Louise Mackey considers the inevitable reintroduction of third level fees.

The reintroduction of college fees continues to be an on-going controversial debate in Ireland. However, in my eyes it is not a matter of IF they will be reintroduced, it is a matter of WHEN. Let’s be honest fees are far from free as is, with current registration fees standing at a whopping €2,250. In the current economic climate it is just not possible to sustain the current funding model and the Higher Education Authority (“HEA”) is currently preparing a report for Education Minister Ruairi Quinn which is expected to confirm this. Irish colleges are currently under immense pressure to compete at world-class level. The Hunt Report, which was published in July 2011, has indicated that if academic quality and the full range of student services currently available are to be maintained, increased funding of €500 million will be needed every year going forward. HEA chief executive Tom Boland has stated that colleges need more money and the exchequer cannot afford to pay therefore a return of fees is unavoidable. However, the government must deal with this issue with sensitivity and tact. A support system must be established to ensure less well off students are not adversely affected. The Australian Government has introduced a Higher Education Loan Program (“HELP”). This scheme provides eligible students, who have commenced studies from 2005, with a loan to help pay their course fees. Payments on these loans may be deferred until their income reaches over $47,196 in the 2011/2012 financial year. My friends and I at university have played with the idea of introducing a similar Future Repayment Scheme (“FRS”) in Ireland. Our proposal is similar in that each student is required to repay college fees to the government upon commencement of full term employment, however, our scheme differs in its application. The FRS requires that an annual payment be made to the government, constituting 4% of total income, which would reduce the total course fee outstanding. A simple illustration of FRS can be seen below:

Total Course Fee of Law & Accounting   Year of Employment Total Annual Income Percentage of Total Annual Income Annual FRS Payment Total Outstanding Balance

€14,520

1

€20,000 4% €800 €13,720

2

€24,000 4% €960 €12,760

3

€30,000 4% €1,200

€11,560

The option to make a voluntary repayment would also be available and would be incentivised through a 10% bonus on payments above €500, which are in addition to the annual FRS payment due. For example, Mary makes a voluntary payment of €500 in addition to her annual FRS payment of €800, her outstanding balance would be credited by €1,350 (€550 + €800). The introduction of the FRS would have several societal benefits as it encourages students to take an active involvement in their studies, thus ensuring that those entering education are not merely “getting a free ride” of tax payers’ money. The revenue generated by the FRS would facilitate the continuation of current standards of excellence, whilst still ensuring that entry to third level education is open to all tiers of society. The re-introduction of college fees is unfortunately inevitable in this current climate. Therefore, the government must look to proposals such as the FRS to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not hindered, or excluded, from availing of the opportunities available to the privileged.

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