Student loans scheme would cost graduates up to €40 a week
A student loan scheme is now formally on the table as an option for tackling the third- level funding crisis.
It could result in graduates paying back, on average, between about €25-40 a week over a 15-year period.
The "study now, pay later" proposal would mean no upfront fees, but graduates would repay the cost of their degree once their earnings reached a certain level.
The report has been submitted to the Department of Education, but with time running out for minister Jan O'Sullivan it seems likely that it will fall to her successor, and the next government, to decide how to act on its findings.
It presents a new "hot potato" for negotiations on the formation of a new administration, as it insists that the issue of increased funding for higher education cannot be ignored.
The prospect of student loans has already provoked much controversy, because of fears that it would become a stalking horse for higher fees.
But an income-contingent student loan scheme is described as one of three "credible and feasible" options in the final report from an expert group set up to consider ways of meeting the rising cost of higher education.
Another option would be a system predominantly funded by the State, which would involve the abolition of the existing student contribution - which is currently €3,000 a year.
The third scenario is based on the existing funding model, with continuing upfront student contributions at €3,000 a year - and a considerable increase in what the State pays.
The expert group was headed by Peter Cassells, a one-time general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
It says higher education needs an extra €1bn a year on top of its current funding level of €1.7bn, about €1.1bn of which is paid by the State, in direct grants and in fees for low-income students.
The report sets out the strengths and weaknesses of the three options, all of which would involve a significant increase in State funding, but to varying degrees.
Currently, the Exchequer contributes about 64pc of the cost of higher education but the introduction of a student loan scheme would reduce that to about 60pc.
Continuing with the existing funding model would see State portion rise to 72pc, while a system predominantly funded by the Exchequer would increase its share to about 80pc.
All options include an increase in the employer training levy and a significant improvement in student supports and maintenance grants.
In opting for an income-contingent loan scheme, the final report rules out the alternative, mortgage-type loan scheme where repayment is required, regardless of income, and which has caused massive students debt in the US.
It was not the job of the expert group to make any recommendation in relation to fees, but the report sets out a examples of repayment terms, based on students paying €3,000, €4,000 and €5,000 a year, leading to debts of €12,000, €16,000 or €20,000 over a four year degree programme.
The use of €5,000 at the upper end of the range of examples implies that this is the limit of any increase in annual fees envisaged by the expert group.
The report also recommends a form of independent fee regulation.