FAMILIES are facing the prospect of a huge hike in the fees for sending children to college.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has already signalled that charges would rise to €3,000 a year by September 2015. But that could now double to €6,000 in the wake of new recommendations.
In September, students will already be paying €2,250 in registration fees, with phased increases for each of the next three years. But a report being prepared for Mr Quinn is likely to conclude that there is no alternative to students paying even more.
The most likely formula would give students a choice of paying their fees upfront -- with a discount -- or paying later in the form of a graduate tax.
The report on funding for third-level education, being drafted by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), will be presented to the minister later this year.
There is no working figure on what fees could be set at, but University College Cork ( UCC) president Dr Michael Murphy has said it would need to be at least €4,500-€5,000 a year. Other sources said yesterday that it could be €6,000.
That would still be below the actual cost of funding a year's college education for each student, which is €10,000. It ranges from about €7,000 a year for an arts student, up to €30,000 a year for medicine or dentistry.
Mr Quinn made a pre-election pledge not to reintroduce college tuition fees, but is expected to be left with little choice.
HEA chief executive Tom Boland said yesterday a return of fees was firmly on the agenda. He said colleges needed more money and the exchequer could not afford to pay.
The pressure for more funding comes amid predictions of an explosion in third-level student numbers in about three years' time, and continuing for 10-15 years, at least.
The baby boom, and growing demand for third-level education, is expected to lead to a rise in college enrolments from about 160,000 now to more than 200,000 by 2020.
Colleges are also under pressure to compete at world-class level, and international university league tables have shown how recent cuts have damaged our standing in these rankings.
According to the HEA, the alternative to introducing new ways of funding third level to ensure it would be of the necessary quality, would be to put a limit on student numbers.
Mr Quinn would not be drawn on the matter last night.
The Union of Students in Ireland yesterday reaffirmed its policy of campaigning for "free fees".
Meanwhile, the possible reintroduction of third-level fees has not been met with outright rejection by the grassroots of either Labour or Fine Gael.
A Labour Party spokesman said last night that the executive had not yet considered the motion.
And although Mr Quinn opposed the introduction of fees before last year's general election, he has since committed himself to increasing registration fees.
However, if the reintroduction of third-level fees was to become official party policy, it could give Mr Quinn cover for bringing them back if he wished.
Fine Gael's ard fheis in March passed a motion from the UCC branch of Young Fine Gael calling for the introduction of a student loan scheme "as an efficient means of funding third-level education".