Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has ruled out any options for third level funding that would see an increase in fees or the implementation of a student loan scheme. His comments come after protests and lobbying from Students’ Unions and USI. He had previously made comments voicing his opposition to a US or UK style student loan scheme, although he refused to categorically rule them out until recently. He cited the long term consequences of students leaving college with large levels of debt, and the knock on impact this has on other areas of living expenses, such as the price of medical care in the United States. The President of USI, Síona Cahill, welcomed his comments, but warned that there is still more work to be done.

These comments come amid a crisis in third level funding in Ireland, expected to worsen as the number of students leaving secondary school and entering third level will rise, peaking in 2030, when an estimated further 40,000 students will be applying. Brian MacCraith, Chairman of the IUA and President of DCU has said that “the 50% increase in student enrolments since 2000 is a precursor to an even greater demographic bubble which will place an intolerable strain on the already under-resourced university system.”

However, many are questioning whether or not these commitments laid down by Varadkar are being made in good faith. The Government has offered no other alternatives on how to meet the €600 million shortfall. Catherine Martin of the Green Party accused Varadkar of “blatant electioneering.”

The idea for a student loan scheme was floated in the 2016 Cassells report. The report found that a further €600 million per year in funding will be needed until 2021, increasing to €1 billion per year by 2030, if Irish third level institutions are to compete with their European counterparts. If a student loan scheme was introduced, fees would be in or around €20,000 per year. The other options include retaining the €3,000 registration fee, or a public funding option. However, despite the report being published in 2016, the Department of Education has made no moves to scrutinise the findings or the other funding options.

Research done by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has found that the third level education is a ‘system in danger’, and that third level funding as a percentage of GDP was half of what is was in 2012, after the 2008 financial crash when funding was cut by some 40 percent. Ireland joins Serbia as being the only European country with a third level education sector in danger. After the UK eventually leaves the EU, Ireland will become Europe’s most expensive country to study in.

This could see Ireland lose out in large scale EU investment projects, such as the upcoming Horizon Europe scheme, as well as the new push to further integrate European Universities. Jim Miley, Director General of the IUA spoke at a conference on the issue, stating; “The Government and the Oireachtas must prioritise the reform of the funding model for higher education as recommended by the Cassells Report, the Government-appointed Expert Group that reported almost three years ago.” Despite the Cassells report and an overwhelming amount of experts warning of the dangers, the Government only allocated an additional €98 million for higher education in the most recent budget, with €41 million of this being allocated for pay and pensions. USI and other groups have criticised the Government for their lack of investment, with some pointing to the fact that €1 billion has been set aside in a rainy day fund, while higher education continues to suffer.

This funding shortfall, and the inaction on the part of the Government to effectively deal with it, has led to universities seeking to bridge the funding gap themselves in any way they can. The IUA are now warning that universities may be forced to limit the number of places available to Irish students in order to keep afloat.  Increasingly, universities have been looking to vastly increase the amount of international students studying in Ireland, taking advantage of the higher fees they pay, which range anywhere from €9000 to €54000. International students now make up about 10% of all students in Ireland, with that number estimated to rise to appproximately 25% by 2030. It is estimated that international students generate €386 million for the Irish economy.

Students’ Unions, USI, and academics have now begun to call for more clarity on the issue, and have begun to campaign for a fully publicly funded scheme to be devised. The Department of Education will begin to fully investigate and price the suggestions made in the Cassells report some time this year.