'Study now, pay later' proposal could see students repaying fees after graduation

Graduates may face debts of up to €20,000 under proposed loan scheme

Updated: 11.30am

Upfront college fees could be abolished under major changes to higher education funding proposed in a new report.

A student loan scheme is one of three alternative funding models recommended in the government-commissioned publication.  

The report suggests the system could see undergraduate tuition costs increasing to between €4,000 and €5,000 a year - a hike on the current €3,000 annual contribution charge - or up to €20,000 for a four-year course. 

Education would be free at the point of entry, with students repaying loans as graduates once their incomes reaches €26,000.

A predominantly state-funded system, in which fees would be abolished, is explored as another option. A third proposal is to increase government funding and retain the contribution charge at its current level.   

The expert group behind the report, chaired by former ICTU chief Peter Cassells, also recommends that funding for third-level colleges be linked to performance targets.

It proposes that institutions seeking additional funding be assessed on access rates for disadvantaged groups, flexible learning and the development of “innovative responses” to skills gaps.

Targets being considered to accompany future funding include:

  • Providing for 50,000 upskilling and reskilling places over the next five years to meet identified skills gaps
  • Increasing participation in higher education by the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups by over 7%
  • Introducing targets relating to improvements on gender equality 
  • Increasing the numbers of entrants studying on a flexible basis (online, part-time) by 25%
  • Increasing the number of students undertaking a work placement or work-based project as part of their course by 25%

Minister for Education Richard Bruton outlined details of the plan at the launch of the report this morning.

In a statement, he said the higher education sector is “at the heart of delivering on massive social and economic challenges”.

These, he said, include “better life opportunities for people from disadvantaged areas, training the skilled workers needed for a growing economy, and delivering major research and innovation projects to help solve the big problems of our time”.

“There are no easy solutions here but I believe that if we are to prosper and grow as a society and an economy we must build a consensus and make some big decisions in this area,” Mr Bruton said.

“‘Do nothing’ would be to fail future generations. I look forward to discussing these issues with colleagues in the Oireachtas and other stakeholders and building a plan that can deliver on our goals in this area."

Call for free education

The Union of Students in Ireland has hit out at the proposed loan scheme, however, calling for fees to instead be scrapped. 

“Free education is absolutely vital for intellectual progression, personal growth and career development. Information is power, so education is empowerment," said Annie Hoey, its president. 

Ms Hoey added that third-level fees in Ireland are the second highest in Europe, after the UK.

“Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all offer free education," she said.

"The registration fee in France is €180 - €2,820 cheaper than the Irish registration fee. Publicly-funded free education is not impossible. If it was, so many other countries in Europe wouldn’t offer it."

The Irish Federation of University Teachers has meanwhile called for increased direct government funding for colleges, pointing to increased student numbers and worsening student-staff ratios. 

“This report should serve as a major wake-up call to government and the political system generally that education funding can no longer be ignored," said Mike Jennings, its general secretary. 

“Countries like France, Austria and Sweden and already reversing education cuts introduced during the recession. The Department of Education here should do the same."