“Ambitious” plan to reduce the financial burden on students

Future budgets will increase the amount of public funding for the third tier and reduce the cost burden on students and their families, according to a new policy approved by the government yesterday.

As part of ‘Funding the Future’, the financial cost to students will be reduced ‘over time’ through changes to the scholarship program and tuition fees.

A core funding gap of €307 million will be filled with funding provided in addition to what is needed to meet future population growth and new policy proposals.

Although no time frame has been set by which this target will be achieved, a spokesman for the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, said that his preference was for the deficit to be made up over the next three years.

Mr Harris said the plan was “ambitious”, but cost could not and should not be a barrier to access to education.

“I have every intention of easing the pressure on families and listening to the pleas of our younger generations. Measures to reduce the cost of education via changes to the Student Grant Scheme and the student contribution will be on the table for future budgets.”

Mr Harris said the new policy settled the question of future funding for the sector and confirmed that any introduction of a student loan scheme was “out of order”.

The proposal for a student loan system with higher tuition fees was one of three options put forward in a 2016 government-commissioned report on future funding for the sector, known as the Cassells report.

While the academic sector was supportive of this option, the proposal was seen as highly politically sensitive, and in recent years a number of education ministers as well as other government leaders have publicly ruled it out.

A rally organized on tuition fees in 2016 (source RTÉ)

Minister Simon Harris said the planned investment of €307m (which would be on top of the current €2bn annual spending on higher education here) will focus on improving the quality of programs , outcomes and the provision of a third level education system that is accessible to everyone in society.

The minister also confirmed that he would chair a new watchdog group to drive the reforms.

The group will focus on creating a unified system and improving the pathways between college and higher education. It will be co-chaired by Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney.

The Higher Education Reform Implementation Review Group will ensure that investments are used effectively. According to the Minister, it will focus on improving the quality of programs and learning outcomes with better verification of outcomes and costs to ensure value for money.

Over the past ten years, the number of students attending further and higher education in Ireland has increased significantly.

In 2010, Ireland had 200,000 students enrolled in publicly funded higher education institutions.

By 2020, that number had risen to 245,000. The Ministry of Higher and Higher Education says that since 2016, public investment in the sector has increased by more than 40%.

The ministry said the new funding model will be a mix of additional investment from the Treasury, contributions from employers through the National Training Fund and contributions from students.

The current undergraduate fee for students is €3,000.

However, the Minister signaled his intention to review the student contribution with the aim of reducing it over time, “subject to budgetary processes”.

In terms of reforms, the government has identified a number of strategic outcomes as priorities. They include a closer link between the existing higher education, higher education and research sectors, as well as more people from underrepresented groups attending higher education.

It also wants to reduce the student-to-academic staff ratio to comparable EU and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) standards.

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