Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said he would like to reduce third-level fees but has stressed he has to work through the budgetary process to achieve this.
The Irish Times previously reported that a proposal to reduce the €3,000 student contribution charge for third-level education is expected to be brought to Cabinet as early as this month.
However, doubt was cast on this plan last week when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said an increase in core funding for higher education should be prioritised above cuts to student contribution charges or increases in grant aid.
He told a conference organised by the Irish Universities’ Association it would be a mistake to reduce the €3,000 student contribution charge and improve Susi grants and leave only a “small bit of money” for core funding.
Mr Varadkar said: “Core funding should be the priority of those three areas in my view.”
In interview with RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme on Sunday, Mr Harris was asked if he was considering reducing or eliminating the €3,000 fee. He said he was “but I also at the same time have to be conscious of the process”.
Mr Harris said expert work had been done on what a sustainable funding model for higher education would look like. He said the three components were: a core level of funding; an overhaul of the grants system to make it better for students; and ensuring cost is not a barrier.
“I will be bringing proposals to Government on how we deal with this in the round. And, of course, decisions around funding are matters for the budgetary process but I’ve been very clear in relation to my ambition.
“I don’t believe that cost should be a barrier in relation to education and I do believe for some families the college costs can be very, very significant.”
He said a family with two children who complete four-year degree courses and do not qualify for grants pays about €24,000 in registration fees.
“So I would like to reduce the fees but I obviously am part of a collective Government and need to work my way through the processes.”
He was asked if he agreed with Mr Varadkar’s comments suggesting core funding should be prioritised over cuts to fees.
Mr Harris said he watched the Tánaiste’s speech and added: “I’m not quite sure that’s what he said. He made the point, and he’s entirely correct, we have to address the core funding level. There’s no point giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
“But what I’m saying very clearly – and I know the Tánaiste agrees with me on this – is any package we bring forward in relation to a sustainable model can’t just be sustainable for the universities, it has to be sustainable for students and their families.”