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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Jul 2017

Vol. 252 No. 14

Equality of Access to Education: Motion

I move:

“That Seanad Éireann:

- affirming its commitment to providing equality of access to education at primary, secondary and third-level;

- recognising the benefits, culturally and economically, of the historic decision to invest in publicly-funded secondary education in Ireland and recognising also that the introduction of publicly-funded third-level education further encouraged a generation of young people to attain the highest levels of education;

- acknowledging that, while publicly-funded third-level access no longer exists across the board, a significant number of people, particularly those from rural and lower socio-economic backgrounds, benefit from a publicly-funded path to third-level; and

- further recognising that a number of contributing factors have led to a significant gap in funding for the third-level sector and that, while this shortfall must be addressed, it cannot be at the expense of those most vulnerable in our society;

- calls on the Government to affirm its commitment to providing equality of access to education for all; to reject any move to implement an income contingent loan scheme to fund third-level education; and to adopt a policy of ending college fees."

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. The Labour Party is delighted to propose the motion on access to third-level education. We are disappointed in the amendments which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have tabled on this. They seem to be clinging to the idea of student loans as a way of financing individuals' access to third level education in any way they can. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of I and my party to lay out our vision for education in this country.

I went to university in the 1990s and benefitted from the free fees scheme, as it was then called. I paid full fees in 1994, half fees in 1995 and no fees whatever in 1997. When I left college, and when the Labour Party left Government in 1997 the registration fee was around £150. By the time Labour returned to Government in 2011 that had risen to €2,000. That is a registration fee, not a tuition fee, but the subtlety of calling something a registration fee or tuition fee is irrelevant to an ordinary working family.

Before the last general election, my own party made commitments which were not lived up to. I greatly regret that but one either stands by one's belief in free education or one lets it lie and let the commitment dog one forever. What we managed to do in five years of Government was stop Fine Gael's manifesto promise of having tuition paid for through a graduate loans system. That system still features in the Cassels report which contains a number of options, including a publicly funded option which is the one we propose.

A student loan system such as the one being advocated in various quarters has been proved to be devastating wherever it has been introduced, particularly in Britain where it has saddled ordinary middle-income families and hard-working families with debt and has devastated certain aspects of third-level education, especially the arts and humanities. I strongly assert that we must have a different view and vision of education. It costs the State around €16,000 each year that a student is in second level. No one would ever suggest that individual student attending second level should pay that back over a period. There is no statutory obligation for anyone to attend school beyond the age of 16 years. We would never say to a 17 or 18 year old that they have no statutory obligation to be in school, it is costing the State €16,000, and they should therefore pay it back over a period, because we believe in the ethos and aspiration of free second-level education, as we should. One frequently made argument relates to the children of multi-millionaires but the same argument could be made about primary or second level and we contend that argument does not stand up at third level. If one benefits from third level and one's income increases as a result, then one contributes to society through a fair and progressive tax system.

I do not believe that the current Government has the same belief system in education as my party. Our party believes education is the great liberator and the great leveller. It is something that can liberate and change an individual's life, their perspective of themselves, of their entire community. I feel passionately about the way it empowers young women. I taught in an all-girls' school in an acutely disadvantaged area for 11 years. I have told as many people as possible wherever I has spoken across the world, that the most powerful thing in the world is a girl with a book. A girl who can read changes her family. A girl who can read changes her community. A girl who can read can change her entire country. The power of education is incredible, it has no borders, so why would we want to tell someone who was addressing their leaving certificate that we would give them the opportunity to attend third-level education, but once they got there they would not only leave with a qualification but with a whole lot of debt to pay off.

We refute the idea that the free fee schemes introduced in the 1990s only benefitted a certain cohort. If one looks at the access rates in 1992, 34% of leaving certificate students accessed third level. It was an elite pursuit. It was unobtainable and had a mystique around it which many in the third-level sector wanted to maintain. They wanted to maintain the idea that only for a certain cohort in Irish society should benefit from third-level education. Ten years later, in 2003, 54% of those who had done leaving certificate or equivalent now attended third level. It did benefit many families who would otherwise have looked at the financial burden and said they could not send their children to third-level education.

We understand that my party has had a chequered history on this matter. We accept that and are willing to take the criticism but collectively we need to move on. We introduced the free fees scheme in the 1990s. It was hugely beneficial and it changed many young people's perspective on education. Do we fundamentally believe that it is free or do we believe that it is a commodity? I fear the ethos coming from the Department of Education and Skills which is also evident in primary level in the way in which the Minister thinks the most important thing for a child to learn is coding. We are not dealing with economic units that fit into an economy. Education is much more fundamental and important to a person's aspirations than that.

We should not commodify education. The idea that we send the young people of this country, the students, that they would be saddled with student debt that they must repay over years flies in the face of the ethos and vision that a modern republic should have.

We want to change the whole basis of this argument. We want to change the thrust and where this debate is going. We have to stop the thrust of the argument going from how, can or should students pay to how the State should pay.

The current position taken on this issue is disappointing after everything we have gone through in this country in terms of the economic collapse and the social hurt and the wounds we have all experienced in recent years. When we speak to colleagues in the UK, we find the unquestionable and untouchable political principle of the collective system in the UK - the sacred cow of British politics - is equality in health. If we talk to anyone in Finland, we find the unquestioning sacred cow of their political system that everyone buys into is equality in education. For some reason, the unquestionable sacred cow of Irish politics is not equality in health or education but the 12.5% corporation tax rate. That is what we have reduced ourselves to. This is the thing we cannot discuss. It cannot be discussed at any level in the political spectrum. Maybe we should begin to ask these corporations, which benefit from highly trained, skilled and educated young people, to contribute.

There is a national training fund, as the Minister of State is well aware. It is paid for through employers' PRSI. It accumulates approximately €200 million and almost matches the estimated €222 million that it would cost to abolish third-level fees. We are suggesting that those who benefit from this highly trained and educated workforce should contribute by way of a graduate tax towards the funding of third-level education in this country. I do not believe for a moment the scaremongering and protests that they will go away and find somewhere else to base themselves. They are here for the 12.5% corporation tax. However, they are also here because we are soon to be the only English-speaking member of the European Union and we have a highly skilled and educated workforce.

