Do colleges need fees of up to €6,000 to survive?
Parents should start saving now – university heads want huge increases in charges. Kim Bielenberg reports
It is a proposal that will not be welcomed by parents of students who will go to college in the coming years. Philip Nolan, President of NUI Maynooth, says Ireland's universities need fees of up to €6,000 per year to put them back on a firm financial footing.
The country's third-level colleges now believe that they are the poor relations in education.
University heads argue that spending on schools has held up well in the recession, but universities and Institutes of Technology are being starved of funds.
Fees for colleges will be €2,750 this autumn, and are set to rise to €3,000 next year.
This will make Ireland one of the most expensive countries for higher education in Europe.
But charges at that level may not be enough to keep the colleges ticking over.
The President of NUIM believes that as colleges struggle to maintain standards there should be a varying scale of fees, according to a family's means.
Prof Nolan says: "Those on high incomes should pay fees of €5,000-€6,000. Middle income earners should pay €3,000, and those on low income should pay no fees."
A graded system of fees is also supported by the Provost of Trinity College Professor Patrick Prendergast, who said recently that a good proportion of students could afford to pay more.
Fees, which have never officially been reintroduced, are already on a sharp upward curve.
When he was still in opposition before the last general election, Ruairi Quinn said he wanted to freeze fees at €1,500 per year, but by the time of the next general election he will have doubled them.
What happens to fees after 2015 remains something of a mystery.
The Government is not announcing further hikes, but families might be well advised to start saving as soon as their babies are out of nappies.
In a breakdown of college finances, Philip Nolan outlined how spending on each student had tumbled since the start of the recession:
* The cost of educating a typical arts student at Maynooth is now €8,500, according to the NUIM President.
* A total of €6,000 is paid by the Government in core grant and tuition fees
* €2,500 is paid by the student.
Prof Nolan estimates that universities are getting by on €1,000 less per student since the start of the recession.
The university head says the effect of these cuts can be seen in larger class sizes, bigger tutorials and laboratory groups, and less individual attention.
"We are beyond the tipping point. If we do not act now, our third-level system, which is essential to our recovery, will be damaged in a way that will take decades to repair.
"The fabric of the colleges is declining, and we have situations where equipment needs to be replaced but the colleges cannot afford to do it."
He says: "Fees will have to rise to at least €4,000 in the the short term in order to avoid terminal decline in our universities, but we may have to look at other options as well to maintain standards.
"The present system benefits the wealthy, because most of the cost of the education of their children at third level is paid for by the Government, while fewer from lower income families go to college.
"Typically, all the children of a doctor might go to college, while perhaps only one of the children of a bus driver might go. The doctor gets the bigger subsidy from the Government.
"The solution is to have a different scale of fees, depending on income. There are many families that could pay €5,000 or €6,000 in fees.
"Government funding should be better targeted at those who really need it."
Professor Nolan believes that a significant part of the budget that is currently allocated for grants could be used to put in a place a loan scheme for students.
The Higher Education Authority is believed to favour a loan scheme based on the Australian model.
Students get loans for their fees up front, and then repay them once they have reached a certain level of income.
The most drastic action that could be taken by a future government would be to copy the English model, where the student pays for the entire cost of their university education.
This has pushed fees to more than €11,000 for many students.
On the plus side, in this system the beneficiary pays, and colleges have secure funding.
Many will go on to have highly paid jobs; so why should families on lower incomes down subsidise them?
On the negative side, huge fee hikes can saddle young people with enormous debts.
In America, where fees are among the most expensive, graduates currently owe a total of $1bn (€740m) in student loans, and many are struggling to pay.
Huge fee hikes could also act as a disincentive to students to go to third level.
Dr Kevin Denny, lecturer in Economics at UCD, says: "It is time now to bite the bullet.
"We have always done education on the cheap in Ireland, but I am not sure how long that can continue."