EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn (pictured) is set to create a cabinet split in the New Year by pushing ahead with his plan to include farmland and business assets in the means test for student grants.
It came as Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney made it clear that he was firmly opposed to the move because it would hit farmers who were "asset rich but cash poor".
Fine Gael TDs had been up in arms about the prospect of farmland and business assets being included for the first time in the student grants means test for those starting college next September.
Mr Coveney told the Irish Independent in an interview that he had made his views known to Mr Quinn.
"Farmers may be seen as asset rich in terms of the value of their land but that does not mean they are cash rich," he said.
Mr Coveney said that the means test had to measure the ability of parents to pay for the cost of their son or daughter going to third level.
"Certainly, this Government isn't going to do anything that's going to force farmers to sell land in order to send sons or daughters to college," he said.
But there was confusion last night over reassurances that Mr Quinn had been giving to a Labour backbencher on the controversial changes.
Labour Clare TD Michael McNamara – who is both a farmer and a barrister – said he had been told by Mr Quinn that different treatment would be given to "productive assets" – such as farmland and business assets – and "non-productive assets" – such as large savings accounts and second homes.
"I'm happy the minister is seeking to differentiate between productive and non-productive assets," he said.
Although Mr Quinn did not give specific details, Mr McNamara said he did not see how "productive assets" such as farmland, shops and pubs and equipment could be included in the means test.
But a Department of Education source said last night that Mr Quinn was not planning to differentiate between productive and non-productive assets.
"It's not the likely option," the source said.
The issue has been divisive in the Coalition because Fine Gael draws far more of its support from farmers and small businesses than Labour does.
According to figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), around 10pc of all grant holders at third level are from a farming background.