They travelled from colleges around the country to push for political decisions that do not include moving to a loan system where graduates pay back higher fees when they start earning a set income level.
With no political agreement more than a year after publication of the Cassells report setting out long-term funding options to address a looming €600m shortfall in the sector, the firm message from those who marched in Dublin was that any level of debt would not be tolerated by current students or their families.
Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Michael Kerrigan said the Government has been kicking the can down the road on the issue of higher education funding, while 10 out of 14 institutes of technology are in serious financial difficulty.
“It’s time to invest, and it’s time to make the right decision to publicly invest in third-level education,” he said.
“The moment we accept higher fees and a loan scheme, we are saddling people with a minimum of €20,000 of debt and forcing them to emigrate.”
He called for loans to be ruled out by Education Minister Richard Bruton in the budget next week, a cut of at least €250 to the €3,000 fee for undergraduates, and reversal of cuts made to student grants in 2011 and 2012.
The opposition to loans was supported by third level unions, including Impact education division representative Gina O’Brien, who works at Cork Institute of Technology.
“No parent wants to see their child fall into debt before they even reach adulthood,” she said.
“All this talk of a first-class education system and access to higher education for all our children is just empty promises and shallow words if the Government aren’t willing to invest appropriately in a properly-funded higher education system.”
Mary Mitchell O’Connor, minister of state for higher education, said all funding options in the Cassells report are being looked and the Government has not made any decisions on deferred funding or otherwise.
“I am adamant there will be no undue financial pressure placed on parents and students. We simply do not want our students graduating burdened with the kind of debts that we have seen in other countries,” she said in a statement issued ahead of the protest.
Her comments echoed those of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week.
However, the Cassells report did not envisage fees or loan debts like those in the US or UK, to which the Taoiseach had referred.
Ms Mitchell O’Connor said the Government is awaiting a report from the cross-party Oireachtas education committee on the report, and she would make ensuring a fair outcome for students and their parents a top priority when she brings that to Cabinet.
However, the committee has not reached any agreement and looks unlikely to do so in the near future.
Fianna Fáil says it is has not been convinced of the merits of student loans — but has not ruled them out — and insists instead on an extra €100m-plus in higher education next week. It wants €65m of it to come from an increased National Training Fund, but it is uncertain if Budget 2018 will include a proposed measure to begin raising the employers levy that generates the fund.
The Cassells report said an extra €600m a year over 2015 levels needs to be invested by 2021, and an extra €1bn annually by 2030.
As political debate on the issue heats up, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) was yesterday ranked 99th-best university in the world for teacher education and teaching studies. It is also the highest-ranked Irish institution for social sciences, one of a number of subject rankings issued by Times Higher Education (THE), with all seven of our universities in the top 400.
TCD and University College Dublin (UCD) both make it into the 150 to 175 slot for business and economics.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers said the budget is an opportunity for the Government to begin addressing a higher education crisis, in which staffing levels have declined to unacceptable levels and a rising administratve burden is squeezing the time lecturers and researchers have for teaching.
“While the Government continues to delay and obfuscate on the recommendations contained in the report of its higher education funding working group, our students and universities continue to suffer,” said IFUT deputy general secretary Frank Jones.