'Study now, pay later' considered to tackle crisis in third-level funding
Higher third-level fees funded through a student loan system is the frontrunner in options being considered by an expert group, which was set up to advise the Government on how to finance the soaring cost of college education.
It estimates that the current €2bn annual funding must rise by €1bn over the next decade or so, if Ireland wants to deliver quality education for growing numbers of college entrants.
But a key message is that everyone who benefits from higher education - society, students and employers - has to share the extra cost, effectively contributing more.
The report pulls no punches about the "urgent need for a reformed funding system".
But in order to soften the blow for families, the group leans heavily towards a 'study now, pay later' system.
This means students would not pay fees up front, but would instead reimburse the State once their income hits a certain level following graduation.
The expert group has prepared a detailed paper for a "constructive and realistic discussion on the options", which will be considered at a round-table session tomorrow.
It will involve all the stakeholders in higher education, including student leaders, parents' representatives, colleges, employer organisations and government departments.
The paper is wide-ranging but tellingly, at one point, it states: "In principle, the case for Government-backed loans is strong."
Such loans - which, in some countries cover living costs as well as fees - are a feature of many higher education systems. The report says they are designed to overcome the high initial costs by spreading the financial load across working life.
Tomorrow's consultation is the final one before the group, headed by Peter Cassells, former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions, presents its final advice to Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan.
With an election due early next year, realistically, it will fall to the next government to decide what to do about the third-level funding, including the thorny question of fees.
There will be no change to the student contribution regime next September, with a commitment to retain fees at the current €3,000 a year.
But Mr Cassells' final report will lay the foundations for a new debate on who should pay for higher education, and is likely to become a key election issue.
The discussion paper does not deal with the issue of fees, but the introduction of an income-contingent loan system would facilitate an increase in the student contribution.
Spending on higher education in Ireland is below the average in the developed world and significantly below what is spent in Finland, the US, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.
In his foreword, Mr Cassells states that the "status quo is not sustainable, current funding levels are insufficient".
He says that change must deliver a higher education experience equal, if not better than, that of our neighbouring countries and competitors, while affordable for all.
He acknowledges that, while higher education is under pressure, so too are households and students.
These pressures were "seriously threatening the ability of our sons and daughters to gain the knowledge and develop the capabilities that will enable us to realise our national goals".
Mr Cassells says that it will pose difficult questions and will require difficult decisions, and that it is incumbent on all involved to work collectively.
He states that, while the discussion should look to international systems for guidance and ideas, the solution must embrace Irish values.
The discussion document relies heavily on a paper on the funding scenario for higher education in other countries, prepared for the group by an international expert, Bahram Bekhradnia, who is president of the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute.