The chairwoman of the Oireachtas committee which will make the crucial recommendation on whether students will be expected to pay back higher college fees insists that other options will also be considered.

Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin was responding to opposition raised by students and youth representatives to the income- contingent loan scheme on which debate about funding the third-level system has been largely focused.

It is one of the options set out in the report on higher education funding produced by experts, chaired by Peter Cassells. But the presidents of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Irish Second-level Students Union (ISSU), and Trinity College Dublin Students Union told the Oireachtas education committee that such a system would burden young people with debt before even graduating, and deter those from poorer families from going to third-level.

ISSU president Jane Hayes-Nally, a fifth-year student at St Mary’s High School, Midleton, Co Cork, said her parents are already looking for ways to help her with college fees so she will not have to start a career in debt.

“My parents don’t want to see their children burdened with masses of debt that will impact the rest of their lives. If five of us go to college, we would have a debt of €100,000 hanging over one family,” she said.

National Youth Council of Ireland deputy director, James Doorley, said if we have learned anything from the recent past, it should be not to heap high levels of debt on people. He said it is fine to say that student fees would not begin to be repaid until after a graduate reaches a certain income, but with no guarantee those thresholds would not be changed, people might think about taking a low-paid job instead of getting into debt by going to third level.

Ms O’Loughlin rejected the suggestion of Sinn Féin education spokeswoman, Carol Nolan, that many committee members are dismissing the option of a fully publicly-funded system, for which USI president Annie Hoey argued.

The committee chair said the TDs and senators are not limited to any one of the three options in the Cassells report, which considered the impact of the massive cuts to third-level funding of the past decade at a time when student numbers have significantly increased.

“We’re open to a hybrid or other options. We have asked Peter Cassells to come back with a view to teasing out all the different options,” she said.


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