Significant changes were made to the report from the government higher education funding working group, known as the Cassells report, to place less emphasis on recommending a government-supported loan scheme, The University Times has learned.
According to a person familiar with the near-final draft completed in December and the final version sent to the Minister for Education earlier this month, the report’s contents and its emphasis on each of its three proposed solutions were changed significantly due to pushback from members of the group, and media attention ensuing from leaks. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to reveal such details.
In December, two other people familiar with the working group’s plans told The University Times that the report was to primarily recommend a package that would include an income-contingent loan scheme in conjunction with a €4,000 student contribution charge. While the report was always due to present a series of options, the December draft put forward a loan scheme as the most feasible option. It is understood that the final draft instead describes each of the three options as “credible and feasible”, rather than ruling any option out.
According to a recent Irish Independent article, the other options are a system in which higher education is primarily funded by the state, which would result in the abolition of the student contribution charge in a move to a “free fees” model, and one that is similar to the current funding model, but includes a considerable increase in exchequer funding.
The December draft of the loan scheme option would have entailed SUSI, the national grants body, ceasing to pay the student contribution charge for students, forcing all students to take out a loan. There is no indication that this has changed in the final draft. Increased maintenance grants will be provided to eligible students, as reported in December, and this will be seen across all three options, according to the Independent. However, instead of favouring a €4,000 charge in the loan scheme option, the report now considers various fee levels without preferring any of them.
One of those familiar with the working group’s plans in December said they had the “impression” that the group, at the time, was “not working on a range options”, but just the “single option” of a loan scheme.
“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 said.
This further suggests that the responses to leaks of the planned recommendations and the member pushback resulted in significant changes, if the other two options are considered alongside the loan scheme one.
All of the options would see 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.