UCD President Andrew Deeks spoke to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills on November 10th of last year. The committee is looking into the options for funding higher education proposed by the expert Cassells’ report last summer.
President Deeks told the committee about the benefits of a student loan schemes, as a possible scheme to help students pay for college and also help reduce the college dropout rate. According to the latest figures by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) the rate was around 16% for 2012/2013.
Professor Deeks gave the Australian loan model as a potential example for Ireland. He explained how the Australian student loan scheme was actually called a ‘higher education contribution scheme’. Deeks then referred to how income contingent loan schemes did not burden people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and increased retention rates. Commenting on how when the system was totally free, he indicated that many students didn’t fully think about if they were suited to third level and didn’t think through their course choice enough. Speaking further to the committee on the issue, he insisted that this led to many students ‘drifting into university’. The creation of a debt to the state made Australian students think more about their choices of course and ultimately led to a decreased dropout rate. He used this example to reason that the state, the student and employers all need to contribute to student education. Mr Deeks then referred to how there were no Irish universities in the top 200 universities in ‘The Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings’ published in September 2016. This later turned out to be wrong as Trinity College is now in fact 130th on the list after a computer formatting problem led them to being placed outside the top 200 by mistake. The results were fixed on February 10th, four months after President Deeks’ comment.
He commended their ‘good grant and bursary systems’ enables those from lower socio-economic backgrounds afford university costs. Deeks then continued by stating that the Australian system calculated what the programme would cost to operate and what the benefits of it would be to the students. As such the prices set for loans are different for Arts compared to Science. However, he then told the committee how the scheme had started off well but after 30 years the cost and economic return continues to be varied. Speaking about how the UK opted for a flat rate system, Deeks stated that although it initially caused concern, people began to realise that it had no real impact and that there was actually an ‘increase in participation from lower socio-economic groups’. He then concluded by saying that people began to see the system as fair and that ‘’it also had a positive impact on retention rates’.
The Students Union’s stance:
UCDSU do not currently have a position on student loan schemes however there will be a referendum on the Students Union’s position on student loan schemes in March. It will be held alongside the Executive elections and will consist of three options. An income contingent loan scheme, the revival of a ‘free fees’ initiative with a slightly lower student contribution charge and finally a continuation of the current policy. Speaking to the College Tribune, UCDSU’s education officer Lexi Kilmartin stated that they will be determined to see that whatever choice the government makes about loan schemes, that it does not place undue financial pressure on students and their families.
UCD Political Parties’ stance:
Sinn Féin UCD have stated that they are against a new student loan scheme stating that they believe ‘education is a right not a privilege’. Believing that instead of burdening students with loans they will be forced to pay back as soon as they leave college, Ireland should opt towards the examples of other EU countries like socialist Finland and Denmark who both have universities in the top 100 and several in the top 200 of The Times Higher Education Rankings. Both Finland and Denmark fund their universities and colleges through high general taxation.
Labour Youth in UCD have stated that they do not favour a graduate tax or a student loan model. They believe that exchequer funded third level employment is the best way to fund our education system and that this will make education freely accessible to all at the point of use. The UCD Labour chair Liam van der Spek referred to how Labour abolished university fees in 1996 and then claimed that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats went back on this when the economy collapsed in their hands.
Although it should be noted that these remarks come after the Labour Party’s Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn in the 2011 Fine Gael-Labour coalition made a notorious u-turn on student fees, where it was promised that fees would not increase. Since 2011 Ireland student fees have in fact doubled from 1,500 euros to €3,000 with both Quinn and his successor, Limerick TD Jan O’Sullivan as Education ministers.
The UCD Social Democrats have stated that the state needs to increase investment into higher education and that they would oppose a loan scheme, believing that it would only ‘shift the burden of funding third level education increasingly onto the shoulders of parents and students’. They concluded that they favour a strong third level sector that is publicly funded and affordable for everyone.
Ógra Fianna Fail have stated they would favour a loan scheme in the past, and launched a policy proposal on the issue last year. The UCD Kevin Barry Cumman FF branch argued then that a loan scheme would make education free at the point of entry, and proposed that a free fess system is unattainable given the current condition of the state’s finances.
UCD Young Fine Gael were unavailable for comment on their stance on student fees. The society chair has stated they are refusing to engage with the College Tribune, following reporting on their societies receipt of donations from a councillor and TD who they canvassed for in past elections.
Ronan O’Sullivan | Politics Writer