The government is considering a reduction in the student contribution charge as part of a new funding package for higher education, the Irish Times has reported.
Income thresholds for student grants may also be lowered, allowing more students to avail of financial assistance.
According to the Irish Times, the proposals are part of a set of policies to be published in January based in part on a report into the future funding of third level conducted by the European Commission.
Successive governments have been under pressure to change the sector’s funding model since the publication of the Cassells report in 2016, which outlined three possible ways of securing the financial future of higher education: abolish student fees – which, since Brexit, are the highest in the EU – and increase state funding to the sector, retain the charge and increase funding or introduce an income-contingent loan system. Harris has previously ruled out student loans.
Some €40 million would be required to cut the student contribution charge by €500, with a €1,000 reduction costing just over €80 million. The cost of abolishing the charge altogether would be €245 million.
The rising cost of a college education has become a more prominent political issue in recent years, with the Union of Students in Ireland and the Irish Universities Association repeatedly calling on the government to act on the findings of the Cassells report.
The issue of rising rent prices and the lack of affordable student accommodation is also raised regularly by student leaders.
In an email statement to The University Times this evening, a spokesperson for Harris said: “The Committee has agreed with Minister Harris’s proposal that student loans should not be further pursued as a viable option for a sustainable future funding system for higher education in Ireland.”
“It has also been acknowledged that the report will recommend the need for an increase in core funding to achieve a sustainable system, which will need to be addressed through the Exchequer and through the Budget”, she said.
“Minister Harris will engage with Minister McGrath with a view to bringing proposals on future funding of higher education alongside reform measures in January. This will be accompanied by proposals on the cost of third level for the student. This will be guided by the report on student support scheme.”
Harris previously told this newspaper that the verdict on Cassells would be published before the end of the year.
Speaking to The University Times in October, Harris said that he did not want “to be the minister who publishes another report and sticks it on an old shelf and gathers dust and says: ‘We need to do more for higher education.’”
“Why am I waiting to publish it by the end of the year rather than publishing it today? What I’m trying to work with government colleagues to make sure I can publish it with a clear set of next steps”.
The Cassells report was sent to the European Commission in January 2019, when the government applied for economic advice on the report.