Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Third Level Fees.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

2 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science if the funds gained by the 69% increase in college registration charges constitute an additional investment in education; if it is merely a mechanism to compensate for cuts in funding from tax revenue; if funding from registration fees or the possible reintroduction of third level fees will be ring fenced for investment in education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21914/02]

The charge referred to by the Deputy is levied by third level institutions to defray the costs of examinations, registration and student services. The increase in the charge brings the amount contributed by students more into line with the cost of providing these services. The effect on funding for individual third level institutions is cost neutral this year.

Students who are eligible for means-tested student support will, in addition to any grant they are entitled to, have the €670 charge paid on their behalf, either directly by my Department or through the local authorities and vocational education committees. This means that 34% of students in universities and 47% of students in institutes of technology will not have to pay the charge.

The increase in the charge should be viewed in the context of an overall package of measures that I announced earlier this year aimed at increasing and improving the student support schemes for the 2002-03 academic year. In the current financial year the Government will spend over €360 million on student supports, including free fees.

It is estimated that the cost per student of providing third level education in the current academic year will exceed €6,000 for arts, law and business courses, €8,000 for science courses and €9,000 for engineering and medicine. The contribution from students has to be seen in light of these figures.

As regards free fees, I am conducting a review of student support provisions aimed at ensuring that the benefits of the substantial investment being made are maximised in the context of the Government's objectives of achieving greater access to third level education among lower socio-economic groups. The free fees initiative is being considered in the context of that review. My aim is to ensure that the available funding is targeted in a manner that achieves the maximum impact from the point of view of equity of access to third level education.

I welcome the Minister's statement that any collection of third level fees would be ring-fenced. Does the Minister believe that the introduction of third level fees is the most effective way to create funding for third level, second level and primary education? What does he think of the idea of using some of the special savings incentive scheme, dropping the tax benefits on fee-paying schools or even a ring-fenced income tax? Given the pressures that his Department is facing, would the Minister be willing to suggest these alternatives to the Minister for Finance in advance of the budget although the Estimates have already been produced?

All of those types of suggestions are open for consideration in the review which is now being carried out. I have no set view other than the one I have consistently stated, that I do not believe that free fees for the rich who can afford third level education is a reasonable expenditure while so many constituents cannot afford to get near to third level. This is why I am having the review. A number of people have made suggestions for consideration. The Deputy has adverted to some of them. Some newspaper reports have proposed a payment after the completion of the third level course. I am open to any suggestion but it must be on the basis of the envelope of money that I have and that the disadvantaged take priority over those who can already enter the system.

Would the Minister acknowledge that it is a noble principle to have free education for all, other things being equal? Would he acknowledge that over the past five years the higher earners in our society have benefited disproportionately compared to the poor and those who describe themselves as working and middle class? Would he also acknowledge that there is considerable anger among third level students about the possible reintroduction of fees and, with the production of the Estimates, the notable reductions in capital—

It is inappropriate to quote during Question Time.

Is the Minister aware of the anger caused by the leaks about reductions in building projects? Given this anger would he acknowledge that a fairer method of obtaining revenue would be to tackle those who have benefited most over the past five years from Deputy McCreevy's policies through ensuring that the richest pay the most in income tax, while still maintaining the fair and noble principle of free education for all?

I agree with the noble suggestion that we should have free education for all and I would have no difficulty in extending free education to everyone if we had great wealth. We have not reached that stage. When a Minister is constrained by budgets, even if the amount of money given for student supports is €360 million, it is incumbent on him or her, as a representative of the people, to ensure that the money benefits as many people as possible. I have said this on numerous occasions to student leaders I met in various colleges. When I explained to them what I am doing in the review they have no difficulty with it. In my days as a student, and even prior to that, the slogan was, "Education is a right, not a privilege". I still adhere to that slogan from my USI days. It is all right to talk like that when one is in the middle and upper middle income groups but it is nothing more than a slogan to people in certain areas of Dublin where 7% attend third level education at a struggle.

One of the factors I have to consider in relation to the possible re-introduction of free fees is that I have noticed in recent years that well-off people who can afford third level education have benefited from not having to pay fees. There is evidence to suggest that the various schemes that have been introduced in the past three or four years to address disadvantage among lower socio-economic groups have increased—

The time for this question has elapsed.