Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Third Level Funding
Question 17: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which the higher education authority study into the sustainability of third level funding will differ to that which was produced in the national strategy for higher education published earlier this year. [14508/11]
Question 18: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he intends to re-introduce third level fees, increase registration fees and other student charges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14540/11]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 18 together.
Future demand for participation growth in higher education needs to be reconciled with limitations on public resources and a need to protect and enhance core quality. Although the nature of these difficult trade-offs is described in the national strategy for higher education to 2030, the strategy also identifies the need for more detailed analysis. In this regard, I have asked the Higher Education Authority to undertake further work on the sustainability of the existing funding framework over the course of this year. This work will inform consideration by Government of policy options in regard to future funding of the sector.
As the Deputy will be aware, the previous Government introduced a new student contribution charge of €2,000 with effect from the 2011-12 academic year to replace the existing student services charge of €1,500. This increased charge will come into effect this autumn.
The Minister previously spoke about capital utilisation in higher education. Is he referring to a 12-month academic year and a constant use of resources? As we all know, plant and facilities are very expensive to put in place and maintain. Is this what he has in mind, given his particular phraseology?
I was not sure as I did not see him there, but I would certainly have acknowledged him had he been there. Over 250 people from the academic side in all of the third level sectors were in attendance.
While the Hunt report is not perfect, it is the only report we have and I will not pause to have a new report written or to get a new roadmap. Some aspects of the report are very good and others, frankly, are not all that good. It is up to the academic community and the third level sector in its entirety to see how it can get better value for the resources that are currently available, for example, in terms of the utilisation of capital resources or the combining of the provision of courses. I said earlier that it had recently been brought to my attention that there are more than 40 courses in education and teacher training being delivered in 21 separate institutions across the country. This came as a big surprise to many people who ought to know better. We need to see how we can combine those courses and spread them out over a longer period of time. There is intense use of the capital infrastructure in the university sector but not to the same degree everywhere, and there is quite a variation in the intensity of use of the capital infrastructure in the institutes of technology.
To answer the Deputy's specific question, at the end of the day this will not be dictated from Marlborough Street or from the Higher Education Authority. We have invited the participants and partners, against the background of a reality which they too must confront, to come forward with innovative ideas because it is those on the ground who have a better knowledge of the way to do business than anybody else.
The failure of the Government to reverse the €500 increase in the student service charge is already a significant betrayal of the promises the Labour Party made before the election. I believe "fighting to defend free education tooth and nail" was the expression used. In that context, I must express great concern as, I suspect, many students do, about recent comments by the Minister, who stated there was no such thing as free education and that he would look seriously at how third level education would be funded. That, along with the review he mentioned, leads me to believe that people, students in particular, should be very much afraid about plans to abandon yet another promise made before the election to defend free education and the extreme likelihood that fees are to be reintroduced in some shape or form.
I wish to hear an assurance that this will not happen. There are more important people than me who wish to hear this, namely students. In addition, they wish to have an assurance in regard to the already unacceptable €500 increase in the service charge and the reductions in grants. The pay many students receive for weekend work may now come under attack via the attack, or review, of the joint labour committees, JLCs and the registered employment agreements, REAs. They need to know they do not face yet another attack in the form of student fees.
The Minister knows, and if it were six months ago he would be saying what I say, that the introduction of fees would be a major disincentive to enter third level education, particularly for the less well-off in our society. It would make a mockery of any proposals to develop a knowledge economy to aid economic recovery. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that no tuition fees will be introduced, in any shape or form?
The Deputy must recognise that we do not live in the world in which he would like to live but in one where this republic has lost its economic sovereignty. We have lost control of our cheque book. Every fortnight, the Governor of the Central Bank must report to Frankfurt to state that our fortnightly returns in terms of revenue and cost reductions are meeting targets. Otherwise, the money that pays the Deputy's and my salaries and those of everybody who works in this building will not come out of the ATM. That is where we are. Michael Collins, the first Minister for Finance of this State, had more room to manoeuvre than his successor as Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, has today.
