NEXT year will mark the end of free third-level education for tens of thousands of students, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe last night confirmed he would bring proposals to Cabinet within two weeks which would compel students to pay for their college education.
And students who hope to avoid the payment by enrolling this September will not escape, as they will have to pay from 2010.
The move will signal the end of the era of free college education which began with the abolition of tuition fees in the mid-1990s.
The plan is likely to create serious tensions within the Coalition and spark widespread demonstrations by students, who are vehemently opposed to fees, loans or a graduate tax.
Officials have presented Mr O'Keeffe with a series of options for the new student "contributions".
These range from the straightforward re-introduction of tuition fees to a scheme whereby graduates start paying for their study, in the form of a tax, once they reach a certain income threshold.
However, the Irish Independent has learned the working group favours a mixture of both these measures.
Students would be able to pay fees up-front at a discount or pay the cost, with interest, after they graduate and find work.
Students already in college this year will not be affected by the end of free fees. "I would view those students as having a contract with third-level institutes, and I wouldn't see those students being affected," the minister said last night.
Mr O'Keeffe first raised the spectre of a return to third-level fees last August.
Despite continuing opposition to any form of a return to college charges, Mr O'Keeffe last night argued there were many people in society who could well afford to pay fees or to make a contribution to their third-level education.
"I feel it would be justified to ask those people who are earning quite substantial amounts of money to make a contribution and, in that way, I can do two things. I can, if it is appropriate, give further funding to the third-level sector itself, and certainly I can concentrate on a greater access programme in the disadvantaged areas, and hope we can increase significantly the participation rate at that level," he said.
However, the new student contribution is set to place the greatest burden on lower-middle income groups.
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) last night warned the worst affected would be the children of workers at, or just above, the income threshold for maintenance grants: bus drivers; waiters/waitresses; postal delivery staff; retail workers; lower ranks of civil servants; clerical workers and soldiers. The economic think-tank is investigating why so few students from this social group remain to take their Leaving Certificate and then go to college.
Dr Selina McCoy said that this non-manual group was particularly "debt adverse" and would be reluctant to take on huge debts by going to college.
Work done by ESRI researchers has shown increased participation by every other social group in college:
- Higher professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers -- increased to almost 100pc.
- Farmers -- up from 65pc to 89pc.
- Own-account workers, such as personnel managers and credit controllers -- up from 39pc to 65pc.
- Employers and managers, and lower professionals such as teachers, technicians -- remained around 65pc.
- Skilled manual workers such as bricklayers, plumbers, welders -- up from 32pc to 50pc.
- Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers such as warehouse staff, caretakers, dry cleaners -- up from 22pc to 33pc.
But for the non-manual workers' category there was virtually no change, with participation rates moving from 24pc to only 27pc at a time of massive expansion in higher education.
Dr McCoy said the availability of maintenance grants was one factor affecting attendance at college. At present, to get a full maintenance grant of €3,420, the maximum income limit for a family of four children is €39,760 a year. For more than eight children, it is €47,430 a year.
The end of free third-level education will be bitterly opposed by Labour, which abolished fees in 1996, and students.
USI President Shane Kelly last night said: "We already have fees but we call them something else -- a registration charge, which is going up to €1,500 in September."