THE Government may not be entirely disappointed that this week’s publication of the latest report on how third level education might be funded probably means that any real — and more than likely very unpopular — decisions on the incendiary issue will fall to the next administration.
Once again a red-line issue been researched, debated, considered and currycombed to something approaching death but ultimately dodged. It has, by timing, been kicked to touch, moving it from the urgent and unavoidable in-basket to the one labelled election policies or, worse, election maybes.
That this evasion, this avoid-the-hard-calls bad habit comes nearly five years after the Hunt report was published again damages political credibility. That the Hunt report — which bravely charted a 20-year strategy before being squeezed onto that infamous dusty shelf — and the latest one on the subject recommend, by and large, the same approach, just adds to that frustration.
It is not as if the issue was new to the coalition. Every member of that partnership must wince when the the difficulties faced by Labour education spokesman turned Education Minister Ruairi Quinn are recalled. At this very point in the last election cycle Mr Quinn opposed a €500 increase in the student contribution fee. He promised he would reverse the increase once in office. Less than 100 days later circumstances decreed that Mr Quinn was unable to rule out new student fees and/or additional student charges.
That political Lanigan’s Ball — in again, out again — can be forgiven ever so slightly because there are few instances in public life were the high ideals of inclusivity and parity of opportunity collide as decisively with the cold realities of national exchequer accounting.
In an ideal world the only qualification a person would need to secure a third level course is an exam record that suggests the student has the potential to benefit from a course and ultimately apply that education for personal advancement and the good of society. In the real world third level education is horrendously expensive. So much so that most societies place a significant financial burden on those so very privileged students who enjoy the opportunities it offers. And it is hard to see how we can be any different, no matter how unpalatable that is — unless of course we’re all ready and happy to pay a significant hike in taxes.
The latest report argues that third-level students avail of a Government-backed loan scheme to pay college fees. It also suggests that loan repayments be put on hold until an individual reaches a certain income level. This may not be perfect or glisteningly Scandinavian but it has a logic and open-door honesty about it and, most importantly, it seems to fit our circumstances. This report, like Hunt before it, has come up with a set of suggestions that must be acted on to protect the integrity of our third level institutions. It would be totally unacceptable if the next Government — of whatever hue — decided on another round of long-fingering thereby extending uncertainty for colleges and the families of young students who hope to get a third-level qualification.
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