'We want to ease college costs burden'
Joe McHugh opens up on student fees and the internal Government battle over school bus places, writes Philip Ryan
The receptionist in the Department of Education almost whispers "he's very down to earth" as the Sunday Independent waits to be called to Education Minister Joe McHugh's office for a rare interview with.
You would wonder if previous incumbents of the office were possibly not as grounded as the affable Donegal man or indeed ministers in general.
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McHugh is only 10 months in the job after landing the ministry in a Cabinet reshuffle following the resignation of Denis Naughten over the National Broadband Plan. He succeeded Richard Bruton who was parachuted into Mr Naughten's Department of Communications.
The realities of McHugh's new portfolio have already resulted in him attacking Paschal Donohoe's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which he accuses of blocking his plan to resolve the annual school bus seats crisis.
But McHugh's approach to some of the other thorny issues facing the education sector is quite hands off - which may worry some people - but he insists this is the best approach.
For instance, he makes a bold commitment to freeze college fees if Fine Gael is returned to power after the next general election and completely rules out the introduction of a long-touted student loan system to fund the black hole in the university sector.
However, he seems short of ideas when it comes to where the money will come from to ensure universities can continue to provide the high standard of eduction we expect of them.
Asked directly if Fine Gael would increase fees if in government for another five years, Mr McHugh says: "No, in terms of increasing fees or even putting up student loans, we have to look at the overall pressures on parents and see how to make it easier rather than [adding] to the pressures they are under already."
So that's a guarantee that parents will not have to spend more than €3,000 a year on fees? "We have no plans to increase that, absolutely," he adds.
It's great news for parents facing sky-rocketing student accommodation fees and all the other costs associated with sending your nearest and dearest to college.
However, it will be of huge concern to universities and other third-level institutions struggling to educate the nation's students under current budget restraints.
So what's the minister's plan there? He says he has been "bringing the stakeholders together", which is Government speak for a talking shop, and insists the solution for the funding crisis will come from the universities rather than the Government.
"The ultimate solution and the driving force will come from the autonomy of the third-level colleges. Big decisions will then have to be made around funding at a national exchequer level but national exchequer funding, the taxpayer, won't be the total solution for universities," he says.
McHugh is putting the responsibility for the funding gap at the feet of the university chiefs but at the same time says he is "disappointed" that they have increased the cost of student accommodation.
"I understand that universities make a lot of investment and they have their own costs and all that but I am disappointed that there has been an increase," he says.
He also warns that the big name third-level education institutions in Dublin, Cork and Galway could soon be facing competition from regional Institutes of Technology which will have university status.
He's initially less than forthcoming on his views on the teaching of LGBT rights in primary and secondary school. An Oireachtas Education Committee last year recommended that all schools, including those run by religious orders, should teach students about LGBT relationships and abortion services.
Mr McHugh is reluctant to discuss his views because he has set up a consultation process on the report and says he would also like to be led by a student and parent charter he recently brought to Cabinet which he says will empower children to make decisions about what happens in their schools.
But surely as a Cabinet minister in a Government led by the country's first gay Taoiseach he has views on what should or should not be taught in the country's schools?
The minister relents and says: "Well, my own point of view is we are living in a changed country at the moment, we are living in a changed society, an inclusive society
"One of the things I've observed ultimately from my time in this job and going into the classrooms is that an inclusive approach and whether it is LGBT, whether it is learning about the outcomes of the same-sex marriage and the aspects that followed from this referendum we have to follow through on the wishes of society, and the wishes of society in this country is an all-inclusive society respecting diversity.
"We are a pluralist society and at the heart of that is not to allow people feel marginalised and as minister my ultimate objective is one of inclusion, it is not to marginalise any group or any voice," he adds.
The annual demand for school bus seats is an area of his work on which he is more than happy to give his views.
The minister insists he has a solution to the problem, which sees hundreds of students miss out on school bus places every year, but says he is facing major resistance from Paschal Donohoe's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
He also believes the department's opposition to his proposal is not in keeping with the Government's over-arching commitment to climate action, as it is forcing more and more parents to drive their children to school every day. "I'm not looking for extra resources, I can get it from within my existing budget, but my concern is that we have the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform encroaching into policy decisions in my department which I believe are not in keeping with the climate change agenda," the minister says.
The schools bus issue centres on a lottery system for assigning seats to students who do not live in the catchment area for the school they are attending.
These students have to apply for what are called concessionary places which are assigned only after children who live closer to the school are given seats. In recent years, hundreds of students missed out on places.
The system is also forcing parents to enrol their children in schools near their homes which do not have the capacity for extra students.
Mr McHugh says his solution would only add an additional €4m a year to the €200m annual school transport budget but Mr Donohoe's department is insisting on implementing a 2011 cost-saving programme.
The minister says the policy would see more than 30,000 students lose out on school bus places which would in turn significantly increase the number of cars on the road. He says the policy is causing "detrimental change" and is putting the country in "dangerous territory" in terms of climate action.
"What I'm saying is if we are serious about climate change we should be putting more children on buses, not less," he says.
Asked what his solution is, the minister said: "The solution quite simply is where you have a 30-seater and you could have eight or nine extra people who can't fit on that 30-seater bus you get them a bigger bus.
"This goes back to a bit of common sense and if we don't provide those places for eight or nine or a dozen people that's eight or nine or a dozen individual cars having to drive those students to school or they will have to go to their nearest school where they would have an eligible pass and the school wouldn't have the capacity," he adds.
The minister says the upcoming budget will be "rigid" when it comes to extra spending but insists investment in extra school transport places should be an "imperative".