The government working group on higher education funding is to recommend a package that would include an income-contingent loan scheme in conjunction with a €1,000 increase in the student contribution charge, The University Times has learned.
SUSI would cease to pay the charge for students – forcing all students to pay up front or take out a loan for the €4,000 fee – but would pay increased living costs, known as maintenance, to eligible students, according to two people familiar with the working group’s plans. Both spoke to The University Times on the condition of anonymity.
The group will also recommend an increased exchequer contribution to the funding of higher education, and an increase in the employer contribution to the National Training Fund (NTF). Currently, employers pay a levy of 0.7 per cent on the “reckonable income” of their employees, which is by and large composed of the gross income of most classes of employees.
It is understood that these planned recommendations were circulated in full to the group late last week. One of those familiar with the working group’s plans said they had the “impression” that the group was “not working on a range options, but it was just this one single option.”
“The sense has been very much articulated that it is either this, or the status quo – the status quo being how prone state funding is to rising and falling in the budget”, they also said.
The working group, commonly referred to as the Cassells working group after its chair, former trade union activist Peter Cassells, is expected to provide a draft of the report to the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, in the coming days. Last week, O’Sullivan told the Dáil that the group was “in the final stages of deliberations”, but did not respond directly to a question about its publication date.
These reports go some way to confirm the continued speculation in recent weeks that the working group will recommend an income-contingent loan scheme in conjunction with an increase in the student contribution charge.
Responding to a request for comment from The University Times on the proposals, the President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Kevin Donoghue, said: “If that is the recommendation that comes out and what’s taken up by the next government, we’ll fight that tooth and nail. There’s no way we won’t fight against that.”
He called the proposed €1,000 increase in the contribution fee both “outrageous” and “crazy”, and said: “The registration fee has doubled in the last six years, and another €1,000 now – when does it stop?”
He went on: “At what point do we realise that actually we have the second-highest fee in the EU already – it’s actually way too high and needs to come down.”
Responding to a request for comment from The University Times, the President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), Lynn Ruane, said: “I think the fact that we’re looking at increasing the student contribution and introducing a loan system is putting more of a financial burden on students, and completely commodifying education, which is not the route that any government should ever go, and I’d be really saddened if that’s what the Cassells report is going to recommend.”
Ruane said that these reports would seem to suggest that “we’ve abandoned the idea that a tax system should cover things like education, which is really really wrong”.
Last month, the Irish Times reported that the Revenue Commissioners could be given a role collecting student loans under proposals being considered by the working group.
In October, Fianna Fáil announced that they would introduce a “support” loan-system designed to help meet the cost of living. The loan system under consideration by the government working group, known as a “funding” loan scheme, is designed to pay tuition fees, however. Fianna Fáil committed to freezing the student contribution charge at €3,000 for the next five years.
In 2011, Ruairí Quinn, on behalf of the Labour Party, ruled out any future rise in the student contribution charge, then at €1,500, in a dramatic general election pledge outside Trinity’s Front Gate. Just a few months later, as Minister for Education, he announced the series of increases that have led to the current €3,000 charge.
Last year, in an interview with The University Times, the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, said that she did not “want to go down the road of students finish and end up with a very large bill – with people owing €50,000”. However, she subsequently refused to rule out the introduction of a student loan scheme, or an increase in the student contribution charge.
This government working group would be the second working group on higher education funding to recommend a student loan system in the lifetime of the current government. In November 2011, a HEA group commissioned by Quinn recommended an increase in the student contribution charge in conjunction with a student loan system.
Quinn had previously ruled out the introduction of a student loan scheme, and the results of the HEA report were downplayed, receiving little media attention. Plans to act on the recommendations of the report were cancelled and soon after, the current government working group was announced.
A motion that would mandate TCDSU to oppose an increase in tuition fees is on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of TCDSU council. This follows the failure of a motion opposing the introduction of government-supported loans at the most recent council meeting.