Perhaps it is because of my background and where I taught. Perhaps it is because of the children who inspire me every day of my political life. I have seen how education, day by day, has improved their lives. It is often said that free fees or the abolition of fees would not affect access to third-level education by acutely disadvantaged communities and that it did not affect access in the 1990s. There are myriad overlapping and various reasons why access rates from those communities are not as they should be. The statistics are obvious in the Hart and Risley report from 1995. The average three year old from a welfare dependent family has one third the oral capacity and one third of the vocabulary of a three year old from a professional family. The gulf is there by three years of age. One third of children leaving DEIS schools after sixth class have basic reading problems. The issue in terms of access to third-level education in acutely disadvantaged areas is far more complex than a financial barrier. Financial considerations exist but, on account of the grant system, which almost 50% of students avail of, it is not the same. It is relevant for those who are always outside that cohort and outside any means test, those who year by year make a determination about how many of their children can access third level because of financial concerns.

I believe the Minister of State would have support from across this House, notwithstanding the disappointing amendments from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, if she made a strong statement. What we want is a strong statement from the Minister of State as the newly appointed Minister of State with responsibility for higher education who has an education background and who, like me, was a principal of a primary school. She sits at Cabinet and has an influential role in this Government. We want the Minister of State to make a commitment to the House that the Government has absolutely no intention of pursuing the concept of a graduate loan scheme and that the Government completely agrees with the vision of absolutely free access to third-level education.

We can understand that there are financial constraints and that it may take several years to achieve it. However, it would at least be an improvement if the vision was there, no more than any other social justice issue in this country, whether homelessness, housing, illiteracy or whatever. At least if the vision is there from within Government, there is a chance. Our aspiration is that access to third-level education would be absolutely free and that those who pay for it pay through general taxation. I do not believe that people should be taxed on the basis of their education. They should be taxed on the basis of their wealth.

If the Minister of State supported a graduate tax or a student loan scheme, she would be effectively taxing someone on the basis of their education and not on the basis of their wealth or income. Such schemes have been disastrous wherever they have been introduced. I want to live in a society of highly educated individuals, including nurses, doctors, teachers and, God help us, even politicians who are a benefit to the State every day of their working lives. They should not be saddled with debt. Education is not a commodity or a privilege; it a right. Any proposed student loan scheme would be a barrier to that right. That is why we feel so strongly about this issue and that is why we have put down the motion this evening.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I wish to echo the words of congratulation from Senator Ó Ríordáin on her new appointment. The Minister of State has such a strong background in education and it is great to have her representing higher education at Cabinet level. That is good to see.

I welcome the many guests in the Gallery who are here to see the debate and who are involved in the campaign for publicly funded third-level education system. I am delighted to second the motion after the eloquent words of Senator Ó Ríordáin. The motion is framed to affirm the commitment, which I believe everyone in the House shares, to provide equality of access to education at all levels. That is our fundamental premise. We are also calling on the Government to affirm its commitment to providing this equality of access through making a concrete commitment, as Senator Ó Ríordáin has said, to reject any move to implement an income-contingent loan scheme for funding of third-level education, to adopt a policy of ending college fees and to implement a truly publically funded higher education system in Ireland.

We should recall that since the original decision by a Labour Party Minister was made in the early 1990s to abolish university fees, a significant number of people, especially those from rural backgrounds and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, have benefitted from the publically funded path to third level.

Senator Ó Ríordáin has talked about the history. Since the 1990s a number of contributing factors - notably, the recession - have led to a significant gap in funding for the third-level sector. We can see now, as the Minister of State is well aware, a funding crisis for our universities and colleges. It was in response to this crisis that the previous Government commissioned the Cassells report, published in July of last year, to look at future funding options for higher education.

A key conclusion of the Cassells report was that the current position, the status quo, is unsustainable. Cassells presented three options for future funding of third-level education. Each of the three options required an increase in state investment. This is an important premise on which the Cassells report was based. The key question was how to make that investment and to what degree other people should contribute. The first option is the option we favour. It involves a predominately state-funded system with no student contribution. It would involve no fees, in other words, as is the norm in many EU countries. The second option presented was that closest to the status quo and would involve increasing state funding and a continuing student contribution.

The third option, however, is the option we wish to focus on in this motion. We want to ensure the Government will affirm its commitment not to introduce this third option. That is the option that we fear may appear favourable to the Government. It is the option of increased state funding but with deferred payment of fees through income-contingent loans. Similar schemes operate in England, Wales, Australia and other countries. We are concerned that the amendments put forward from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leave the door open to the introduction of an income-contingent loan scheme. The evidence is clear, when one looks elsewhere and examines studies that have been done, that there are serious disadvantages to the introduction of such a loan scheme. We know from evidence elsewhere that loan schemes of this sort restrict access for disadvantaged students, who are traditionally more debt averse than students from more advantaged backgrounds. Loan schemes tend to inventivise graduate emigration, so that people avoid having to make repayments. Of course, those graduates who stay are left saddled with heavy debts.

The evidence presented to us at the useful briefing we hosted yesterday establishes that the experience of income-contingent loans in Australia, where they have now operated for over 20 years, shows that they do not eliminate student poverty while in college. Moreover, they do not ensure that students do not have to work while in college, which is a justification often put forward for them. Indeed, the Australian data shows that rates of participation there for lower income groups are now significantly lower than those for Ireland at present. Furthermore, the data shows that loans are most costly for low-income students and mature students, many of whom are women. This is because they have to borrow more, it takes longer to pay the loans back and have lesser access after graduation to higher paying jobs.

There are a number of hidden disadvantages built into these loan schemes. In England and Wales, they have proved so ineffective and unpopular that their original architect, Lord Adonis, just last week expressed his regret in the British newspapers at having introduced such schemes. We know that these loan schemes do not work in eliminating student poverty or in increasing participation rates from under-represented and low-income groups.

These are the reasons, among others, why our motion seeks to categorically rule out the adoption of this kind of scheme. That is the reason we support the first option proposed by the Cassells report, namely, an increase in state funding to ensure a publicly funded model as per the European norm. We have received strong support for this option from the Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education, a grouping of five unions representing students and staff across the sector, including the Union of Students in Ireland, SIPTU and others. Many individuals involved with that coalition are here with us today. We have also received great support from the Irish Second Level Students Unions, which has a very clear interest in this and perhaps represents the most important stakeholders in the future funding of higher education. Speakers of the campaign have done a great deal of work on this, as have academics such as Professor Kathleen Lynch and Dr. Charles Larkin who have lined up to offer their support to our motion.

