GE 2016: EDUCATION BREAKDOWN

Hassan Baker gives his

I read through the manifestos of most major parties in Ireland and have looked specifically at the area of education, and more specifically, each party’s views on third-level education fees.

There is a growing number of students, and not enough resources to accommodate their needs, so funding is needed, but where the money comes from is the question. Some parties seem to be on par with each other, whereas others are proposing more controversial methods.

Labour’s manifesto starts with a reminder of the time they abolished student fees, yet there is no mention of funding strategies, only a clear opposition to student fees: “We are opposed to their re-introduction .We refuse to go back to the days when only the relatively wealthy could count on going to third level, or when a family could only afford to send one of their children to college.”

The Irish Times has reported that “the Labour party has confirmed it cannot rule out increasing fees for third-level students.” Along with all the lack of information, we are reminded of the last election when Labour publicly signed a pledge to oppose and campaign against an increase in the student contribution charge.

At the time the student contribution charge was €1,500, now it has reached €3,000. So along with no information as to a funding strategy, there is also the presence of a lie from the last election to take into account with Labour.

Fianna Fail has been pretty indecisive on their proposed funding scheme. In the past they have stated that they would freeze the student contribution charge at €3,000 for at least the next five years. They also planned to set up an income contingent loan scheme. However, the party has recently started to back away from this proposed loan scheme, but is still firm on freezing the contribution fee, and has instead decided to pledge to “Fully retain the undergraduate maintenance grant system to support low income students who may otherwise be put off by the costs. The grant will be increased in line with the CPI at a total additional cost of €12.5m annually. In addition we will increase the Student Assistance funds to help disadvantaged students’ access third level at a cost of €4.7m annually.”

As highlighted in their manifesto. Fianna Fail has also looked at post-graduate student fees as they claim that they will overturn the 2012 abolition of postgraduate maintenance grants, which would cost €47 million a year. So in total, lots of big spending for Fianna Fail.

Fine Gael’s manifesto on the surface seems very impressive in its views on education as a whole, whether they will fulfil all the goals highlighted if elected, is questionable, as there is arguably too much to feasibly offer.

On the topic of funding, they simply have a sub section titled “More Taxpayer Support for Higher Education”. In this section they refer to the amount of funding needed:“Just to stand still, the sector requires €100m of additional funding to provide for the growing number of students going on to higher level education …… In addition, we are committed to providing €150m in additional capital resources for facilities, as outlined in the 2016-2021 Capital Plan, including the €40m that has been committed to the Grangegorman DIT project.”

All of this sounds quite adequate, but there is no explanation as to how the funding would be acquired, only clarification that Fine Gael hasn’t currently committed to a funding model, as the student fees section in the manifesto ends with “following the publication of the Expert Group report, Fine Gael will outline a complete funding plan for the higher education sector.” Although Fine Gael has not confirmed a funding scheme, a leaked draft of the expert group report leaned towards an income-contingent scheme. So the only thing to take from Fine Gael’s manifesto is uncertainty.

Sinn Fein’s manifesto offered little specifics on student fees and only mentioned them in two a total of two sentences: “We will abolish student fees over a term of government by incrementally reducing the student contribution while replacing the revenue lost to the third level institutions through the central exchequer.” And, “We will introduce maintenance grants for postgraduate students and reverse the changes to the adjacent rate of grant so that greater numbers can avail of this support.” Most of the party’s activity in relation to student fees has just been criticism towards the current governments system, without really offering any clear alternatives.

The Green Party has pledged to oppose any increase on the student contribution fee or cuts to student grants, and claimed that they would “increase direct state funding for third level by €300m per annum to prevent increases in registration fees”. In the manifesto, they also propose to reduce the student-staff ratio, which is currently 20:1. But this proposition has been received as being overly ambitious, as The University Times stated, the OECD average is at 14:1, and that reaching a 16:1 goal would require an additional €375 million.