullivan does not agree.
“I wouldn’t see it as a kick to touch. We hope we will be in a better place next year, so I think that is the time to be ready with proposals,” she said.
There have been fears that a report to the minister could mean no policy change on this side of the general election, which must be held by early spring 2016. But while third-level bosses want a decision on how the system is to be funded sooner than that, Ms O’Sullivan said she hopes to be able to do so in the current Government’s term.
“I think the decisions will probably land on our desk, I think the decision as to what to do will be one I will certainly be looking at as soon as I get the report,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t shy away from it because I think it has to be done,” the minister told the Irish Examiner.
The need to bolster higher education funding will be a focus today at an event hosted by the Irish Universities Association, which says rising participation has seen income-per-student fall 22% since 2008.
Ms O’Sullivan will give her first address to the sector at the symposium, where she will be reminded of the 32% drop in public funding of all third-level colleges, from €1.4bn to €939m, in six years.
As well as Irish higher education figures, international experts will also speak about the funding question. They include US education public policy adviser Art Hauptman, who says the biggest issue here is not the level of investment but the mix of public and private funding.
“The key then for achieving sustainable policies in the future is for Ireland to increase its level of private investment while maintaining public investment levels in higher education,” he said.
This can be done in several ways that do not require major student or parental sacrifices, such as a reconsidering of fee and support schemes that would rely on private funds to pay for future growth in the system, he said.
Mr Quinn opposed a loan system, such as in Australia where students repay degree fees when they reach a certain income level, but Ms O’Sullivan is ruling nothing out for now. “I’d be wary of student models that haven’t worked, whether that means they would never work, I’ll keep an open mind on that. But some of the international examples that we have indicate very large levels of debt that students are faced with when they graduate,” she said.
“We have to find a model that will work in Ireland, but at the same time higher education is extremely important for individual students and their families and the economy and society,” she said.
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