Editorial: 'Vow on college fees welcome but plans for funding needed'
Going to college is expensive so Education Minister Joe McHugh's promise to freeze fees for the next five years will be welcomed by students and their parents. A similar promise has already been made by Fianna Fáil so we can be reasonably sure that fee rises won't happen for the foreseeable future.
This will not be the last heard from politicians about fees, as others seek to undercut the 'freeze' promises of the two big parties.
In 2017 both Labour and Sinn Féin promised to phase out the €3,000 annual fees altogether and they will certainly trot out those pledges again.
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Significantly, the minister has also ruled out a loan scheme which would be accompanied by higher fees but that leaves unanswered this question - how do we fund higher education?
That there is a funding crisis was acknowledged in the National Risk Assessment 2019, published by the Government this month.
It referred to the worrying downward trend of Irish universities in international rankings "attributed mainly to post-recession underinvestment in the sector".
It agreed that our higher education institutions have been central to differentiating Ireland's talent pool in an international context, aiding the establishment of a successful entrepreneurship ecosystem, growing indigenous and multi-national enterprises and continuing to aid attractiveness to foreign direct investment.
It warned of the risks of failing to continue to reinvest in the system.
The report said that demand for third-level places will rise from 184,000 two years ago to a peak of 220,000 by 2030.
And let's not forget the impact of Brexit. There are about 11,000 students from the Republic studying in UK universities.
Will the equivalent numbers be there in five years' time? If they enrol in colleges in Ireland, how will those extra places be funded?
Mr McHugh seems unable to give reasonable answers to these questions, other than to promise yet another "gathering of stakeholders".
Successive governments have kicked the funding can down the road so often it has been bent out of shape. And still nobody will take a real decision about funding.
The minister said at the weekend that "the ultimate solution and the driving force will come from the autonomy of the third-level colleges".
Yet the universities believe that very autonomy is under threat by the planned scrapping of the long-established Higher Education Authority (HEA). It will be replaced by a new commission which could have a much stronger regulatory role and a much weaker advocacy role than the HEA has at present.
For all its faults, the HEA has been an effective buffer between the higher education institutions and the Department of Education. Whether or not it remains so depends on the final shape of the Government's draft changes which are currently out for consultation.