FF and Greens split on college fee hike

THE Green Party believes up to €5.7 billion could be cut in the budget without sacrificing education commitments in the Programme for Government.

Tensions between the Greens and their coalition partners Fianna Fáil have risen over the latter’s proposals to hike third-level registration fees, increase class sizes, and cut capitation grants to schools.

The Greens say implementation of these proposals would renege on the revised Programme for Government agreed last year and force them to reconsider their position in the coalition.

“The Programme for Government wouldn’t have been passed if education hadn’t been protected and some cuts hadn’t been reversed,” one senior Green source said. “So it’s beyond tenable to suggest that as a party a year later, we would just roll over and let the proposed cuts happen.”

The source said the Green parliamentary party – ie, its TDs and senators – had concluded €5.7bn could be cut in the December budget “in a fair and progressive way” without requiring the education cuts envisaged by Fianna Fáil.

The Government has not yet said what the budget target will be, only confirming that a total of €15bn needs to be cut over the next four years.

“It isn’t just what Brian Lenihan tells us to do,” the Green source said. “We want it to be a fairer budget, a more progressive budget. Fairer means a little more taxation and less hits on the vulnerable, and then protecting those areas that will save money in the longer term – education among them.”

The Greens had shown they were “responsible” and “capable of taking tough decisions”, and wanted to stay in coalition to get legislation on corporation donations and climate change implemented, he said. But the education cuts now being proposed would be unpalatable to the party, he added.

A separate Green source said it would be a “rough couple of weeks” as the issue was hammered out.

Their comments came as Defence Minister and Fianna Fáil TD Tony Killeen refused to rule out a substantial increase in third-level registration fees.

According to the Greens, Fianna Fáil is proposing that the fees be doubled from their present level of circa €1,500 to €3,000.

Asked about the issue on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Mr Killeen said: “We have a very difficult challenge. No area is exempt from consideration.”

On the same programme, Green TD Paul Gogarty made clear his party’s stance. “What we are saying is, yes, we will take some of the pain in the education department. But some of the provisions in the Programme for Government will have to be non-negotiable.”

A Green Party spokesman said: “The amount of money that has to be saved makes it clear that education can’t be immune. That said, that does not mean that the Programme for Government can be thrown to one side.”

Among other things, the revised programme commits the coalition to:

* Maintaining capitation grants to schools.

* No further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio in primary and second level.

* Hiring 500 new teachers by 2012.

* No reintroduction of third-level fees.

Third-level fees are continuing charges for a student’s education, while registration fees are a charge for services provided to students.

Meanwhile, Communications Minister Eamon Ryan has said he doesn’t believe the adjustment to the public finances over the next four years will be as high as the €15bn target announced by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan just last week.

“I believe that actually the growth will end up being higher – that we will not have to do a €15bn adjustment,” he told an event in Dublin on Saturday.

More in this section