Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has ruled out the possibility of introducing a student loan system as part of changes made to the funding of higher education following the recommendations of the Cassells report.
Harris was responding to questions from Labour’s Education Spokesperson Aodhán Ó Riordáin at the Oireachtas Education Committee.
He said he intends to bring proposals to Cabinet based on the report by the end of the year.
Harris said that he has received the final verdict on the Cassells report from the European Commission, “and I’m using the word final intentionally because I don’t think we need another report”.
“I don’t think we need to do the cross-party commission to commission another report, I don’t think we need to build a shelf to put the report on”, he said. “What we need to do now is come up with solutions.”
Released in 2016, the Cassells report offers three solutions to the funding issues faced by Irish higher education institutes.
The first option is the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly state-funded system. Introduced in 2011, the contribution is currently €3,000 per year and represents the second highest third-level fees in the EU.
The second option is leaving the current student contribution charge in place and increasing state funding of universities and other third-level institutions.
The third and most contentious option is the introduction of an income-contingent loan system. After several years of lobbying the government to introduce a system of student loans, Irish universities u-turned on the best way to fund higher education in 2018.
Harris told the committee: “Let me rule out, here and now, student loans – no interest in them, don’t agree with them, don’t believe in them, don’t think they work. They might work on paper, they don’t work in reality, we won’t be introducing student loans.”
“We will come up with a way of moving forward on that, and I hope to bring proposals to Cabinet later this year.”
He later told the committee that accusations that the government had taken no action since the publication of the report six years ago were “untrue”, and that funding to the sector had increased by half a billion euro.
Harris said earlier this month that he expects to publish a report on the European Commission’s analysis on the Cassells report this autumn.
The report was sent to the European Commission in January 2019, when the government applied for economic advice on the report.
Speaking in the Dáil last week, Harris said that the European Commission’s final deliverable had been submitted to his department, and examination of the Commission’s analysis, findings and recommendations has started.
“Once the examination is concluded, the report will be submitted by me to the Government for consideration. It will then be published”, he said.
“I expect to be in a position to publish the report in the autumn. I want to receive the advice from my officials on the analysis, prepare proposals for Government and then publish the report. Then I expect a robust and comprehensive debate in these Houses.”
Harris was responding to a question from Sinn Féin’s Higher Education Spokesperson Rose Conway-Walsh on the “chronically underfunded” state of the higher-education sector.