Wednesday 13 December 2017

Monday Interview: 'Universities need to charge an extra €2,000 a year per student'

Maynooth president wants Government help to cover increase, writes Katherine Donnelly

Professor Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University. Photo: Keith Arkins
Professor Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University. Photo: Keith Arkins
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Universities need to charge an extra €2,000 per student a year to fund their education properly, according to Maynooth University president, Professor Philip Nolan.

He added that students and the Government should share that extra cost evenly, through the introduction of the proposed income-contingent loan scheme.

The loan idea has proved controversial and has triggered concerns, including that it would be a stalking horse for a rampant increase in third-level fees, which currently stand at €3,000 a year.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is among the organisations opposed to the proposal.

Prof Nolan said he supported a system of price regulation "to ensure that universities don't exploit this by driving fees too high." He told the Irish Independent that the Oireachtas Education Committee, which is currently examining the issue of future funding of higher education, should not to rule out the loan idea until it can be explored fully.

The Maynooth president said "people may then disagree with it, but it would be a disaster if people were reacting to an incomplete idea or to an inaccurate perception of an idea".

A loan scheme would involve the Government borrowing to cover the upfront cost of college and graduates paying back, at a low interest rate, once their income hit a certain threshold.

Prof Nolan said students were already paying a contribution and "broadly speaking an income contingent loan model would be a fairer way for students to make that contribution".

The benefits would include making college free at the point of entry, and so removing the financial burden from families, while allowing the State recoup some or all of the cost from graduates "who are successful in terms of making money", he said.

Much of the opposition is rooted in fears that graduates will be saddled with enormous debts, similar to what has happened in the UK and US, where some universities have raised fees to very high levels.

Prof Nolan said fee increases in the UK, to up to £9,000 (€10,700) a year, should not have been allowed to happen and "legitimate concerns" had been expressed, one which was about the possibility of fees "sky-rocketing" in Ireland.

He said: "It would very negative if fees in our system were to reach UK levels and extraordinary if they were to reach levels that we see in some US universities. It is essential to the success of this proposal in Ireland that there is proper regulation of undergraduate fees, similar to the way in which energy regulator operates."

Supporting

Prof Nolan said universities spent about €7,000 on individual arts students in 2015.

"We are spending about €2,000 a year less than we should be - we need to be spending about €9,000," he said.

He said what was in the minds of those supporting a loan scheme was an increase from €3,000 to €4,000 in the student contribution, and a rise from €4,000 to €5,000 in the State spend per student.

Concerns have also been raised about the non-repayment of loans and the Maynooth president acknowledged that an allowance for loan default would have to be built in "because the reality was the State would not recover all costs".

He said that "if the State has to give education for free to a certain cohort, a cohort who, for one reason or another, don't earn a lot of money, that is perfectly fair. It would be a much fairer mechanism of who should get it for free than the current situation of looking at one family's income at one point in time".

What was important, he said, was to tailor a scheme suited to Ireland's culture and needs.

"We cannot take an off-the-shelf solution from somewhere else. We need to be creative, we need to brainstorm a little bit as a country," he added.

The Cassells Report on future funding of higher education says about €600m a year more is needed by 2021, and more after that, to maintain quality and cater for growth in numbers.

The loan proposal is a feature of one of three funding options outlined in the report - the others involve the State paying the entire cost of third-level, or a continuation of the status quo, where fees are paid at point of entry. An increased contribution by employers is also envisaged.

Education Minister Richard Bruton referred the report to the Oireachtas Education Committee to try to find political consensus. Third-level College presidents and student union leaders are among those who have met the committee.

Prof Nolan said that even if the committee thought a loan scheme might not work, he hoped it would "make a recommendation that the option should at least remain open" so that detail could be worked through.

"If politicians and the people they represent cannot be convinced that it is a good idea, that is one thing," he said.

"However, if people react because we haven't set it out properly, that would be a shame."

Prof Nolan said he believed the State alone was not going to be able to afford to fund a world-class education system to which it aspired and the problem with maintaining the status quo was that many families could not afford upfront fees.

"This is a question about us deciding who should pay for the best possible higher education system that we can afford in a way that is as inclusive as it can possibly be," he said.

He said the four pillars of a new funding system should be: free at the point of entry, a contribution from graduates, focused financial aid for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a higher contribution from employers.

Irish Independent

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