The cost of funding the higher education sector will need to increase by €600 million a year by 2021 stated the Cassells Report, which was released today.
The report, officially titled “Investing in National Ambition” has said colleges and universities will need an extra €2,875 million a year to continue to meet demand and compete internationally. The sourcing of this figure however can vary between levels of direct public funding, employer’s contributions, retaining the existing student contribution charge, or introducing a student loan scheme.
The groups chair, Peter Cassells, said today that the funding crisis facing Ireland’s third-level system is stark. “We are going to require heavy levels of investment in education to get beyond the crisis that we have been in in recent years. What’s not possible is to stick with the status quo. As it is at the moment our system will continue to deteriorate and we wouldn’t be doing our children any favours at all, a key part of this is to try and get a fair balance between all beneficiaries.
The Three Options
The College Tribune and other media outlets revealed the leaked three options the report was set to outline earlier this year, but today the three funding options were officially released:
Option 1 would be a predominately state-funded system.
Option 2 would be to increase the state funding into higher eductaion but keep the current student contribution charge of €3,000.
Option 3 then would be to introduce an income contingent student loan scheme that charges students either 4k or 5k per year of study, to be paid back later when they start earning over €26,000 a year.
The level of public funding put into higher education over the three options would vary significantly. Currently the state funds 64% of the higher education system, and a free fee’s model would see the state move to cover 80% of the total third-level cost.
But the loan scheme option would in fact see the percentage of money put into higher education each year by the state decrease. If a loan scheme was brought in to charge students 4k a year the state would only be responsible for meeting 60% of higher education funding, and this would fall further to 55% under a 5k a year loan system. The report details these loan plans could either be interest free, or potentially charge students 2% interest on their loans.
Contributions from Businesses
Businesses and employers would be asked to contribute an extra €150 million per year into the existing National Training Fund, to be put into the higher education sector. In return for the proposed influx in funding colleges would have to undertake reforms in terms of efficiency and performance. The report details that colleges would be expected to increasingly gear their courses and offerings towards employment openings and the demand of the market.
Peter Cassells confirmed that if employers and businesses were to contribute more to the sector they would be getting a greater say in the running of third-level education. “In return you need employers to be in a position to identify what the skill needs are, what type of research they want, what sort of development they want, and have a bigger say in how the system is operating.”
The immediate revision of the government’s capital investment plan for 2016-2021 should also be undertaken to see an extra 5.5 billion ring fenced for the development and maintenance of campuses. According to the report this would alleviate the need for Ireland’s college authorities to rely on “philanthropic donations” to develop campus facilities, such as businessman Dennis O’Brien’s contributions towards building UCD’s O’Brien Science Centre.
Education Minister Richard Bruton said the task now is to find common political ground on the report’s suggestions and to put together a sustainable solution to the funding crisis in education. “None of the options are easy. I hope that we can, through the political system, build a consensus, so that as we look out over the next decade we can have in place something that is robust” the Minister stated.
“I’d like to see the debate happen over the coming months, so as Peter said perhaps this budget is too soon. But certainly as we look to the following budget  after that we would have the emergence of a consensus. I think that’s realistic” said Minister Bruton.
The Union of Students in Ireland has said free fees is the best option for students upon the report’s release this morning. The new USI President Annie Hoey said that “publicly-funded higher education is the only long-term practical solution the Cassells report can suggest.”
She continued to say a loan scheme in Ireland would be a disaster. “Quite apart from the horrific prospect of students faced with the accumulation of tens of thousands of euros of personal debt, the loan system in the UK has been a comprehensive failure” she argued.
The report’s own analysis of the free fees option highlights however that comparatively countries who have such a system have higher levels of taxation than Ireland. Scandinavia for example collect tax levels close to 40% of GDP, with Ireland’s tax revenue standing at just 30% of GDP. The analysis of the report in summing up the options highlights the benefits of a loan scheme in terms of access to education and affordability from the state’s perspective.
The report will now be submitted to the all-party education Oireachtas commission to consider its suggestions and put forward a plan to meet the oncoming funding crisis in higher education.
Jack Power, Editor