Delaying a decision not an option - Funding of third-level education

AS MOST parents know, the cost of sending a son or daughter to third level is truly massive. The stark reality is that many families cannot afford to pay the fees. Increasingly in this country, third-level education is becoming a privilege of the rich.

Yet, many struggle against the odds to carry the burden, hoping to give their children a better chance of getting on in life. Theirs can be a grinding experience, especially at a time when the majority of people are at the pin of their collar to find university fees of €3,000. Many also fork out thousands for student accommodation and other basic needs.

Unfortunately, in Ireland the laudable concept of “free” education has long since been consigned to the grave. Indeed, with the crisis besetting Irish education now being felt in every household, the report unveiled yesterday by an expert group on ways of funding third-level fees has to be welcomed by parents, students and by all those tasked with the job of either teaching in and/or running the college system.

By the very nature of such research, each interest group is bound to focus on something that is not to its liking. Already, the representatives of student groups have warned government that a loan scheme would lumber young people with another mortgage. The report also proposes that employers should pay some of the costs of third-level education. No doubt they will also find fault with that proposal.

Lecturers at third level also lost no time pointing out that contrary to the popular myth, many earn less than €10,000 a year. Apart from the perk of long holidays, a greater degree of transparency is obviously required in the area of third-level pay, if only to dispel the popular myth and so that lecturers can justify their earnings from a value-for-money viewpoint.

The expert group, chaired by Peter Cassells, has produced an excellent report on the options for funding of third-level education, with proposals ranging from scrapping the current fees and replacing them with state funding or giving loans to students. Ultimately, the final solution could end up as a mix of all three proposals but according to Mr Cassells, the status quo is certainly not an option.

Largely due to a rash of cutbacks, third-level education is now caught up in a major financial crisis which will set back this country’s future development unless tackled immediately. The chairman has stressed the crucial need for increased investment in higher education and apprenticeships so as to move the country on from the crisis of recent years.

With college numbers set to increase by a third in coming years, he estimated at least €1bn needs to be invested in the sector over the next 15 years to accommodate the country’s young population, with €600m of that needed between now and 2021.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Richard Bruton has indicated that it will take the Government a year or more to put this report into action. Given the urgency of the funding crisis, further delay is unacceptable. Let us hope this does not become yet another can to be kicked down a dusty road already littered with government reports.

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