Labour warns cash crisis may force return of third-level fees
TWO LABOUR Party Cabinet ministers yesterday signalled that college fees could be on the way back, warning that the financial crisis in third-level education will have to be tackled.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton admitted that funding problems in universities and colleges have to be addressed.
Both said they personally supported free college education -- as introduced by Labour during the Rainbow Coalition -- before firing warning shots about hikes in college costs.
Mr Quinn said a "serious financial crisis" in the sector has to be faced, while Ms Burton said "contributions will have to be made by every sector".
Before the election, Labour promised it would not increase fees or charges, and would also reverse a €500 increase in student registration due to be introduced in September.
Mr Quinn now admits the €500 hike will go ahead, and said that "new facts" about the scale of the crisis in the public finances led to his U-turn.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) this week increased the pressure on Mr Quinn by asking him to honour a pre-election pledge that Labour would "oppose and campaign against any new form of third-level fees, including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increases".
Speaking in University College, Dublin (UCD), yesterday, Mr Quinn said he fully appreciated the USI's position, one he has "personally held for many, many years".
"We want to increase the social mix coming from all strands of our society in third-level colleges," he added.
"Putting a financial barrier in front of people on the way into college for children or young adults who had no previous experience of third-level has been shown to be a deterrent.
"That's not to say we don't have a serious financial crisis nationwide and also in the university sector, and we have to address that.
"As a member of a Government that has collective responsibility, a decision will be made by that Government. I recognise we have financial difficulties countrywide and in the third-level sector in particular, and that will be addressed in due course."
Mr Quinn has commissioned a report on funding for the education sector and has not ruled out the introduction of fees and new student charges, claiming it is "hard to see" how higher education can meet Government targets without more money.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) report is expected to come back to the minister by the end of the year. A decision will likely be made in time for Budget 2012 at the start of December.
Ms Burton also said Labour's long-standing position was to provide third-level access for "everybody who has the qualifications".
But she too flagged possible increases to come, and said Mr Quinn was "reflecting reality".
"Clearly we are now in straitened times and I think the minister was just reflecting reality that contributions have to be made by every sector of society," the Dublin West TD said.
"But we in the Labour Party particularly value the initiative that we introduced to get as wide a swathe of the population as possible into college, particularly middle-income, lower-income people."