Budget 2013 to raise student contribution fee by €250

Ian Curran

News Editor

Maintenance grant and student assistance fund likely to be spared; Fees up 333% in a decade, 278% since 2009

Third-level student contribution fees are set to rise in today’s budget by €250, bringing the total contribution from €2,250 to €2,500. The decision to increase the overall contribution is part of a government plan to incrementally increase the student contribution to €3,000 by 2015.

The government proposal before the budget indicated a €20m cutback in funding for the back-to-education allowance and an 11% cut to the student assistance fund. However, no cuts to the maintenance grant are expected.

The rise in the student contribution fee has been mooted for some time by the government, the first indication coming as early as 2011 when the minister for education and skills, Ruairi Quinn, told students at the University of Limerick that the then fee of €2,000 would “probably be increasing up to €3,000”.

At a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee on education and social protection on 19th September this year, Mr Quinn told TDs and senators that the €250 increase in the third-level contribution would result in an additional €18m for the exchequer, with the overall plan for the fee being to raise it to €2,750 by 2014, and then €3,000 by 2015. He informed attendees: “Some 42% of students in the university and third-level college system are in receipt of some form of grant, either the full grant and maintenance or a partial grant.”

Another scheme likely to be cut is the back-to-education allowance. According to a pre-budget submission prepared by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the €20m in savings that Mr Quinn is trying to make by changes to the allowance scheme will be “through major reforms and a clamp-down on eligibility”. The submission states that at least 25,000 people claimed the allowance this year, with “the numbers [having] risen by 250% in the past 10 years”. The USI said that any reform to the scheme should “not hinder the participation of these and future students in higher education”.

The government’s pre-budget proposals further indicated that the allocation for 2012-13 to the student assistance fund will be €8m, constituting an 11% cut. This is despite an increase in the number of students applying for it. The USI in their pre-budget submission advocated an increase to €12m in funding for a scheme they described as “oversubscribed”.

In 2007-08 the average student in receipt of the fund in University College Dublin was awarded €750, but this figure had dropped to €400 by 2010-11 due to cutbacks and increases in student numbers. The USI has stated that its own research suggests a further 12,000 students are going to require help from the fund, “further reducing the average reward”.

These follow substantial increases in fees for higher education in the last decade. In July 2002 the then minister for education and science, Noel Dempsey, increased the registration fee by 70% from €396 to €670. This was followed by a further increase to €750 in 2003.

Fees rose slowly between 2003 and 2009, when the fee jumped from €900 to €1,500, before being rebranded the “student contribution” and rising to €2,000 in 2010. Combined with today’s measures these increases total 333% in a decade and 278% since 2009, while they are a full 1,316% up from their 1995 level of €190.

Mr Quinn signed a pledge in Trinity in February 2011 binding him to opposing and campaigning against “any new form of third-level fees including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increase in the student contribution”.

However, less than 100 days later he announced plans to renege on the agreement and continue the incremental increase in upfront fees. The plan to incrementally increase the student contribution was reaffirmed in a speech on 22nd November when Mr Quinn said that there would be an increase to €3,000 by 2015 “to relieve some of the pressure on exchequer funding”.

The higher education sector faces a financial crisis on foot of a 10% fall in staffing and a 12% increase in student numbers over the past four years. Budget 2012 had seen a 2% cut in the core grant for higher education, from €1.3bn to €1.275bn, a total saving of €23.6m. However, the government’s 2011 strategy on higher education, the Hunt report, forecasted that this would need to rise to €1.8bn by 2020 and €2.25bn by 2030, “just to maintain current levels of resource-per-student”.

It advocated “widening the funding base” for higher education by reintroducing tuition fees in order to close the €500m funding gap. However, in November the Economic and Social Research Institute predicted a substantially lower increase in student enrolments, in line with recent department of education projections, by 2020. Its figures estimated that the funding gap was likely to be closer to €100m than €500m.

Today’s budget is taking place against a backdrop of 14.8% overall unemployment, according to the Central Statistics Office’s seasonally-adjusted data from the third quarter of this year. Unemployment within the 15-24 year old age bracket is now at 39%.

Additional reporting by Ruairí Casey and Gabriel Beecham.