Student protest against fees at University of Limerick in 2016
Laois county councillors recently refused to back a nationwide campaign for free third level education, until they had time to think about it over Christmas.
Their decision came despite the urging of two Vice Presidents from the Union of Students of Ireland, who came to Laois County Council’s December meeting to explain why they are asking the government to fund free third level education.
The two student union representatives outlined their concerns at the possible introduction of student loans in Ireland.
Those are loans that would be paid back only after the student graduates and begins working. It is one of three options suggested in the 2016 Cassells report on future financing of third level education in Ireland. The other options are for the government to either further subsidise costs, or to make third level education completely free.
The loan system would mean students would have to pay €5,000 per year for college fees, or €20,000 for a four year degree, but that would rise, the USI representatives warned.
“That goes up and up. Should loans come in, SUSI may end, and less and less people would go to college,” Jimmy McGovern, USI Vice President for the Midlands, Border and West told the Laois councillors.
He said that the seven Irish university presidents are advocating for the loan system.
“They know more money would come in to them, but SIPTU, IMPACT, the TUI and INTO are all members of our coalition, which is campaigning for the publically funded model,” he said.
Mr McGovern said the loans would make third level education “a privilege rather than a right”.
“Education is an investment, for every €1 the government would spent, it would get €4 back in taxes, because third level graduates in Ireland are likely to earn three times as much,” he said.
Amy Kelly, USI Vice President for Campaigns told them that Ireland already has the second highest third level fees in Europe.
“The system needs an immediate investment by 2021 or our education system will collapse. Grant payments have fallen by 20.4 percent but there is a 30 percent increase in numbers attending third level. Ten out of 14 ITs are in chronic financial difficulty,” she said.
The pair outlined how in Germany third level education costs students just €250 per annum in fees, but it has the lowest unemployment rate. They suggest that multinational corporations based in Ireland should pay more tax to cover Irish education costs.
“We should be collecting €150m per year from corporations, their taxes should be higher,” said Ms Kelly.
The union was formally asking Laois County councillors to pass a motion calling on the government to affirm its commitment to free education for all citizens, and to reject any income contingent loans.
Cllr Jerry Lodge suggested a middle ground.
“I would like to discuss this further and tease it out. It would be reasonable to expect a graduate would pay back some of the cost, for a more equitable solution,” he said.
The Cathaoirleach Cllr Padraig Fleming proposed that it be submitted as a motion at their January meeting, because the normal procedure for motions is to be given two weeks notice.
Mr McGovern urged them not to delay.
“Tipperary, Longford, Waterford and Limerick county councils have all passed this motion. The Cassells report is out since July 2016. The Oireachtas is split on it, but their decision could be made at any point. Mr Varadkar said he would not see students in an enormous amount of debt, but that could mean a small debt. We are happy to return again but if it goes past January it could come to an Oireachtas vote,” the union rep said.