We find it very regrettable that Fianna Fáil and the Government are opposing our motion and have tabled these amendments, but perhaps it is unsurprising. Professor Kathleen Lynch of UCD noted to us yesterday that there has traditionally been strong political resistance to free education at all levels. She reminded us that property owners in the 19th century expressed strong opposition to the introduction of free primary education on the basis that it would foment revolution among the people who would become literate as a result.

Indeed, as Senator Norris pointed out, perhaps it did. As recently as 1960, so-called Irish education experts argued against the introduction of free secondary education saying it would be "both financially unpractical and educationally unsound". Donogh O'Malley is now widely commended by all parties and none for his role in introducing this very scheme. Nobody would contest the immense public good that free secondary education has served. While the view expressed in the 1960s may now sound laughable, the same argument is being put forward today against a publicly funded third level system. In reality, higher education is as vital to our society and economy in the 21st century as the introduction of free secondary education was in the 20th century and free primary education in the 19th. We need to see higher education as a public good and as an investment in society's future rather than as a cost to the State.

We know from many international studies that there are significant and measurable economic, social and cultural returns on investment in higher education. Graduates earn more and pay more tax when they leave college because they enter higher-paid, better jobs with better career structures. The key to our recovery, as the Minister knows better than anyone, has been our highly educated work force and our extremely high level of participation in universities and colleges by our student population. This has been immensely important in generating jobs growth and the economic recovery. There is a strong economic case, as well as strong social and cultural cases for making higher education free at the point of access. We need to see this as part of a rights framework. We accept the idea that education is a right and it should not be seen as a privilege. This, however, should be true at all levels, primary, secondary and higher. That is why we believe education should be free from cradle to grave, as the old slogan goes. It should be free at the point of access and paid for indirectly through taxation. This is what our motion recognises and why we are calling on all Senators to support this motion and to reject the unfortunate amendments put forward by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann:” and substitute the following:

“ - affirms its continued commitment to promote equity of access at all levels of the education system;

- recognises the benefits to society and the individual, culturally and economically, of the State’s investment in educational opportunities for all of its citizens;

- welcomes the continued investment by the Government in a range of supports that are specifically targeted at those groups in our society that may face particular challenges in accessing education;

- acknowledges the funding challenge that currently exists in higher education, as outlined in the 2016 Report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education: “Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education”, and the funding options outlined in that Report;

- welcomes the commitment by the Government to provide a more sustainable funding model for higher education, as evidenced by the fact that Budget 2017 provided the first increase in investment in higher education since 2009, involving €36.5 million extra funding in 2017 and €160 million extra over 3 years;

- welcomes the initiative by Government to explore the possibility of an employer-exchequer funding mechanism which could realise up to €200 million in additional annual funding;

- acknowledges that, in the area of funding higher education, doing nothing is not an option;

- notes that all parties have a responsibility to help develop sustainable funding sources for this crucial area of public service;

- notes that the Cassells Report finds abolishing student registration fees for undergraduate students while delivering the level of investment that the higher education system needs would cost the State €1.3 billion extra per annum;

- notes that there is a responsibility on any party which is calling for extra spending of this scale to state where they would get the money to fund it, either in terms of reduced spending in other areas or extra taxes; and

- further recognises the importance of building political consensus on the most appropriate future funding model for higher education, and supports the Government’s intention to await the outcome of the consideration of the Expert Group’s Report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills before a policy decision is taken in this area.”

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming here for this very important debate. While we would all like to support the Labour Party motion, and it is very welcome our colleagues are putting forward this aspirational motion, we also have to be realistic. The Government's aim is to use economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. It has provided €450 million in funding to students, including SUSI grants. This has benefitted 80,000 students in 2017. It also includes funding for postgraduate studies and students with disabilities. Postgraduate funding has been stopped for quite a while, so this recent development is very welcome.

While there are significant challenges in higher education, I welcome the fact the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, have acknowledged them and looked for extra funding. This year alone, there has been a funding increase of €36.5 million, the first increase since 2009. The Government is certainly moving in the right direction when it comes to the funding of third level education. There is a commitment for a further €160 million funding over the next three years.

We cannot sit by and do nothing but I have one question for the Labour Party Senators. Their proposal will cost approximately €1.36 billion. Were do they intend to get this money? The total budget is €9.56 billion. There is a need for additional investment in higher education but the additional €1.36 billion per year arising from this proposal would be funded by the State and thus at the expense of the taxpayer.

The Labour Party Senators are targeting the idea of a loan. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills has not yet finished its deliberations on this matter. This is a case of putting the cart before the horse, as far as I am concerned, because the committee is still going through the Cassells report commissioned by the former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. The Minister has made many proposals in terms of changes but he is looking for all-party suggestions from that committee as to which of the three options given might be preferable. The committee's work on this has not yet been completed.

I refer to the €200 million per year in terms of the capital review and extra funding. The Department's total budget for the year is €9.56 billion. Granting free higher education straight away would eat into much of that budget. I availed of free education in the past but, unfortunately, the money is not there at present to allow for full free fees. I again ask the Labour Party Senators from where they would get the money. Theirs is very much a populist approach.

The increase in apprenticeships and skills training is very welcome, and I have a keen interest in this area. The Minister announced funding of almost €600,000 for electrician apprenticeships in the Limerick Institute of Technology recently. This is very welcome, as some areas in education and skills had been left behind.

Senators Ó Ríordáin and Bacik referred to disadvantaged students, but there are incentives in place to help such students. If we were to use the Department's funding to give full free fees everybody, many people would be left disadvantaged. Money allocated for investment in third level education, for the development of different courses and for incentivising and helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds would be eroded and might not be available anymore. When looking at these proposals, we have to look at the bigger picture. There is certainly no easy way.

I note the Department is working with, and looking for investment from, employers, which is most welcome. I spoke to an accountant today who told me his firm was investing in some of the people it is taking on under apprenticeship programmes. It is paying their educational fees and a salary for working in the office. Most importantly, it is investing in apprentices' futures. The more of this kind of collaboration between employers and the Department, the better.

So far in 2017, the Department has provided nearly €1 billion for direct funding to higher education institutes for current and capital purposes. This is certainly a very significant sum of money.

