Education chiefs clash over loan scheme


The heads of the universities around the country are fighting about the benefits that may be provided to the third-level education sector with the new system. It’s called “study now, pay later”, and it can solve many troubles connected to student loans.

Yesterday, the two main higher education branches came to different sides on the matter, thinking whether it will or will not solve the troubles.

The opposition was created in front of the Oireachtas education committee that gathered there to discuss the project created by an expert group led by Peter Cassells. The Irish Universities Association (IUA) decided the project can really help student funding.

However, the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) decided to be opposite the new system. As their reason they have stated that the system would become a disincentive to the most part of IT students.

A report done by the group was published in July and suggested a scheme that would help gather additional €1 billion. This money will become a necessity for the third-level sector by 2030, along with the major investment programme of €5.5 billion.

Don Barry, the IUA president, said that the “study now, pay later” scheme had its merits. At a practical level it could allow for some increase in student contribution as it enabled the burden of paying fees to be spread over a long period, he said.

Professor Barry said that the expert group’s assessment of how fees of up to €20,000 could be repaid under such a scheme appeared to be affordable.

He insisted that students would only be required to repay loans when their income reached a certain level. “Poor people are not going to be repaying student debt,” he said.

He also noted that similar schemes in the UK and Australia had not resulted in any notable increase in third-level participation by people from a disadvantaged backgrounds.

In contrast to the IUA’s view, the THEA said that a student loan scheme would act as a disincentive to IT students as it would involve a transfer in the burden of providing funding away from the state and onto them.

“It would further compound existing inequalities in the wider society,” Ciarán Ó Catháin, THEA spokesman and president of Athlone IT, said.

“It may now be timely to make a commitment to provide free undergraduate education to all who seek it,” Professor Ó Catháin said.

He estimated that free education to ordinary bachelor degree level could be provided for an extra €45.7 million per annum.

The THEA accepted that some contributions from students might be appropriate for studies at higher levels.

The IT representatives said that the Cassells report had failed to highlight how average funding per student in the IT sector had fallen by 25 per cent since 2010 compared to 19 per cent for students at universities.

Professor Ó Catháin said that student numbers in the sector had grown by 30 per cent since 2008, during a period when the state grant had declined by 35 per cent.

The committee also heard Ned Costello, the IUA chief executive, express disappointment at the government’s new action plan for education, which he said appeared not to acknowledge the structural funding problem in the higher education sector.

Mr Costello told TDs and senators that he was surprised at the degree to which third-level education did not feature in the action plan.

Philip Nolan, the president of NUI Maynooth, said that reduced funding for the sector had resulted in major cutbacks to outreach programmes.

“When resources are constrained it is the vulnerable students who suffer most,” he told the committee.

The IUA also questioned why a surplus of €272 million in the National Training Fund, which is funded by employer contributions, was not being used to address the financial crisis in education.