STUDENTS could be saddled with debts of up to €25,000 if a proposed new loans scheme is implemented.
he long-awaited Hunt Report on higher education said there were strong arguments in favour of individual contributions from students. It said the best method was a combination of means-tested grants and student fees, allied to a system of deferred repayment of student loans which would be contingent on the income of graduates.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, who launched the report yesterday, said it was not her intention that students should be left with an unmanageable debt burden upon graduation.
But students should make an equitable contribution to the overall cost of the significant economic advantage they gained from higher education.
The report recommended that her department set up an expert group to design an appropriate loans system, but the minister would not make a commitment.
Sources said around €500m could be needed to get a loans scheme off the ground and that the money could come from the European Investment Bank, which funds a similar scheme in some eastern European countries, or from the National Treasury Management Agency.
They also agreed the debts facing individual students could be as high as €25,000, depending on the course they are pursuing.
But the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) expressed concerns about a deferred payment scheme.
"With job prospects very slim, burdening young Irish men and women with large debts after their graduation will only serve to give qualified graduates a further incentive to emigrate," said USI president Gary Redmond. "With thousands of skilled graduates already emigrating every year, a deferred payment scheme will only reinforce the ongoing brain-drain."
The American Chamber of Commerce said an affordable contribution for third-level education would place a value on the education experience -- but there was a need to ensure that it did not reduce access.
The chamber also claimed the report did not address in any way the most pressing requirement in the current economic climate: the matching of skills output to the needs of industry and enterprise.
"We have a significant deficit in ICT skills, engineering, mathematics and the sciences and this issue has been recognised for many years by international research as well as by industry and government leaders in Ireland," it said.
"Yet educational institutions have failed to outline in a coherent and planned way how these deficits can be addressed."
Employers' body IBEC welcomed the recommendation of mergers of institutes of technology and the proposal to redesignate amalgamated institutes as technological universities.
Four institutes in Dublin have begun talks on such a proposal, as have the Cork and Waterford institutes. Sources said there could be four or five technological universities in a few years.
Ms Coughlan said initial work had been done on developing robust criteria for redesignation as technological universities, which will be published in late spring.