Richard Bruton prepares for tuition fees backlash

Education Minister Richard Bruton faces pressure from all sides as he prepares to push for more efficiencies from cash-strapped colleges in return for more funding from students, taxpayers and employers.

The Government can already expect heavy political and student opposition to the system of ‘study now, pay later’ fee loans likely to be promoted, arising from the long-awaited report on third-level funding that is to be published this morning.

However, pressure to justify higher fees will see more focus on colleges meeting social and economic targets. He will set out some targets as he launches the report of a group chaired by former Irish Congress of Trade Unions boss Peter Cassells.

The report was commissioned by former education minister Ruairi Quinn in 2014, and is expected to put forward a number of options, to include significantly increased taxpayer funding and an increased contribution from business.

A hike in employer’s PRSI has been considered to boost the €400m National Training Fund, to improve progress from further education to third-level.

However, the Government is likely to strongly promote a student loan system, under which graduates pay back their fees to the State when they reach a minimum earnings level. There will be no political decisions this year, however, as the Cassells report and its recommendations will be debated by the Oireachtas Education Committee first.

READ MORE: It’s an only educated guess as to who will pay for third level

Annie Hoey, the new Union of Students in Ireland president, has made it one of her priorities to fully oppose to any ‘study now-pay later’ model or hikes to the €3,000 annual student fee.

Mr Bruton will focus today on the expectations of the higher education system in return for a share of any additional revenue generated, knowing that public support will be needed if students or business, or both, are asked to pay more. However, colleges may argue over difficulties fulfilling the requirements, after seeing public funding cut by nearly one third to under €1bn a year since 2008, while catering for 15% more students with 2,000 fewer staff.

Among the targets Mr Bruton will suggest are:

  • A 7% increase in the proportion of students at third-level from the most disadvantaged groups in society;
  • 50,000 college places over 5 years on programmes to fill workplace shortages and improve lifelong learning;
  • A 25% rise in numbers on online and part-time courses, and a similar increase in students on courses with a work placement or work-based project;
  • 30% more enrolments on research programmes.

“The higher education sector is at the heart of delivering on massive social and economic challenges, including providing better life opportunities for people from disadvantaged areas, training the skilled workers needed for a growing economy, and delivering major research and innovation projects to help solve the big problems of our time,” said Mr Bruton.

READ MORE: New student fees loan scheme up for debate

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