We would eat up a great deal of the allocation for education in terms of giving free education to everybody as a starting point. Certainly we could aim to do that down the road, but with the current financial restrictions, we cannot give it to one sector or to all at the expense of others.

The additional allocation budget 2017 to higher education is the first significant investment in higher education in recent times. A sum of €4.5 million is being given towards disadvantaged students. This includes €1 million for measures to support more lone parents to access higher education, €1 million for the introduction of the new 1916 centenary bursary scheme that will target groups that are under-represented at higher education level, and €2.5 million to incentivise higher education institutes to attract more students from disadvantaged communities. I think the money is being used very well to target areas from which people predominantly would not have availed of third level education.

A sum of €3 million is being allocated to research. Investment in research is very significant because we have to look to the future. In conjunction with employers we need to look at areas where employment will be generated and then look at the courses that will be offered. Funding has to be provided to do that.

I would like to hear the response from the Labour Party on where they will find the money to fund their proposals. I think it is populist to call for free education at this time. While we would love to support the motion, we must think of the bigger picture. We have to think of those who are disadvantaged, the education opportunities for those with disabilities and the expansion of the types of courses on offer.

The student registration fee is €3,000, with the State paying the contribution on behalf of almost 50% of undergraduate students who qualify for funding under the free schemes. I know there is tax relief on student fees.

Ba mhaith liom ar dtús fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Mitchell O'Connor, go dtí an Teach seo inniu. I would also like to extend a welcome to guests in the Visitors Gallery.

We are all in agreement on the merits and advantages of a properly-funded third level education system. There is no doubt that we have enhanced our reputation worldwide through the education qualifications of young Irish people who leave universities. Frankly, this comes at a cost. When one looks deeply at the cost of funding third level education, I have to compliment Mr. Cassells and his committee on the work they carried out on behalf of us all. Some of the figures in the report are quite startling. The Cassells report notes to maintain the level of quality in our higher level institutions we have in place today will require investment of between €100 million to €120 million per year over the next five years. He stated also there is a requirement of €600 million base funding in higher education institutions by 2021. In addition, approximately €1 billion annual funding will be required by 2030. That shows the scale of the problem in front of us.

The Labour Party tabled the motion we are discussing. It is quite ironic. I agree with the comment of Senator Ó Ríordáin in his contribution that the Labour Party lacks credibility on this issue, based on its past record. I know he has accepted that and I know on a personal level many Members in this Chamber had no act or part in that. We can remember the former Labour Party leader, Mr. Ruairí Quinn, making commitments to abolish student fees. We all know what happened after that. The motion lacks credibility in that regard. That is nothing personal against any of the members of the Labour Party in this Chamber.

The motion calls for the abolition of student fees. While it is something we would all aspire to, when we delve deeper, the motion lacks substance. I think the content of the Fianna Fáil Party amendment to the motion is more credible. There is a crisis in third level education and that must be addressed. The cost of third level education has already prohibited many students, especially those whose families are just above the income threshold for a student support grant, and consequently receive no financial State assistance whatsoever.

The Fianna Fáil Party is open to considering the possibility of introducing an optional low interest loan facility for people just above the income threshold for third level grants. A few months ago a lady from Letterkenny contacted me about the debate on the Cassells report and the funding of third level education. Both she and her husband were working and had three children at college, they were not on the breadline, thankfully, but every single euro they had was going towards their children's education. She did not begrudge one cent of it, but if there was an option for them whereby a loan facility was available, they would certainly avail of it, because their life was on hold while their children were in college. Going out for a meal or going away on a holiday were off the agenda. If a loan facility was available, she certainly would consider it. We cannot dismiss that aspect.

We need greater Exchequer support and increased funding for universities and ITs as well as significant capital investment. Significant Exchequer investment in universities and ITs is required to enhance quality, including improving student to lecturer ratios, with great teaching and research output. There has been virtually no State investment in buildings and research facilities since 2008. Now an estimated 40% of higher education system infrastructure is considered below standard according to a recent report by the HEA.

On the issue of income contingent student loans, while we should be open to evaluating the proposals put forward in the Cassells report, the public cost of these loan systems are extremely uncertain and can be very high. We must be very careful not to underestimate the true cost of the system to the Exchequer and potentially to the student in the long term. Experience in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, as outlined earlier by other Members, shows that this model simply does not work. I call on the Government to further expand postgraduate maintenance grants in future, so as to ensure that students from more income categories are eligible. The removal by the then Minister, Ruairí Quinn, of grants for postgraduate education was certainly inconsistent with the then Government's stated policy that it was building a high skill, smart economy.

I ask the Government to make a commitment to increase both recurrent funding and capital investment to universities and ITs on a sustained basis for a number of budgets. If we look for extra money, we have to try to source where the additional money will come from. In that light, if the national training fund levy were to be increased by 14% each year for three years, it would reduce the gap by about €65 million a year. I realise this is a great additional burden on business, but I think the long-term benefits, not just to business but to society, would get over that difficulty.

The hits that students and their families have taken since 2012 have resulted in disjointed and inequitable access to education, creating an unfair advantage for families who can provide their children with financial support. Investment in higher education is necessary if we are to have a highly-skilled workforce and maintain our reputation as a country which is renowned for its research and innovation.

In summary, I think the motion, although well-meaning, is premature. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills which is tasked with a body of work, listening to all stakeholders to try to get their opinions, whether we agree with them or not, so that we will collectively arrive at a consensus. That is why I believe the motion is premature. I would go as far as to say that in many ways it is disrespectful to the work of the joint committee.

Labour could be accused of populism in regard to this issue - I think that is a fair accusation because the motion lacks substance, as I said earlier. The one key issue on which we are all in agreement-----

Fianna Fáil was never populist, of course.

Order, please. Senator Norris will have his chance to speak.

In fairness, Senator Norris would be well qualified to make a comment on that particular subject, based on his contributions in this House.

I am extremely popular - very, very popular. That is why I top the poll every year.

The larger the audience in the Visitors Gallery, the longer the contribution from the Senator.

Not at all. I have spoken in this House when it was empty.

Indeed, he has. I have to commend him on that. His contributions were shorter but, yes, he has spoken.

Senator Gallagher is inviting interjections from Senator Norris.

Gabh mo leithscéal. The one thing on which we are all in agreement is access. It is vital that whatever decision both Houses of the Oireachtas arrive at on this issue, the key point in all our minds should be that it allows access to third level education to the maximum number of people possible.

