The introduction of a loan scheme is a source of fear and concern for those who support a publicly funded higher education system. Consistently, supporters of free education have rebutted those who claim loan schemes to be the solution to the funding crisis in higher education by using something of a slippery slope argument.
Their argument has been simple: a loan scheme would mean an increase in fees beyond promised levels and ultimately the removal of student grants. They have argued that loan schemes would hit the poorest students the hardest, reducing access to higher education. They have warned of the dangers of accepting any increase, pointing to the £9,000 fees paid by UK students.
From today, grants supporting students from low-income backgrounds in the UK, worth around £3,500, will be replaced by loans to be repaid once graduates earn above £21,000. Students from the poorest backgrounds will now face an added burden because they can’t afford everyday expenses like rent and food.
A number of universities in the UK have also announced recently they will increase their fees to £9,250. Yet, when fees were first being introduced, assurances were made that £9,000 would be the uppermost limit, charged only by a few universities.
This is the nightmare scenario that opponents of loan schemes have painted for years, and yet we’ve often seen such predictions dismissed as scaremongering. However, they’re now the reality in the UK – our closest neighbour and whose ideas and policies still influence ours.
Exponents of a loan scheme often claim that only a small increase in fees would be needed. They argue that no one supports an increase in fees to levels in the UK. These views are no doubt sincere, and it is a tempting offer – a small increase in fees for a dramatically improved system. Yet the current situation in the UK is a vindication for those who have long-warned of the dangers of introducing a loan scheme in Ireland.
The Cassells report puts forward three options for how higher education will be funded. While political parties and the public make up their minds on higher education funding, the student movement remains firmly in favour of a publicly funded system. For anyone struggling to understand their reasons, a quick glance at the UK makes a powerful argument.