Weeks til ‘urgent’ third-level talks can take place

TDs and Senators will not begin considering where the €1bn needed to secure the future of the third-level education system should come from until next month at the earliest.

While university presidents called for urgent decisions to be made on the options put forward in a report in July, Education Minister Richard Bruton will not bring any proposals to Cabinet before political consensus is reached.

However, the Oireachtas Education Committee, to which he has referred it, will not begin to deal with it for several weeks. Chairwoman Fiona O’Loughlin, a Fianna Fáil TD, said the Cassells report is a key issue for all members of the cross-party committee, but a number of issues had come in front of it on their agenda.

The issue was briefly discussed in private at its first meeting last Wednesday, before a public confirmation hearing with the chairperson designate of the Educational Research Centre, Pauric Travers.

Its next meeting is not scheduled until Wednesday September 21, when it has invited Student Universal Support Ireland to discuss third-level grants, and it convenes again on September 29 to discuss the 2017 education budget with Mr Bruton.

“The key thing is the upcoming budget and I have no doubt it will raise its head at that meeting with the minister. I expect the process will start in October,” said Ms O’Loughlin.

The Union of Students in Ireland is opposed to an income-contingent student loan scheme, one of three main options proposed by Cassells. Under that option, the current €3,000 annual undergraduate fee would be significantly increased but would be covered by loans that would only fall due to be paid when graduates reach a certain income level. Another option it proposed was to abolish the €3,000 fee, making third-level entirely free, but requiring the State to provide almost the entire €600m a year the system needs by 2021, rising to €1bn by 2030. A third option is to retain the €3,000 fee and still significantly increase public funding. Evidence of the difficulties caused to students and their families by the charges make that an unlikely option.

While the Cassells report emerged from nearly two years of consultation with experts and interest groups, Ms O’Loughlin said the committee needs to remain open.

“He has made three clear recommendations but there may be other proposals that may be aired to us,” she said.

Fianna Fáil’s general election manifesto opposed an increase in fees but that option is not on the table. The idea of a fees-loan scheme was not opposed by the party’s education spokesman, Thomas Byrne, following the Cassells report’s publication in July, but he raised concerns about how the Government might finance the capital to advance loans to students.

Following the latest fall by most Irish universities in a world ranking table last week, presidents of Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, and University College Dublin said a political decision on how to provide the extra funding needed by the system can no longer be delayed.

More than a third has been cut from the annual budget which the higher-education sector receives between 2008 and 2015, from €1.4bn to €923m. Student numbers have risen by nearly 40,000 to more than 190,000 in the same time, with the 22,000 new students now registered in universities each year up 6% since 2008.

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