The impression has been created by some of the speakers that the Government is in favour of a loans scheme. As far as I am concerned, that is not true. It was one of three options in the Cassells report and I personally will be lobbying within Government not to have a loans scheme.

I do not accept that the Government has made a decision and the Minister of State might clarify this later. We do not need to burden students with debt when they qualify because they will have many other demands at that stage. Having met the USI on numerous occasions, I know students are against it, and we need to take that into consideration. That is the basic point I want to make.

As Senator Maria Byrne said, funding has been increased for the first time since 2009. It needs to be further increased and I would expect it will be increased as a priority, but it needs to be increased in a responsible way. No Government wants to fall into a trap of promising something in a way that cannot be delivered on. These things need to be delivered on but that needs to happen in a structured way. I ask the Minister of State to clarify this point in her later comments.

I want to welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment to her new position. I want to welcome our guests in the Visitors Gallery. I also want to welcome this Private Members' Bill and, in particular, its clear calls for publicly funded third level education and a rejection of any notion of introducing student loan schemes.

I need to begin by addressing Labour's history on this, which is unfortunate, particularly in light of the progressive work that was done in the 1990s. When Labour secured the portfolio of education in government and broke the pledge in regard to fees, approving an increase in student contribution fees year-on-year for five years, it did not just do a disservice to tens of thousands of students and their families, or to the people who voted for Labour; it did a disservice to politics by encouraging the common belief that any politician's promise is not worth the paper it is written on. We all need to do better than that.

Under that Fine Gael-Labour coalition, State funding of third level education plummeted by an incredible 25%. Grants were cut, students who were dependent upon that assistance went months without help and many dropped out of college altogether - they were literally priced out of education. We now have a situation in which participation from those in the lower socioeconomic groupings in our society is at 26%, while we have practically full participation from those born into the higher professional grouping. At present access to third level is not on merit, it is a lottery based upon which family and which area you were born into, and that level of gross inequality is Government policy driven.

Education at third level is not a privilege; it is a right. It is the State's responsibility to ensure that all of our children should have access to that right, irrespective of socioeconomic background, disability, gender, ethnicity or age. As the largest party of the left in this country, Sinn Féin wants to build a consensus among progressive parties and garner broad support for an education system which should be fully publicly funded and accessible to all citizens. We support the call for a truly publicly funded higher education system and we are also committed to opposing any move to implement an income-contingent loan scheme to fund third level.

It is deeply concerning that this House is divided on the subject of income-contingent loans. That division is evident in the cynical political manoeuvring of Fianna Fáil's amendment and the ideologically driven Fine Gael amendment. We understand Fine Gael's opposition to the motion. It is a right-wing party so it will favour a student loans model. If Fine Gael had its way, it would hand over third level education lock, stock and barrel to big business to run as they see fit. I want to make it clear that we are fully aware of the politics at play here this evening and that Fianna Fáil - the flip-flop party - does not want to see a vote on Labour's motion because then it would have to show its hand regarding student loans. It is a joke that the Fianna Fáil counter-motion takes no position on the income-contingent loans model. Yes, it says it can be very uncertain but what exactly does that mean? The loans model is at the very centre of the Labour Bill and Fianna Fáil has cynically tried to avoid the whole issue.

I am sure we are all aware of the massive failure which these loans have been in every country in which they have been introduced. In England student debt rocketed from £12.2 billion sterling in 2001 to £86.2 billion sterling in 2016, and it is expected that 70% of those students will never pay back their loans. New Zealand has now made it a criminal offence to default on loans and officers are waiting at airports in Australia to arrest graduates flying home for funerals and weddings. What sort of a Ponzi scheme is that? The participation level of the lowest socioeconomic grouping in Australia has fallen to 16%, much lower even than our own, while in Britain, for the first time ever, 2013 saw a decrease in participation from the poorest section of society, those who are in receipt of the free school allowance. This model exacerbates inequality. Not only that, but fresh research from Trinity College Dublin has suggested that Ireland's economy and culture would be the perfect storm of chaos in which to introduce such a model.

This model will not work in a country that has, first, a history of emigration, as graduates will just leave, second, a culture of high levels of personal debt and, third, an economy characterised by low wages and precarious employment. Furthermore, research carried out by Larkin and Corbet in 2015 suggested that, for such a model to work in Ireland, we would need at the most a default rate of 15%. Considering the British default rate is as high as 70%, this is really just fantasy economics. On the other hand, the empirical evidence on our side behind publicly funded third level education has been proved time and time again to be economically sound. There is a reason the Nordic countries pay their students to go to university. There is a reason Germany has free third level education, not only for its own citizens but even for those who live outside of Germany. The reason is that education is not simply a cost; it is an investment from which the State will see a return, that is, if graduates do not flee the country afterwards.

I want to address the questions submitted by Senator Maria Byrne, namely, how do we pay for a fully publicly funded education system? I have to put it to the Senator that it is about political choices. Fine Gael thinks its more important to fund corporate welfare, so it gifts the hotel industry €600 million per year via a VAT tax break so that tourists can secure a single bed hotel room tonight for €170, if they are lucky, and it gifts multinational corporations actual tax rates as low as 2%, as opposed to the official rate of 12.5%. We could introduce a third tier of income tax for those individuals earning over €100,000; in fact, that used to be Labour Party policy. We could also reverse the lowering of the threshold for inheritance tax, which would be a real statement of challenging inequality.

In conclusion, this debate is very welcome as it shines a light on the ideological divide in this Chamber. It is the progressive left against the hard right. All of us on the left need to be more ambitious. It is not good enough to settle for propping up one or other of the conservative parties in government. We need to work together to offer a real alternative to the electorate on education and a whole host of other key social and economic issues. I commend this motion, which will have our full support.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House in her new position, which is a much-needed role.

I would like to start by thanking the Labour Party Senators for tabling this crucial motion and allowing us to debate what is essentially the heart of the question on the future of higher education funding in this country. I believe that how a state funds higher education reflects the values intrinsic to it and the importance that it places on the personal and social development of all its citizens. The social, cultural and financial benefit of education on society is much greater than the individual gain. What education provides to this State as a collective and all that it creates should result in it being Ireland's most powerful and worthwhile investment. Every graduate goes on to have an impact, whether they are nurses, social workers, artists, teachers or politicians. Education has a limitless multiplying effect on society. Education is a state's greatest investment and should never be viewed as a cost in the traditional sense. Even the individual benefit of an education has an impact on society, such as a person having improved health, paying greater tax, being less likely to need social welfare assistance, being more likely to have children who attend third level education and having more disposable income that will contribute to the economic activity of the country. Society benefits at every point from education. Education is a state's greatest investment, not our greatest cost.

