Education Minister Richard Bruton will be unable, in next week’s budget, to deliver any long-term outline of a third-level funding model.
Despite his previous plans to have a political agreement on whether to significantly increase taxpayer investment or introduce an income-contingent student loans scheme, neither is now expected to be announced.
A year ago, Mr Bruton’s spokesperson said a cross-party recommendation on long-term funding solutions would be expected in time for him to bring a plan to the Cabinet in time for Budget 2018.
The Oireachtas education committee was asked to find this consensus based on options in the July 2016 Cassells report on higher education funding.
However, a week ahead of the Budget, the committee has not reached agreement and Fianna Fáil is pushing instead for a further €110m to be invested next year.
Although the main opposition party has not ruled out some form of a “study now, pay later” system as part of the solution, education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD said it has not been convinced that a loan scheme could work.
“Nobody has made the case that it can work financially, either for the State or for the universities and colleges,” he said.
While this does not firmly rule out agreeing to such a system in the future, the absence of political agreement leaves the higher education sector facing another year of uncertainty about the long-term future, with universities estimating at least €70m is needed in 2018 just to keep up with rising student numbers and associated grant costs.
The Cassells report concluded an extra €600m a year should be invested by 2021 and €1bn more by 2030.
Mr Bruton announced in budget 2017 a year ago that he had secured €160m extra over three years, of which €36m was added this year.
Mr Byrne said this was inadequate, and FF is seeking an extra €44m directly from exchequer funding for 2018, as well as €65m that Mr Bruton claims could be raised by a proposal to begin raising what employers pay into the National Training Fund.
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