Tuesday 6 December 2016

Loan scheme 'must not deter students from an education'

Published 24/11/2016 | 02:30

Peter Cassells. Photo: Mark Condren
Peter Cassells. Photo: Mark Condren

Increases in third-level fees, linked to a student loan scheme, should be regulated and remain affordable, according Peter Cassells, who wrote the expert group report on future funding of higher education.

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An income-contingent student loan scheme is among a number of options put forward in the Cassells report as a means of putting the sector on a sound financial footing.

Mr Cassells will defend the student loan idea today, at the latest in a series of Oireachtas education committee meetings to consider his report.

He said a loan scheme should not deter anyone from going to college, because repayments would be linked to future earnings and ability to pay. An income-contingent loan is one where repayments are made when income hits a certain level, and takes account of breaks, such as unemployment or maternity leave.

Mr Cassells is executive director of the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention, at Maynooth University, and a former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions.

Read more: University presidents back introduction of student loan scheme to boost funding for higher education

Higher education has suffered massive cuts in State funding since 2008, at a time when student numbers have risen and are projected to continue to increase.

Third-level enrolments are expected to grow by 45,000, between 2015 and 2029, an average of 3,000 students a year, requiring an additional 350 staff, costing €25m a year.

But, that would not allow for any improvement in the student:staff ratio, which, as a result of cuts, has deteriorated to 20:1 in Ireland, compared with an international average of 16:1.

The ratio is cited as a reason for Irish universities dropping in international rankings. Mr Cassells said to reduce that to 14:1, in line with national ambition, would require 6,000 extra staff, costing €450m a year.

According to the expert group, the system requires minimum additional investment of €600m a year by 2021 to provide for the extra students and to improve quality - and the question that arises is how that should be shared between State, employers and students.

Mr Cassells will tell the committee that "comprehensive and fundamental change" in the funding system is required and reaching agreement will require a "constructive and realistic discussion".

He said a discussion that "yields only a restatement of first preferences and consequent stalemate will simply consolidate the status quo". And he will warn TDs that the status quo "is not a cost-free option" and imposes costs in terms of quality, exclusion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, graduate career opportunities and the contribution of higher education to economic and social development.

Irish Independent

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