Minister coy over future of third-level funding


The newly installed minister for education, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, today ducked the chance to lay out a vision for the future funding of third-level education in Ireland.

In a speech this afternoon at an Irish Universities Association (IUA) symposium, the minister notably failed to endorse either higher student fees or exchequer spending to meet the growing demand for higher education.

O’Sullivan told attendees that education in “Ireland still faces a very significant challenge in the years ahead.” She added that there was “not one simple solution” to the anticipated funding crisis in the sector and called for “rigorous debate and deliberation [that] will serve to shine a light on this complex task.”

Speaking to the Irish Examiner earlier today, she insisted she would wait until the findings of an expert group were made public next year but denied she intended to delay making a decision until after the 2016 election.

Her silence stands in contrast to the Labour Party’s stance on fees in the previous Dáil where it vocally opposed fees and campaigned in the last election on a pledge to maintain them at the then rate of €1,500 a year.

Despite this pledge, her predecessor, Ruairi Quinn, set in train the incremental increases in the student contribution that will see them reach €3,000 by 2015.

Her timidity in laying out her funding preference for the sector contrasts with that of Provost Patrick Prendergast, who at the same symposium reiterated his calls for the retention of student fees.

He insisted that “equity of access” should be a priority for the sector and denied the charge that third level fees had affected social mobility in Ireland, insisting that “abolishing fees did not bring about greater social mobility.”

However, support for fees is not universal among third-level teaching staff, with the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) only last month calling for increased state investment for the sector.

In a report issued to the government, they rejected calls for higher fees, citing “compelling international evidence… that this is a very dangerous option in view of the negative effects on participation levels.”

They instead appealed for “visionary approach to our [funding] crisis” and called for the further state spending as a way to increase economic growth and secure the sector’s long-term viability.

At present, only Sinn Féin and a number of independent TDs officially back the abolition of third-level fees. Both the government parties and Fianna Fáil remain committed to some form of student contribution.

James Wilson

News Editor