The Union of Students in Ireland runs a campaign called Education Is where people are encouraged to share what education is for them and the impact that it has. For me, education is possibility. It makes change, success, this House, entrepreneurship, life-saving medicine, scientific breakthroughs, and our poets and artists possible. Education is possibility. Education is a state's greatest investment, not our greatest cost. Education is transformative and its transformative nature can change the world. It can transform poverty and people, it can transform helplessness into power and hopelessness into action, it can transform inter-generational poverty and it transforms possibility into actuality. It is only when we turn possibility into actuality that we have change. I only have to look at the transformation that it has had on my own life and that the impact that free fees have had on my life to know its transformative power. Education is a state's greatest investment, not our greatest cost.

Education is life-saving. Every day, students and graduates do amazing and incredible things. Graduates change and save lives, from legislation and policy to services for the most vulnerable. Every year, thousands of students graduate from university. They will change lives and impact on society positively every day for the rest of their days, not just affecting change here in Ireland but also responding to humanitarian crises and global challenges all over the world. Education is a state's greatest investment, not our greatest cost.

Plato believed that the highest goal of education is the knowledge of the good, and that is what education is. It is the highest form of all that is good and all that should be a public good. Plato also believed that the state is an educational community. The state itself is created by education and it can only survive on the condition that all citizens receive an education that enables them to make rational political decisions. It is up to us to make those rational decisions.

For me, education is a great equaliser and I think, as legislators, we have a political responsibility as well as a moral one to ensure the existence of an accessible and well-funded public education system that works for the betterment of society and all its citizens. That being said, we can probably always have the ideological argument over how we pay for third level education. However, when it comes to the central question that is before education policy makers today - whether to introduce an income contingent loan scheme - it is abundantly clear that the international evidence shows such schemes are bad policy, plain and simple.

In all of my research into loan schemes internationally, as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, and during our debates on the Cassells report, I simply cannot find a jurisdiction where it can be claimed that such a scheme has even remotely been a success, no matter what metric is used to measure it. In Australia, which has had a loan scheme for 20 years, the rate of participation from low socio-economic groups in higher education is a full 10% lower than Ireland currently and yet we are told that introducing a scheme in this country would not hamper access. In the United Kingdom, the number of mature students and part-time students in higher education has fallen off a cliff with the UK's Independent Commission on Fees accrediting the introduction of fees with the strong decline in university entrants from non-traditional families. How can we maintain education as a challenger of socio-economic inequality if this trend was to be reproduced in Ireland? In the Irish context, recently published research shows that 50% of graduates could be unable to pay back the value of their loan over a 20-year period, and a loan scheme would greatly increase emigration rates among young people. By introducing one, we would be effectively telling students to take on huge debts, collect their degrees and get out.

I note in the Government amendment that a reference is made to anyone calling for public funding for higher education to be able "to state where they would get the money to fund it", which I presume is a crude implication that those who oppose student loans are in some way fiscally illiterate. I reject this because the fact is that we have options for funding. I recently made a submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform related to the national training levy, which argued that since employers in this country benefit hugely from higher education, it is a logical step that they should be expected to pay more to fund it. There are alternatives to loans. All it takes is the political will and courage to investigate them.

Ultimately, I do not think that income contingent loan schemes are the right course for Ireland. If an income contingent loan scheme had been the only option for me when I returned to college as a mature student and lone parent, I would not be standing in this Chamber today. Moreover, I am convinced that, considering the wealth of international evidence, such a scheme is bad policy. I think that we can do better by young people and people of all ages who wish to access the transformative power of higher education. To conclude, education is our greatest investment and not our greatest cost. I am proud to support the motion today and will be voting against the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael amendments, neither of which rule out the adoption of loan schemes.

I thank Senator Ruane. As there is a vacancy in the next section of the rota, I am using my discretion as the Acting Chairman to allocate it to the father of the House, Senator David Norris. He has eight minutes.

I appreciate the Acting Chairman's generosity. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the representatives of the education sector.

The amendment by Fine Gael, where it says that it affirms the commitment to equity in education, is a lot of blather. If it did, it would come out and say that it was in favour of free education. The whole phrase "free fees" is an oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms and is an absolute nonsense. Universal education is either free or fees are charged for it. I remember talking with the students in UCD about this when fees were introduced and I suggested to them that the best thing they could do would be to look at the question of means-testing and ensure, because this is the political reality, that the means test was sufficiently high to ensure that everybody who needed access to education got it. That is where the real battle should have been, in my opinion. I accept that there are still economic stringencies here, but this motion is a wishful one. It puts down what the ideal position would be, and I honour the Labour Party for doing so.

If an income contingent loan scheme is introduced, it means that 80% or 90% of students will simply bugger off and leave without paying the debt, and I think they would be perfectly sensible to do so. It is rather a pity. We do not like emigration, but that is the fact. The loans will not be paid back anyway, so that information might as well just be absorbed. I paid fees for my first 18 months in Trinity College Dublin, because although I did particularly well in the leaving certificate and was entitled to a county council scholarship, it was only tenable at UCD. Only one old cousin of my mother's had ever gone to UCD. He went in 1916 to study Irish. That was a bit of a facer for the family as well, and paradoxically, he was the only member of the family in recent history to be attacked by the IRA, though he got his vengeance.

It would be a real pity to expect that students should start their professional lives with their hands tied behind their backs. That is what a loan is. Having to pay this off hobbles people for years. Free education has always been opposed by the vested interests. Primary education was opposed by the landlords in the 19th century, who thought the cost would be too much. It was opposed for secondary schools in the 1960s because of cost, and laughably, it was said that it was of doubtful educational value.

It was utter, complete and total nonsense.

I have been contacted by a large number of people and would like to give voice to their views. Sometimes this is one of the most valuable things we can do in Seanad Éireann.

I received an email from a young woman, a student in a secondary school. She is a member of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union and may be seated in the Visitors Gallery. She said:

I know that a loan scheme would be a barrier to education, especially for young people like myself. The idea of having to take out a massive loan to cover the cost of my education is certainly a deterrent for families like mine.

