In Focus
Jul 13, 2016

Deciding Between the State and Student Loans: How Did We Get Here?

From a history of free tuition to the current underfunding and consideration of loans, we look back on the timeline of higher education funding solutions.

Charlotte RyanAssistant Editor
Thousands of students took part in regional protest marches organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 2013.
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Twenty years after the abolition of tuition fees, Monday’s publication of the Cassells report has the very real potential to revert what was one of the most influential developments in higher education in Ireland. Of its three options – the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly state-funded system, the continuation of the current student contribution charge coupled with increased state investment, and the introduction of an income-contingent loan system – the latter two are feared by many groups to be most likely to be implemented as the current model has proved unsustainable. No matter how unsustainable loaning models have come to be, for some people a loan is the only way they’ll be able to get by, if you’re looking to see what could be available to you, you might want to check in at

As the report moves from the working group to the members of the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee, within a fragmented government with no clear higher education agenda, a period of tense cross-party debate is inevitably to follow. The timeline of events that lead to its existence, however, is comparatively straight-forward.

1996: Tuition fees abolished, “free education” myth established

On taking power in 1994, the coalition government of Labour, Fine Gael and Democratic Left were faced with remedying the inherent problems of Ireland’s education system. The previous government, a Fianna Fáil and Labour coalition, had advocated for greater access to higher education, before their dissolution amid various scandals. Their urgency was appropriate: the Irish economy at the time was steadily improving, and highly-trained graduates were in great demand. By all accounts the Celtic Tiger was beginning to roar, needing the expertise of university graduates to tame it.


The existing structures for access to higher education, however, were appallingly weak. At the time, low-income families seeking education were supported by the means-tested third level grant scheme, a more meagre version of the existing one today, while families with the means to do so paid the full university fees of their children. Prior to the abolition of fees, it covered fees and a contribution to living expenses.

The grants were available for both undergraduate and postgraduate study, with four options available: 50 per cent of fees paid, 100 per cent of fees paid, 100 per cent paid with part maintenance grant and 100 per cent paid with full maintenance grant.

Intended to ease the burden on fee-paying parents, a tax covenant had been introduced whereby immediate family members could offset five per cent of the fees against their income tax. A scheme initially meant to equalise education in Ireland was quickly derailed by misuse: wealthy families found loopholes in the covenant to pay 100 per cent of fees, while university staff availed of both the tax cut and the staff perk of free tuition fees.

Then-Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, published the first government report on education calling for the abolition of the tax scheme and a reinvestment of the tax revenue into the grant. It was this decision that effectively paved the route to higher education for families of all backgrounds, and was ironically championed by then-Minister for Finance, Ruairí Quinn who, from his appointment as Minister for Education and Skills 2011-2014, would progressively undo the work of the report.

2010: The protest that changed a generation

2010 saw the Celtic Tiger come to its inevitable screeching halt. An €85 million IMF/EU bailout let Ireland cling on to a semblance of stability, but the damage to its state services was significant, and lasting. By 2014 funding to higher education had decreased by 35 per cent, while student numbers increased by 19 per cent.

Faced with the possible reintroduction of tuition fees ahead of the Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition government’s budget, Irish students took to the streets in a protest that caught the attention of both national and international news outlets. Led by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), up to 40,000 students marched from Parnell Square to the Merrion Street government buildings — joined by sympathetic representatives from Queen’s University, Belfast — where they staged a sit-in both inside and outside.

Heralded as “the largest student protest of a generation” by the Irish Times, the scenes were evocative of a kind of revolution: young people scaling government buildings, being chased by Garda dogs and horses, distraught protesters bailing their friends out of jail. It remains an enduring display of students bleeding through the nose for access to higher education, and indeed has shaped campaigning in the years since.

