Students have expressed relief this morning as the government announced that it is “not enthusiastic or inclined” to introduce a student loan scheme or raise student fees as it explores future options for higher education funding.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar explained he was “very reluctant” to increase the student contribution fee or to introduce a student loan scheme because of the “very large debts” graduates could face as a result.
“I just don’t want students graduating with massive debts like they do in England and the US,” said Varadkar.
“It’s hard enough to pay rent or save for a deposit without a big student loan to pay off also. I also see what happens in the US where people graduate with debts of 100k plus,” he continued. “It is inevitably passed on to the consumer in the form or higher costs for services — cost of seeing the doctor, cost of legal services, et cetera.”
In 2016, the Cassells Report detailed three options for how higher education could be funded in Ireland. These included student loans, making higher education free at the point of access with state funding increasing from 64% to 80%, or an entirely state-funded system in which students would receive free education.
The government submitted its options to the European Commission earlier this year. No development was expected for at least another year as the European Commission analyses the proposals.
Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) President Síona Cahill cautiously welcomed the announcement, stating: “The Taoiseach has finally spoken on the issue of student fees to access higher education after what has been a deafening silence. What we demand now is action, doing nothing is not an option.”
Cahill has requested an urgent meeting with Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor to discuss the matter.
Cahill emphasised that if “urgent action is not taken, there’s a real risk that today’s 7 and 8-year old primary school students will not have sufficient college places available to them in 2030”, citing demographic projections which anticipate an additional 40,000 students seeking access to third level. “Nor will the education system be of the standard they deserve and one which the economic future of our country undoubtedly relies on,” Cahill continued.
Last week, a series of “Fund the Future” rallies took place on college campuses across the country to call on the government to take action on the future of higher education funding.
Trinity students gathered in Front Square before marching to the Department of Education on Marlborough Street with chants of “when education is under attack, stand up, fight back” and “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts”.
Students pointed to increases in fees from €825 to €3000 over the last decade, cuts to SUSI grants, and reductions in student services as key reasons for the rally.