Former TCD student leader, who left school at 15, hits out at proposed loan scheme outlined in Cassels report
A senator who returned to education as a mature student after leaving school at 15 has said that a loan system would have stopped her from progressing to university.
Lynn Ruane, the former president of Trinity College Students’ Union, said that the student loan scheme proposed as a funding option in the Cassels report would have excluded her from third-level education as a lone parent.
The expert group on higher education funding, chaired by former ICTU chief Peter Cassells, recommended today that income-contingent loans be explored as a future funding model for the sector.
The group suggested that undergraduate fees could increase to between €4,000 and €5,000 a year under the proposed system - up from the current €3,000 annual contribution charge.
Education would be free at the point of entry, with students repaying tuition loans as graduates once their incomes reaches €26,000.
However, critics of such loan schemes argue that they place a disproportionate burden on students from low-income households.
Ms Ruane, who entered Trinity College through an access programme, told Newstalk.com that the prospect of accumulating debt would have dissuaded her from pursuing a degree.
“As a single mother from a disadvantaged background, debt is not something I would have been prepared to take on,” she said.
“I would have been thinking about needing to get a mortgage, pay rent, pay for childcare, for the kids’ activities, running a car.
“Being burdened with loans would have been way down my priority list - I would have wanted to take care of my family first.”
Many other students in precarious financial situations would be in the same position, she added.
Ms Ruane said any move towards loans or higher fees would risk creating a barrier to education for non-traditional students.
The only solution to the funding crisis faced by universities is a reinstatement of the public funding slashed by successive governments, she said.
The Cassels report did acknowledge arguments about the impact of loans on low-income students, who are not currently required to pay tuition costs.
Under the proposed loan scheme, such students would be obliged to make deferred payments after graduating.
The report also cited concerns about debt aversion among lower socioeconomic groups.
However, it said there was evidence from the UK and Australia that participation by these groups was “not adversely affected” by the introduction of income-contingent loans.
It referred also to research by the European Commission and others showing that when balanced with student supports, increased fees “do not necessarily have an overall negative impact” on enrollment rates.
Ms Ruane argues, however, that a loan scheme will give universities more leeway to hike fees and therefore lead to higher dropout rates.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has also hit out at the proposal, saying that free education is the only way to promote social mobility.
“An already broken loan system will only further fracture the structure of the Irish education system,” it said in a statement.
“It will push people further away from applying to college and increase dropout rates.”
The USI added that a similar system in the UK “crippled the government so much that it had to sell off its student loans” in 2013.
“In America, education is the most expensive strain on the country, second only to military spending,” the union said.
“In Australia, the nearest model to the suggested Irish loan scheme, there are huge emigration problems.
“These are not models we want to mimic in Ireland, especially given how debt-averse we have become as a nation.
“Quite apart from the horrific prospect of students faced with the accumulation of tens of thousands of euros of personal debt, the loan system in the UK has been a comprehensive failure, with almost a 50% non-repayment rate.
“In Australia, a loans system has had one in three dollars written off, creating an enormous hole in the general economy.”