An increase in student fees of €1,000 would be insufficient to solve the funding gap in the higher education sector, and an even greater fee increase is needed, according to a paper prepared by officials at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
The paper, which was leaked to the Irish Times and prepared for the department’s newly appointed minister, Paschal Donohoe, criticises the possibility of a scheme of income-contingent loans, which it suggests is to be proposed by the as-yet-unpublished report from the government higher education funding working group, known as the Cassells report.
This revelation as to the contents of the Cassells report comes after from a source close to the expert group drafting the report told The University Times that the document would adopt a more balanced position, outlining instead three feasible options for the funding of third-level institutions, including a system funded by the taxpayer. Speaking to The University Times, USI President Kevin Donoghue said of the expert group that “if they advise a particular funding option, they’re not fulfilling their terms of reference”
The paper suggests that such a scheme, involving an increase in the present student contribution from €3,000 to €4,000, with this only being replayed once the student has reached a certain income level after graduating, would ultimately fail in its aim to remedy the funding crisis in higher education. In addition, it argues that the scheme would be “socially regressive” in requiring all students, irrespective of their socio-economic background, to repay. The present system, as noted by the paper, exempts 50 per cent of students from the student contribution on the basis of their families’ means. Speaking to The University Times about the paper’s findings, Donoghue stated that “relying on fees to fund the system is exclusionary and not workable,” and that “the only way to improve the present crisis is with public funding.” He further argued that the consideration of the department of the specific value of a possible increase in fees is “disappointing given that we already have the second highest fees in Europe.”
The paper also proposes a greater role for employers in financing higher education, suggesting that an increase in the present national training fund levy of 0.7 per cent of employees’ wages to 1 per cent. This would make an additional €150 million available to the sector each year.
The paper also recognises the extent of the present crisis in higher education, noting that the restoration of student-staff ratios “to pre-recession levels would cost approx €500 million.” It also references the unpublished findings of the Cassells report, which are to outline that an increase in current expenditure of €1 billion needed by 2030, coupled with €5.5 billion in capital investment and €100 million for student financial aid.
Two months ago, a state body said that the ongoing higher education funding crisis could have “serious and irretrievable implications” for the “future sustainability” of third-level institutions. The publication of the Cassells report is to be further delayed, with USI, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), SIPTU, IMPACT and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) as well as Joe O’Connor, a member of the working group, calling for the immediate publication of the report, the findings of which are now to be reviewed by a cross-party Oireachtas committee.