The government is referring proposals for third level education funding models to the European Commission for an economic analysis, including the option of a student loan scheme.
Last year, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor stated that the question of student loans was “off the table” under the existing Government’s leadership, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that US or UK-style loan schemes will not be implemented in Ireland.
A student loan scheme is one of three options for funding higher education outlined in the Cassells Report, a report on the future of funding higher education published in 2016. In addition to student loans, the report detailed alternative funding models including the increase of state funding from 64% to 80%, or entirely state-funded higher education.
The Department of Education has applied to the European Commission’s structural reform support programme, which would analyse the three funding options. The process is expected to take at least a year, delaying any decision on higher education funding.
The loan scheme outlined in the Cassells Report would involve students accessing third level education without charge at the point of access, and repaying fees after graduation when their incomes reach a specific threshold.
Since the publication of the Cassells Report, there has been no decisive move on the future of higher education funding. The Oireachtas Education Committee says it called on the Department of Education to perform a cost assessment of the three recommendations in January 2018 before any of the options were enacted.
Students have expressed discontent at the prospect of student loans, with marches in the last number of years drawing students from across the country. Former Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Michael Kerrigan called the loan scheme as outlined in the Cassells report a “drastic increase in fees from €3,000 to €5,000 a year in disguise”.
“The moment we accept higher fees and a loan scheme, we are saddling people with a minimum of €20,000 of debt and forcing them to emigrate,” Kerrigan continued.