2011: Political U-turns and a protest becomes a tradition

Given the turbulent year that had passed, the 2011 general election saw parties pledging, with differing levels of commitment, to address the higher education crisis. Fine Gael emerged in support of a “graduate tax”, not dissimilar to the loan scheme option presented in the Cassells report, which both Labour and Fianna Fáil opposed, the latter preferring the existing system. Sinn Féin briefly opposed an increase in fees, but with a non-committance to the matter that was characteristic of the election.

It was Labour’s response — with then-Labour Education spokesperson, Ruairí Quinn as figurehead — that garnered the most attention. The signing of a pledge in Trinity’s Front Square committed the party to opposing “any new form of third level fees including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increase in the Student Contribution” – and provided students with a baton to beat them with once they reneged on their promises in the 2011 budget.

Just a few days after the anniversary of 2010’s protest, students yet again marched in protest against the government’s U-turn, with 50,000 people joining in.

Since 2011 the student contribution has continued to increase, from €1,500 in 2010 to €3,000 today.

2012: The loan model gains traction

Slowly but surely, the narrative began to turn towards the inevitability of loan schemes. Two years after its bailout to Ireland, the IMF issued the government with recommended cuts, including the reintroduction of full college fees and the establishment of a loan system for students.

Loans, though still an ominous possibility for students, were not so uncommon as might be assumed. Just a few months prior to this saw the Bank of Ireland and Trinity collaborate on one such loan scheme for students, called TCD Finance. Aimed at easing the burden of paying the student contribution charge over four years, the initiative allowed parents to borrow a maximum of €9,000 at 7.5 per cent APR, and to pay the charge in €100 installments. It’s a model startlingly similar to the one currently proposed — albeit on a considerably smaller scale.

Perhaps its scale contributed to its success. Both DCU and Mary Immaculate College adopted the scheme, and a month after its launch, BOI intended to spread it to 20 third level institutions in Ireland. USI cautioned against the move, as “it gives the Government the impression that finance is available to cope with such increases.” They warned against the development of a “debt culture” like the one in America, and indeed it is that angle they have stayed loyal to since.

Loan schemes, however, had never looked more likely.

November saw the long-awaited publication of a report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on the funding issue, commissioned by Quinn prior to dismissing a state-supported student loan facility. Yet again, the outcomes are eerily similar: delayed for almost a year, the report recommended a short-term increase in the student contribution and a loan scheme. Quinn downplayed the implications of the report, achieving the political equivalent of putting makeup on a festering wound.

201: The increasing cost of education

The 2013 budget saw the student contribution charge increase to €2,500 and a reduction in the income threshold for those eligible for maintenance grants. According to DIT Campus Life’s annual Cost of Living Guide, the cost of living for students increased to €8,000.

2015: Amid leaks, higher education crisis reaches the grassroots

The impending release of the Cassells report on December 31st, coupled with the promise of a general election soon after, made for a tense political climate. In October, Ógra Fianna Fáil proposed an increase of €2,000 to the student contribution fees, with students receiving an income-contingent loan to repay the fees. It was estimated that the initiative would create €300 million additional funding, but the scheme was rejected by Fianna Fáil.

The grassroots “Students Against Fees” group met first the following December, deciding to oppose the introduction of a government-supported loan scheme and increase in tuition fees in a motion at Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). The group — which came to appoint then-TCDSU President Lynn Ruane to its leadership board — went on to campaign against the introduction of loans and tuition fees on a national level.

Days later, sources revealed to The University Times that the Cassells report’s main recommendation was to be a package that included a €1,000 increase to the student contribution fee and an income-contingent loan scheme. The ensuing media focus prompted significant revisions to the document, with a final version submitted in March with the three options.

At 160th in the world, Trinity reached its lowest score in Times Higher Education world rankings.

2016: The state of affairs and a fragmented State

The three options proposed in the Cassells report were not unexpected. Loan schemes and tuition fees have been up for discussion in recent years, but the variables have been in the voices that discuss them. Media attention fell almost exclusively to the possibility of a loan scheme, yet a consistent trend has emerged: both government bodies and lobby groups propose an initiative, students stand in opposition and the sector continues to decline.

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