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Fees are creeping back up – making it tough for families

As parents and students are well aware, the concept of free tuition fees in third-level education has gradually been eroded in recent years. When tuition fees were abolished in the middle of the 1990s, a small registration charge was introduced for costs other than tuition. As the years went by, the registration charge edged upwards, but since the start of our economic crisis the charge has risen steeply, from €900 in 2009, to €1,500 in 2010, to €2,000 in 2011, to €2,250 this academic year, 2012/13.

The Budget confirmed that the student contribution charge (formerly called the registration charge) would rise by €250 each year in 2013, 2014 and 2015, which will bring it up from €2,250 for this current academic year, to €3,000 in 2015/16.

Although the sum does not come near the true costs of tuition fees for any third-level course, it is more than the costs of equipment usage, administration fees and exam fees that the registration charge first envisaged.

The rise in the student contribution charge means that the costs of third-level education have again become a very significant expenditure for many families.

If a student's family income entitles them to maintenance grants, the contribution charge is normally covered in full or in part by the student support schemes. Maintenance grants are awarded subject to certain conditions relating to (1) family income, (2) the number of dependent children in a family, and (3) the distance of the family home from the college.

In another budgetary measure, the income grant thresholds for 2013/2014 will be decreased by 3pc.

The Department of Education and Skills estimates that approximately 8pc of the total estimated 80,000 grant recipients will be affected by the measure.

Meanwhile, as the month of December proceeds, intending applicants to CAO in 2013 should remember that, although the normal closing date for CAO is February 1, there is nothing to stop them applying earlier. In fact the CAO encourages applicants to apply early by offering a discounted application fee of €25 as opposed to the normal fee of €40 for applications received online by January 20.

Non-standard applicants in particular should not leave things to the last minute.

Non-standard applicants are those who are presenting with qualifications additional to or other than recent Irish Leaving Certificate results. They must complete page three of the CAO application form (or the equivalent section of the online application process), under one of the headings provided.

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The headings are: applicants (1) who are submitting GCE/GCSE exams, or (2) other school leaving exams including the Leaving Certificate Applied, or the Leaving Certificate before 1985, the NUI matriculation (which ended in 1992) or Trinity Matriculation exams before 2013, or pre-1996 Northern Ireland or British GC(S)E exams; or any exam taken outside of Ireland; (3) applicants with NCVA awards prior to the year 2002; (4) other further education awards other than FETAC Level 5/6 or NCVA Level 2/3; (5) applicants who have already attended a higher education institution; and (6) mature applicants (over 23 years of age).

Some HEIs require mature applicants to apply directly to them, so it is especially worth their while not to leave their application till the last minute. The calendar of open days for school leavers resumes even before the 12 days of Christmas are over The open day of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, is on January 3. Tickets required.