O’Keeffe insists loans system plan intact

EDUCATION Minister Batt O’Keeffe has insisted that opposition to the introduction of third-level tuition fees by Green Party TDs and independents who support the Government is not a setback to his plans for a graduate loans system.

He favours a loans system under which students would pay back most of their college costs after graduating. Mr O’Keeffe is expected to recommend it to cabinet next month or in October.

But the responses of TDs to questions from students’ unions shows that any move to introduce such a scheme could be strongly opposed on his own side of the Dáil.

Green Party deputy leader Mary White was the only one of its six TDs to say she was in favour of fees upfront, while all others, including party leader John Gormley and his fellow cabinet minister Eamon Ryan, said they oppose fees. The party’s annual convention in the spring voted to keep the existing free fees policy.

However, it is widely expected that Mr Gormley and Mr Ryan will back proposals for a loans system, with Mr Ryan saying last month he would be comfortable with such a policy.

Independent TDs Michael Lowry from Tipperary North and Kerry South’s Jackie Healy-Rae, also stated their opposition to fees, as did Fianna Fáil TDs Charlie O’Connor and Áine Brady.

Mr O’Keeffe’s spokesperson rejected suggestions that these responses could make it difficult for the minister to get Government approval for his plans. He has asked other ministers to give their responses by September 15 to a range of student contribution options before he makes a formal recommendation in early autumn.

“The minister welcomes any feedback from parliamentarians on the issue, we are still at the debate phase because we haven’t reached the deadline for feedback from the cabinet,” he said.

The students’ unions reported having no response from more than 50 of the 166 TDs to letters and phone calls in the six weeks up to last Friday. Details of all responses were published in a full-page ad in The Irish Times yesterday.

More than 30 Fine Gael and four Fianna Fáil TDs indicated they favour students paying fees after graduation, while Sinn Féin and most Labour Party TDs said they oppose changes to the free tuition scheme.

Labour Youth yesterday voiced its anger regarding the fees issue in a Dáil protest which also highlighted education cuts taking effect in schools and colleges in the next few weeks.

University College Dublin students’ union president Gary Redmond singled out Mary White for criticism yesterday, saying she should be ashamed of herself for breaking a party promise by announcing her support for third-level fees.

The Union of Students in Ireland launched a campaign against fees yesterday, urging families to lobby their local TDs on the issue.

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