Today could be a hugely important one for this country if it leads to the reversal of the long-running decline in funding third-level education. The Cassells report represents the first serious effort to engage with what's needed to finance higher education. It is no exaggeration to say the response will determine Ireland's economic future.
We have certainly waited a long time for this day. The work on the report began two years ago, and is being officially released today under Richard Bruton's tenure as Minister for Education and Skills.
It will now be sent to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and we will engage in a national debate on how best to fund third-level education in an era of rapidly rising demand for college places. The scale of that demand is awesome.
Between 1997 to 2007, around 65,000 students applied to the CAO annually -but the figure has been rising rapidly since. This year, more than 80,000 students are applying. Because of Ireland's growing young population, Cassells calculates we need to provide 212,000 college places by 2028 just to maintain the current participation rate. That's a 28pc increase on today's numbers.
The report has plenty to say on the key contribution of higher education to Ireland's social and economic development. But it says this contribution can no longer be taken for granted because of the funding crisis. We must not ignore that warning.
Unfortunately, because universities have put their best foot forward to attract foreign students, there is still a perception that the sector has escaped the worst of the funding cuts. Unfortunately the opposite is true - they have had the worst cuts. And they are subject to the heaviest regulation in terms of fee caps controlling revenue and public sector staffing regulations affecting costs. One of the clearest messages from the report is that the system has been bled dry. It is on the threshold of a disastrous drop in quality.
That slide has already begun; we see it in the rankings of our universities. We are now one of very few countries where the State spends more on educating a student at secondary level than at third level, even when the €3,000-plus registration fees are included.
The expert group has concluded, with no ifs or buts, that cost-saving measures have been taken to the limit. The symptoms have been described - but what of the cure? We need a reasoned debate with time limits. Otherwise, to use a medical analogy, we run the risk that the patient could slip into a coma as the doctors differ.
The Cassells prescription is for a mixture of a greater contribution from the students once they graduate, more State funding and a small increase in the training levy on employers. This solution acknowledges that education is both a public good and a private good - something than benefits both society and the individual.
The report goes further in calling for a loan system to lend money to students at a low rate of interest to help pay for their education. Students would leave college with debt that would have to be repaid once they began earning above a certain level - called income-contingent student loans.
Once the debt is reasonable, I think it is a fair system. After all, many parents have to borrow to fund their children's education already. A student loan system would reduce borrowing costs and ensure payment only fell due when the student can afford to pay. Irish graduates have a higher earning 'premium' than graduates in most other developed countries. In other words, they earn significantly more over their lifetime than if they had not attained a third-level qualification.
I would hesitate to champion a loan scheme if it prevented the less well-off from attending university, but evidence from other countries shows that loans level the playing field. Likewise there is no evidence that abolishing fees improved attendance rates among the disadvantaged. It was, it seems, just a swizz to attract votes. In my view, more funding will be the best remedy for disadvantage by allowing the State to target those who need help.
How best to fund third-level education should be a matter for public discussion. The funding comes from society from both fees and taxation. The advantages of a world-class system will be felt by everybody in society. It is great news that today marks the beginning of that debate but it cannot drag on indefinitely. The sector has been weakened by years of political neglect.
We should now set a deadline to ensure that the Cassells report does not become the subject of endless debate and instead leads to decisions that will allow universities and other institutions to plan confidently for the future based on a new and sustainable funding model.
Patrick Prendergast is Provost of Trinity College and a chartered engineer