Third-level should be free to access, says Higher Education Minister

Third-level should be free to access, says Higher Education Minister

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris: 'I am not a fan of student loans. I am not convinced they work, quite frankly. I actually think they can act as a barrier for people from social economically disadvantaged communities in terms of their risk of taking on debt.' Picture: Julien Behal

Student loans are unlikely to be used to bridge a chronic underfunding in the country’s third-level sector, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has said.

Speaking at the launch of a three-year plan for his department, Mr Harris said he was committed to delivering a sustainable model to allow universities and colleges be funded adequately, especially when more and more people want to attend.

Mr Harris made it clear that while an economic analysis on the matter is to be given to him by the summer, in his view student loans are not a preferred model.

“I am not a fan of student loans. I am not convinced they work, quite frankly. I actually think they can act as a barrier for people from social economically disadvantaged communities in terms of their risk of taking on debt,” Mr Harris told the Irish Examiner.

Mr Harris said that, in his own view, undergraduate education should now be seen as a natural extension of our education system, in that it should be free to access.

He referenced the move in the late 1960s by then education minister Donogh O’Malley to make second-level education free and the hostility he faced from officials at the time.

Mr Harris said that when a decision has to be made, three key elements need to be considered – what the level of underfunding is, what is needed to provide “proper student support”, and how much does the current registration fee of €3,000 a year per student contribute to the sector.

Mr Harris’s shake-up of the college entry system will see the Central Applications Office (CAO) reformed into a new connected structure, incorporating for the first time apprenticeships and further education.

Among measures to transform the third-level sector are plans to change the credit systems for courses, making it easier for students with a further education and training (FET) certificate to continue their education and earn a degree.

Students completing CAO applications next year will be able to choose apprenticeships as well as level 4 and level 5 certificate courses run by colleges of further education and local education and training boards (ETBs).

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