We, along with our parents, are extremely concerned at the prospect of student loans exceeding €20,000 per student, especially while some students' families are already struggling, impoverished, and cannot afford, or will be deterred by such a level of debt.

I say in passing to the Minister of State that every person who has spoken this evening has stated that, in principle, he or she is in favour of free fees. They have also stated, without exception, that they are opposed to student loans. I believe the Minister of State who is a caring and intelligent person will accept their views as being the views of Seanad Éireann.

I received another email from somebody in third level education. He said he had written to me to let me know that quite a large number of his friends and colleagues had dropped out of third level education "because they couldn't afford to buy the college textbooks." If someone could not afford to meet the cost of books then, how, in the name of God, would he or she be able to afford the price of education and university fees?

I received another communication from a man who said he would find it extremely difficult to afford third level education if this initiative was introduced. He said:

I am one of six children in the family. Three have gone to university and I hope that the other two will be able to do so as well.

He said that, in the nature of things, he would be unable to attend college if there were no free fees. I should not allow myself to use the obnoxious phrase "free fees" which I blame on Ruairí Quinn. He made an ass of himself in signing the initiative, but at heart he was a decent man. I am sure he wanted to have free education, but he was overcome by events.

The National Youth Council of Ireland which represents 49 national organisations has come out against this fees initiative. I have received communications from an officer of the Trinity College Dublin Students' Union and the education officer of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU. I have also received a message from SIPTU stating: "We are absolutely convinced that the UK model of student loans is not the way to go". SIPTU is one of the largest, if not the largest, trade unions in the country. It has been estimated that the current level of indebtedness for a student in the United Kingdom is £50,000. How could anybody afford to pay such a sum? A person will be paying it off for the rest of his or her life. It is almost as bad as a mortgage.

A point has been made that is crucial to the debate - participation in higher education is not just a private good; it is also a significant public good. It is in the public interest to help to pay for education.

Let us compare the systems in place in Australia and Ireland. In Australia 24.4% of graduates have taken out commercial loans. In Ireland only 13% of graduates have done so, mainly from banks. Among the groups that are particularly hit by fees are women students who have a particular vulnerability. In Ireland the participation rate among the lowest socioeconomic groups in 2012-13 was 26% for students from semi-skilled-unskilled manual working class backgrounds and 23% from non-manual working class backgrounds. In Australia the participation rate among the lowest socioeconomic group was 16.9%. There is a difference of 10%, which is very significant. In 2016 the participation rate among the lowest socioeconomic group was 18%.

Another point that needs to be considered, one about which nobody has spoken, concerns the impact on students with disabilities who are already at a disadvantage. I am glad to say that Trinity College Dublin deals with them pretty well, in advance of many other colleges. Students with disabilities also have very considerable difficulty in finding work after graduating which would allow them to pay off a loan. They, too, are at a very considerable disadvantage.

One accepts that there is a very difficult funding position for universities. It is one of the reasons Irish universities have dropped down the world league tables and the figures are astonishing. Between 2008 and 2015 the level of State aid given to third level education dropped by 21%. The figure was 73% in 2008 and 52% in 2015. It is a really serious problem. For that reason, I am glad that the Government has appointed a special Minister of State with responsibility for third level education.

I will be in contact later with my colleague and good friend Ruairí Quinn. I will tell him that Senator David Norris was asking for him.

Give him my love.

He will be amused by that message, but he will be even more amused to learn that Fianna Fáil Senators delivered their criticism of him with a straight face.

They did so without any sense of irony or appreciation of the circumstances in which they left the country in 2010 and 2011.

Like the Minister of State, I am extremely passionate about education and convinced that the third level sector needs more State aid, not less. I was the first member of my immediate and wider family to have the privilege to attend university. My father was a factory worker who did not have that opportunity. My mother was a stay-at-home mam. She, too, did not have the opportunity and neither did my grandparents or anybody else in my family. The State educated me from primary to third level, a fact of which I am proud. I am proud because that is what this Republic does. I am proud that these Houses have decided continuously to do it for many generations. I am also proud of the Labour Party's historic decision in the mid 1990s to open up access to third level for everybody, regardless of from where one came from or one's income. It is arguable if I would be standing here were it not for the fact that I accessed free third level education. I do not know where I would be, but I am convinced that I would not be here. The opportunities I enjoyed with others broadened my horizons and those of my peer group in my community. Access to free third level education had opened up a host of opportunities that had been denied to my father and my mother, not because of a lack of ability but because of where they came from and their lack of income.

As my colleague, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said, education is the great liberator and a great leveller. For that reason, I do not want any income contingent loan scheme to be introduced. As my colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, said in reference to Andrew Adonis who made interesting remarks last week, he was the architect of the UK system introduced a number of years ago. I agree with him that, to use his quote, it is a "Frankenstein's monster," and that university tuition fees have spun out of control in the United Kingdom. Nobody is clear on the direction they are takeing, other than it is upwards. The fear of accruing debts of between £50,000 and £60,000 in pursuing a three or four-year college degree in the United Kingdom is already having an impact on the number of undergraduates from lower socioeconomic groups choosing to participate in third level education. Anything that would narrow access to third level education for working class people and ensure that it would be the preserve of young people whose families are professionals or who come from the farming and business communities, frankly, should be taken off the table.

Even if one is ideologically predisposed towards introducing an income contingent loan scheme, it would be economically illiterate and there is evidence to prove my claim. The Institute of Fiscal Studies in the United Kingdom has estimated that about 77% of graduates will not pay back their loans in full. Earlier my colleague, Senator Paul Gavan, referred to an analysis which had been carried out by Corbet and Larkin. They believe the risk of default, should a similar system be applied here, would be so enormous as to make an income contingent loan scheme inoperable.

From an economic point of view, the scheme would not even wash its own face. Apart entirely from concerns about loading young people with enormous levels of debt that they would have to carry throughout their working lives, the initiative simply does not work from an economic perspective.

I am surprised the Labour Party has been accused of adopting a populist position on this matter. God knows our history shows that is not the position the Labour Party, my party and a party I am proud to be a member of, has ever taken. We know the value of things but we also know the cost. I think nothing more populist has been done in these Houses in recent times than the abolition of water charges. It was done to allow the Government to continue in office - not in power, but in office. It is worth noting an article on the front page of today's Irish Examiner where it has been claimed that a massive budgetary hole has been left in the Estimates this year and that the State needs to spend €200 million on its water service. Interestingly, with the stroke of a pen, that €200 million could abolish the student contribution charge for this year.