That we have lost our economic sovereignty is a reality I do not like. I will not go into the history of how it came about. However, I wish to regain it as quickly as possible.
The only way we can do so is by trading and balancing our way out of the deficit of €9 billion. The Deputy could close down the entire expenditure of the Department of Education and Skills in the morning and we would still have a deficit of €1 billion. I will engage in debate with him if he will discuss reality on a platform of reality.
Concerning fees, every public service has a cost. The real issue is access to that service and whether a cost barrier exists by way of a charge at point of entry. There is no charge at point of entry for primary or secondary school. It was the Labour Party in Government in the 1990s which removed existing anomalies and abolished fees for undergraduate courses. It is not desirable that a new barrier should exist to prevent the socioeconomic groups we are trying to get into the third level sector from participating. I asked the Higher Education Authority to find ways in which we can look at the funding of the third level sector in order to avoid that possibility. I have not changed my values or attitudes in regard to access to third level education.
The Minister referred to multiple provision of similar courses in our third level institutions. If a university or an institute of technology proposes to introduce a new course must it get approval from the HEA or other governing authority in order to avoid unnecessary duplication?
I am not entirely sure of the answer to that question. Like the Deputy, I would have thought some form of vetting would be required and I presume such is the case in a number of areas. However, it was a member of the HEA who was surprised when the multiplicity of courses was brought to his attention. We must look at this situation because that kind of duplication is not justified now, if ever it was.
There were two aspects to the Minister's response but not much time to examine them. I merely point out that it is a political decision to effectively hand over the education budget of this country as interest repayments to bondholders. We do not have to make this decision. Does the Minister find it interesting that Greek students, among others, are on the streets now and because of their resistance to the austerity programme Europe is reconsidering restructuring the Greek debt and allowing the country more time to pay it? Would we not be better off taking that sort of action rather than accepting these unacceptable restraints which are strangling our education system and forcing us towards unpalatable measures such as the introduction of fees?
Given the restraints the Minister is under and given that his fellow Minister stated only minutes ago it was not possible to exempt any sector from pain, there is also a choice to be made in that regard, in terms of funding our services, education included. Instead of service charges which are inevitably regressive and hit the lowest earners, we might consider putting taxes on the wealthy. If we taxed the wealthy, which group this Government and the last one exempted from the pain, we could get the money elsewhere to fund our services. However, that option never seems to be considered. It is always about how we will squeeze more and more money out of people who cannot afford it. If any further financial obstacles are put in front of people entering third level education this will be devastating for our prospects for economic recovery.
It is not my intention to put further financial barriers on access to higher education, particularly for those groups that can least afford it and from families which, historically, did not go to third level education. The strategic objective initiated by the previous Government, which the Labour Party in Opposition shared and will now implement in Government, is to get participation rates to over 70% because that is the way forward for the economy.
This is a very unequal society. The Deputy and I share that view. However, brains and talent are equally distributed across the population and I want to ensure that those brains and talent which previously could not get into third level education because of financial and family backgrounds are liberated and can participate. I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that happens.
I praise the Minister for his refreshing remarks. If one were to pursue the ideology of Deputy Boyd Barrett the cuts in education would be much more regressive and there would no opportunity. The Minister is right-----
When does the Minister hope the HEA will report back to him? The Minister is correct in that we must allow opportunity for all our citizens, from all demographic sectors and social classes, to access third level education. The Minister's agenda is a reforming one and if people would support it we would see continued access and more people going into education at third level. That is what the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in the 1990s did, which Deputy Boyd Barrett opposed.
I hope the HEA will come back to me before the end of this calendar year. We will not discover new crocks of gold and much of the data has been gathered but we must get hard information and look at the implications. It is a mixture of extra resources going into the system and economies being found within it. I am not the specialist to do that; we will ask the HEA and the participating colleges to do it. Again, what must be outlined at this level are a bottom-up approach and a strategic policy acting in partnership.