The Cassells Report published in July outlined three main options to reverse the fall in the quality of higher education and to increase resources. But its authors yesterday said whatever path was taken would also require a “radical overhaul” of the current maintenance grants system.
Peter Cassells told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills the status quo could not be maintained, although he said the options open to those deciding on which model of funding to pursue could yet arrive at a “hybrid” version, as each option had advantages and disadvantages.
The report put forward the option of ‘free’ education entirely funded by the State, but which would mean tax increases, and another option whereby the existing €3,000 annual fee was retained but backed by additional government spending. The final option is the “study now, pay later” model, opposed by the Union of Students of Ireland and others.
Mr Cassells and Dr Aedín Doris told the committee the status quo would affect the career opportunities of Irish graduates and people needed to be willing to explore the options available.
The committee heard, based on modelling, students under the deferred fees system could pay up to €150 a month for between 10 and 15 years, but only if they were earning enough to do so and with a level of flexibility open to those on lower incomes but above the payment threshold.
It is estimated around 20% of Irish graduates move overseas, some permanently. Dr Doris said this added around 10% to the level of subsidy that would need to be paid, but she said while it was not realistic to expect permanent Irish emigrants to fully pay off the cost of their education, it should be possible to recoup the majority of it.
“It would be perceived as very unfair by those left behind if emigrants didn’t have to pay anything,” Dr Doris said, before referring to a newly introduced policy in Australia whereby it is a legal requirement to pay off a minimum amount of the loan each year spent abroad, set at Aus$1,000.
“I think that is probably the way to go,” she said, claiming such a level of repayment would help cover the subsidy and ease inequity.
She also said any introduction of an income contingent loan system would not incentivise emigration and claimed an advantage of the loans was that the maximum amount taken from your income is set by law. She added: “It does not follow you to your grave.”
Dr Doris also said she did not think the deferred fees system would discourage access to third-level education and said Ireland should avoid the UK model.
Mr Cassells stressed the maintenance grants system needed to be radically overhauled and universities and ITs should have sufficient discretion to spend additional resources on agreed frontline areas such as staffing. Urging further debate on the issue, he said: “You could end up with a hybrid out of this — no one should think we have to take one thing and not the other. It may be something best suited to Irish circumstances.”
The committee also heard contributions from senior academics from institutions including University College Cork, University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth.