Cutting college fees 'won't improve access' for disadvantaged students

Cutting college fees 'won't improve access' for disadvantaged students

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris at the new South East Technological University. Mr Harris plans to reduce the current €3,000 student contribution charge over several budgets. Picture: Mary Browne

Cutting college fees won’t help to improve access to higher education for the most disadvantaged students, college leaders have warned.

At the beginning of the month, Simon Harris, the minister for further and higher education, announced plans to reduce the current €3,000 student contribution charge over several budgets. The plans also include an additional €307m in funding for the sector.

On Tuesday, leaders of some of the country’s newest technological universities (TUs) appeared before the Oireachtas education committee as it continued its discussions on the future funding of the third-level sector.

Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne said he believes that investing in the Susi grant scheme and widening access to grants is the better way to increase access to third-level education. Figures show that more than 60% of students attending the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS) are in receipt of the Susi grant, he said. 

“A cut in fees will make no difference for those students. In fact, across the [whole] TU sector, it's 55%, so it’s not that dissimilar for the other former institutes of technology.” 

College access will not be enhanced by cutting the fees, according to Josephine Feehily, chair of the TUS governing body.

“The grant system clearly has more relevance to our particular catchment areas. There is a risk that cutting the fees, the student contribution as it is known, might not give us additional funding. 

If you're getting money out of Pot A today, and it comes out of Pot B tomorrow, it's no good if it's not extra.” 

Patrick Prendergast, former provost of Trinity College Dublin and now chair of the new TU for the South East, said many students in TUs will already have their student contributions covered.

Cutting student fees only benefits around 40% of students, while the current Susi grant is “not sufficient to live on”, he added.

“Maybe it might be better to spend that money on improving the Susi grant, rather than abolishing the student contribution for everybody.” 

Meanwhile, Jimmy Deenihan, chair of Munster Technological University, said TUs could help to alleviate the student housing shortage if they could borrow to build student accommodation on campus. 

“TUs are competing with traditional universities, with accommodation on site. To compete, we have to have that choice for people. Being allowed to borrow would help.”

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