The Royal Irish Academy has called for an income-contingent loan scheme and full fees for students to be introduced to address the crisis in higher education funding, in a report submitted this week to the government higher education funding working group, chaired by Peter Cassells.
The academy has proposed student fees for the full cost of third-level courses, combined with the provision of loans by the state, to be repaid in installments once a certain income threshold is reached after graduation.
The report highlights more generally the extent of the funding crisis in higher education in Ireland, noting that there has been a 29 per cent drop in state funding for third-level institutions between 2008 and 2013, despite a nearly 20 per cent increase in student numbers during the same time period.
The report hopes that this solution will resolve the present crisis in third-level funding as well as increasing the accessibility of higher education.
The report also notes that, in particular, capital funding in the third-level sector has been most affected by these cuts. According to the report, investment in higher education declined by 85 per cent between 2008 and 2013, which the report notes has had a serious long term impact on the quality of higher education. In the report, the academy state: “The quality of the infrastructure across the system has deteriorated and in many cases buildings are not fit for the purpose for which they are being used.”
The current student contribution of €3,000 is regarded by the academy as limiting the access of many prospective students to higher education. They suggest that “despite the fact that the student charge is waived for 50% of students and there is a student grant towards living expenses”, many students still face severe difficulties in financing their education.
The academy argues that the income-contingent loans that are proposed as a solution, based on the experience of the Australian system, would have no adverse impact on the socio-economic diversity of incoming students. The removal of upfront fees for those who cannot afford to pay them, the academy argues, could potentially widen the category of prospective students.
The report also calls for an additional 2,500 academic staff as essential to restore the student–staff ratio, which currently stands at 20:1, to its 2008 position of 16:1. They argue that this target is “moderate but credible”.
The report argues that this would require an additional €375 million per annum in investment into the third-level sector. The report explains that 22 per cent of this sum could be found from the replacement of the current student contribution with a system of income-contingent loans.
The report also propose the integration of the different budgets for higher education and further education as one element of this, with greater co-operation between the two sectors perhaps likely to better coordinate Ireland’s education policy. Additionally, the proposed loan scheme would be integrated into a system of maintenance loans to cover living costs, moving away from the more fragmented system of grant provision that has operated separately through SUSI.
A graduate tax, much like that proposed by Fine Gael in the 2011 general election campaign, was also considered in the report. However, the report expressed concerns about the incentives that this might create for students to emigrate and the default on their liability for their education, dismissing such a scheme as unworkable until a solution to this issue is put forward.
Given the academy’s silence on the nature of such a solution combined with the lack of favour among political parties for a graduate tax, it would seem that such an option remains unlikely.
The implementation of income-contingent loans is something that has been more widely discussed in the lead up to the election, with both Fine Gael and Renua expressing support for such a measure. However, Fianna Fáil have pledged not to increase the student contribution, while Labour Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, committed her party last month to a €500 reduction in the student contribution. The Social Democrats have proposed a €1000 decrease in the student contribution.
It remains to be seen what impact this paper will have on the deliberations of the Cassells working group, which have yet to be published.
In December, The University Times revealed that the government working group on higher education funding is to primarily recommend a package that would include an income-contingent loan scheme in conjunction with a €1000 increase in the student contribution charge. Additionally, SUSI would cease to pay the charge for students – forcing all students to pay up front or take out a loan for the €4000 fee – but would pay increased living costs, known as maintenance, to eligible students.