Sunday 4 December 2016

'Study now, pay later' loans: Students face up to €20k debt under new scheme

Report warns urgent action needed to address higher education funding crisis

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

A student reads on a tablet in a college library (photo posed)
A student reads on a tablet in a college library (photo posed)

A 'study now, pay later' college fees scheme leaving students with up to €20,000 of debt is proposed as the future of third-level funding.

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The report of an expert group today warns urgent action is needed to address the crisis in funding higher education.

The most controversial suggestion is a student loan scheme where graduates would pay back the costs of their tuition.

The loans of €4,000 to €5,000 or higher per year, depending on the level of fee set and the length of the course, would be repaid after they graduate and start earning above a certain salary.

The current college fee, known as the student contribution, is €3,000 a year, which is waived for those who qualify for grants.

The report also looks at other options including greater State aid and increasing the amount raised from the training fund levelled on employers to bring in an extra €150m a year.

'Click to enlarge'
'Click to enlarge'

However, the report does warn the current funding model is not sustainable and points to the requirement to create a third more places over the next 15 years to avoid a smaller percentage of Leaving Cert students going on to third level.

The report sets out three options to increase funding:

  • a State-funded system with the scrapping of the €3,000 college fees;
  • increased State funding with continuing €3,000 fees;
  • increased State funding and a loans scheme. This would involve the scrapping of the upfront €3,000 college fees and replacing them with loans. These income-contingent loans would be repaid by graduates when they hit a certain income level. The repayments would be deducted by the Revenue Commissioners.

The report says an extra €1bn is needed in day-to-day spending to restore the cuts since the economic downturn and to meet that rising demand for student places - that's a 50pc increase on current spending.

Read more: Fears over UK student fees may spark points race

The cover of Peter Cassells’ report
The cover of Peter Cassells’ report

In the next five years, colleges will need an extra €600m.

In addition, the report says a capital investment fund of a staggering €5.5bn is required over the next decade and a half. This funding is needed for new and replacement buildings as well as refurbishments and other capital costs.

The group was chaired by Peter Cassells, the former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Mr Cassells warns that one of the options outlined, to bring more money into the system, must be pursued. He says he recognises the pressure on public funds and households. But he does appear to veer towards the student loan model.

Peter Cassells, former union chief who headed up the report
Peter Cassells, former union chief who headed up the report

"However, if we are to really tackle the current funding crisis and deliver on the level of vision that is set out in this report - if we are to achieve a step-change in quality levels, comprehensive student financial support, and a more holistic treatment of all students across the spectrum of undergraduate, postgraduate and part-time provision, I believe that ultimately a more comprehensive and fundamental change in the funding model is required.

"One that will provide for a sharing of costs but that will do so in a fair and attainable matter," he says.

The report starkly warns the contribution of higher level education to the country is now "severely threatened".

"Falling resources since 2008, a deteriorating student:staff ratio, inadequate facilities and other pressures are having a severe impact, particularly on the ability to provide high-quality undergraduate programmes."

The expert group says "the status quo, or incremental adjustment to it, will not be sufficient".

Read more: Third-level funding to be linked to female promotions

Education Minister Richard Bruton is expected to welcome the report and agree a properly funded higher education system is key to achieving the goals of society and the economy. The minister faces a challenge to achieve a consensus on a way to provide new funding. However, he will emphasise that doing nothing is not an option.

Mr Bruton will point to the advantages of delivering extra places for students from disadvantaged areas, upskilling and reskilling places and increased research enrolments.

Student loans: How it will work

1. €5,000 per year college fees, paid for through loans

2. Student graduates with €20,000 debt

3. Repayment begins when they graduate and earn €26,000 in wages

4. Payments deducted from wages by Revenue

5. Upfront payment can be made to avoid debt

To read the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education, 'Investing in national ambition: a strategy for funding higher education', log on to Independent.ie

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