The introduction of a controversial student loan system has moved a step closer after Fianna Fáil admitted radical new funding measures are needed to prevent colleges from suffering "reputational damage".
Student groups and Opposition TDs criticised the 'study now, pay later' proposal, but both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael said the option must be seriously considered.
Fianna Fáil wants to freeze tuition fees at their current level of €3,000 per annum and to increase Exchequer funding to the third-level sector by €100m per year.
But, significantly, Micheál Martin's party is open to the idea of a new 'study now, pay later' college fees scheme, despite claiming the costs of such a scheme are "extremely uncertain".
However one Fine Gael minister, Michael Ring last night said he was opposed to any measure that would heap extra costs on students.
The scheme, which could see students saddled with bills of €20,000 upon entering the workforce, is proposed in a long-awaited expert group report published by Education Minister Richard Bruton.
The expert group says colleges are facing a funding crisis and that urgent reform of the third-level sector is required.
The report's author, Peter Cassells, likened the current funding model to being "at the bottom of the premiership".
And he warned that by sticking with the status quo, our children would be condemned to a "deteriorating" education system.
Other key proposals tabled by the expert group include greater State subvention and increasing the burden on employers. The plans would also see colleges being required to meet performance targets to secure funding.
But the most controversial option is the introduction of a loan scheme, which is in place in countries such as Australia and the UK. With this option, student fees might be raised from the current contribution of €3,000 per year. Families would have the option of paying the full cost upfront.
However, Tourism Minister Michael Ring last night warned: "People are paying enough. We will have to wait and see the full details of this, but it is something I am not in favour of."
Education Minister Richard Bruton insisted students would only pay back fees once they had completed their studies and their earnings were above a certain point. But he admitted political consensus is required.
The proposal will be examined by the Oireachtas education committee, chaired by Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O'Loughlin, but is unlikely to be introduced for at least another 18 months to two years.
Fianna Fáil included a pledge in its election manifesto to freeze tuition fees at their current level of €3,000 per annum.
The party's education spokesman Thomas Byrne said last night: "You can't have a situation where colleges suffer reputational damage. This report makes it clear that there is a funding crisis across our third-level institutions. We will evaluate the proposals put forward by the Cassells Group, but in general the public costs of an income-contingent student loan scheme are extremely uncertain. These costs can be very high, which would ultimately outweigh any short-term savings made by the State."
The Union of Students in Ireland described the proposal for a new student loan scheme as "unfair and regressive".
But the union welcomed the decision to include the option of a fully State-funded third-level sector in the report.
The Higher Education Authority welcomed the report, adding that the group "has clearly articulated the role, value and contribution of higher education".
The Irish Universities Association said a "do nothing approach" is not tenable.
"The report is an excellent example of evidence-based policy making and clearly illustrates the crisis in higher education funding - and the pathway towards a solution," it said.
But Opposition parties criticised the loan scheme proposal. Sinn Féin said it would put forward its own proposals in its alternative budget. Labour said the scheme would add further pressure on young people, while the AAA/PBP said the report would create a "major, new political problem" for the Government.
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