independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Student grants to be slashed in 'awful' Budget

Drastic education cuts on the cards as Quinn comes under pressure to save an extra €40m

PRESSURE: Ruairi Quinn must make even more cuts in his spending on education

THE student maintenance grant – which is paid to about 100,000 students each year – is likely to be cut in October's Budget, senior Government sources have revealed.

The measure is part of a series of crippling education cuts that will have to be implemented for the Coalition to meet its Troika targets.

Officials involved in the Budget process warned "f***ing awful" cuts totalling €106m will have to be made in Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's department.

Last month, Quinn said his plans to means-test the student grant were not dead, despite his failure to deliver on his promise to test it in time for the new academic year in September. But officials are now looking at a straight cut to the grant, which for full applicants amounts to €3,025, in the Budget.

The Grant body, Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi), expects to have 75,000 new applications and 25,000 renewal applications in the coming academic year.

Meanwhile, it has also emerged that plans to introduce a State-run student loan scheme have been "long-fingered" because it is considered too difficult to implement and due to the lack of necessary "start-up money".

Quinn had previously thought he had to make cuts of €44m in 2014, but two significant additional pressures have more than doubled that cuts target.

On top of the €44m in cuts to services, Quinn has to find an additional €40m to meet redress payments to the victims of clerical abuse.

"No one is arguing that the victims deserve to be compensated, but the money needs to be found. The need to make €40m in payments next year, means the choices facing us are much, much tougher," said one Government source.

The second major additional pressure facing Quinn is the unanticipated cost that has arisen following the decision by the Government to reverse cuts to resource teachers. This effectively means an additional €22m has to be found next year. As a result, the Budget axe will have to fall harder in key areas.

Promises to protect classroom sizes are set to be broken, with pupil teacher ratios to be "burst" by at least two pupils per class. But at best such a move will only result in savings of around €7.5m, meaning cuts to other politically sensitive areas.

"We can't sack anyone, we can't make them redundant so having to burst the ratios is the only option," one senior Government source told the Sunday Independent.

Drastic further cuts to the spending on special needs assistants are also on the cards in order for the minister to meet the budget targets.

There is a belief within Quinn's department that some schools are "abusing" the special needs allocations by holding on to personnel even if the child has moved on, so targeted savings will be made in this area. However, this is a politically toxic option and is likely to meet stiff opposition from Labour party backbenches who are adamant such cuts are "not doable, not wearable and not tolerable".

Universities and colleges are also facing swingeing cuts. Government sources said cuts of up to five per cent are "virtually guaranteed", which is likely to lead to a reduction in courses on offer, fewer student services and larger class sizes.

Quinn has already come under fierce criticism for failing to deliver on his promise not to increase college registration fees, which are set to soar to up to €3,000 by 2015.

But sources said the lack of options open to the minister means he will have no choice but to strongly consider increasing the fees even further. The total education budget is €9bn, but up to 80 per cent of that spend relates to the pay and pensions of staff, and under the terms of the new Haddington Road agreement, is protected.

Fianna Fail last night said the entire education sector should be ringfenced from any cuts. This is the same position the party took before last year's Budget, when they put forward alternative spending cuts in social welfare and heath. They are expected to maintain this stance in their alternative Budget this year.

The party's education spokesman Charlie McConalogue told the Sunday Independent: "No cut should happen. None of the options presented to us are palatable. Last year we protected education in our pre-Budget submission. He (Minister Quinn) should be doing the same now."

Sunday Independent

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