Most of the Senators have already raised my concerns. I view this matter differently because I am a parent who has sent her four children to third level education. I believe in free education but, unfortunately, there is no such thing. Primary school education is under-resourced and parents are seeking help. Secondary school students use iPads but, unfortunately, most families cannot afford them. Parents now find it hard to educate their children and that is a major flaw in the system.

At one stage I had to pay fees for my three children who were in third level education. Nobody here has mentioned recent increases in registration fees. Two years ago the fee was €2,750 but then it was increased to €3,000. We should have a system in place that does not charge €3,000 to register. People cannot afford to pay the fee. We must introduce a system that reduces the fee. Some colleges will take payment in instalments while others do not. All parents should be given the option of paying by instalments. Unfortunately, it is left to the colleges to decide whether fees can be paid in instalments, which is unacceptable. We must legislate and thus ensure that every third level college adopts a system of payment that allows instalments to be paid. We must also reduce the registration fee.

The Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants is another big issue that has not been mentioned today. SUSI grants are an absolute disaster. There is no such thing as an appeals system and PAYE workers are crippled. I know students who did not qualify for the grant because they were €5 or €10 over the qualifying threshold. I asked SUSI to make an exception but its staff would not budge. If these failings in the system are not addressed, how can we have free education? The reason half of the kids do not get to third level is because they are not given a chance by not being allowed to avail of a SUSI grant. The current system is not fit for purpose. We must reduce registration fees of €3,000. We need a payment system that allows instalments to be made and we need the SUSI grants to be reformed. Tomorrow is the last day one can apply for a SUSI grant and I have emailed many people about the closing date. The staff in SUSI are very good and answer all queries. My issue is that they can show no leniency no matter how much one appeals to them that a person is only €5 over the qualifying threshold.

Let us say two parents in a family are in work and one has a student who works at Christmas and during holiday period. All that income is taken into consideration. The money earned by a student working to earn enough to put himself or herself through college should not be taken into consideration when it comes to SUSI grants. The student's earnings are included on the P60 that belongs to his or her parents and, as a result, the student does not qualify for a grant. Students have cried in my office because they did not qualify for a SUSI grant and, therefore, could not go to college. We must address these matters first and then examine the bigger picture of giving free education. I am all for free education after putting four children through college.

The loan system is another issue. As Members will know, there is a shortage of doctors even though some of them will have availed of a loan system. There is a loan system in England and other countries but it burdens students with a debt even before they graduate. A loan system only works if a person is guaranteed a job, which I do not think will happen. I totally oppose the loan system as it does not work.

I have massive concerns about postgraduate education. More funding must be given to postgraduate education. I agree with the principle that students should not have to pay but we must be realistic. If the Government cannot resolve the current issues then how can we have no fees for students? I am surprised at the Labour Party's proposal. I am surprised that its Senators have not lobbied the Minister of State today for a better system or fought like I have done every day for an improved SUSI system and for fees to be reassessed. It is only after we have worked on the areas that I have outlined that we can examine the prospect of free education, starting with primary education. We must address the fact there is no such thing as free education.

I want to say to the students seated in the Visitors Gallery that I know where they are coming from on this matter as I have put my four kids through college. The Minister of State must resolve these matters before examining the issue of free education.

Senator Murnane O'Connor made a very good contribution because she highlighted many of the issues that cause difficulty for people. Even with free education people struggle to meet the costs of travel and accommodation. It is very difficult to get accommodation in the larger urban conurbations, which is where all of our universities are located.

I will start at the beginning and touch on the same point that the last speaker mentioned. Let us remember that everybody goes to primary school and that we want everybody to go to secondary school but that not everybody goes to third level. When it comes to investment we must ensure the investment in the first two is right. I would like to see more focus on or at least equal status given to apprenticeships for carpenters, plumbers, fitters and various areas that are involved in business. As someone who has been through third level education, I believe there is a touch of intellectual snobbery when it come to trades versus the professions and others.

I agree with much of what Senator Ó Ríordáin had to say and that education is a great liberator, that knowledge is power and that education leads to knowledge and an ability to use knowledge. That is why I would personally like to see free third level education. However, this motion is premature in that it seeks to pre-empt the work of the joint committee which is considering how we can achieve the goal of making third level education available to all those who wish to avail of it. I do not want to be over political but I think it is wrong that the Labour Party would try to gazump the committee.

Fine Gael has been the party of a just society and equal opportunity. As somebody who believes in the basic foundations of our Republic in terms of equality and cherishing all of our children equally, I believe that everybody should get the same chance and that it should not be contingent on one's income. I am a parent of five adults. Having listened to Senator Norris I wish to say that two of my children went to Trinity.

One of them is autistic and got great support there with the difficulties he faced because of his condition. He went on to graduate from Trinity so I commend that university for what it has done in this area. I also commend DCU for the initiative it is starting in the coming weeks to create an autism-friendly campus. This will support people on the spectrum, many of whom have tremendous talent. Many, however, are seriously challenged and third level is beyond their reach. I agree with my colleagues here. Of all the rights we have, the right to health care and the right to education are critical. These are basic rights that every citizen in our Republic should enjoy. We struggle with both and I would like to see both addressed.

The Labour Party motion addresses free third level education, which is something that we would all like to see. It does not, however, tell us how we are to achieve that. The Cassells report states that this would cost €1.3 billion per annum, while still providing for the level of investment needed by higher level education. There is a responsibility on any party calling for such a measure to show how that money will be acquired. I could go into a long list of areas competing for that money, but that would give the wrong message. The message I want to give here is that we need to be mature about this and give the committee time to do the work that we want it to do. We need to allow it to come back to us with its recommendation on how we can achieve the best outcome. I for one hope that that recommendation will indeed be that there be no fees. Young people face so many challenges in life already with the cost of accommodation, mortgages and child care. I do not want to see them with the further burden of a big student loan to pay off as they set off in life and look forward to starting a family. I do not want to see them looking forward to having the freedom to travel but then being afraid to come back.

I ask that we support the amendment so as to allow the committee, that all parties agreed to, to do its work. I do not understand where this motion is coming from when we have a committee in place to deliver what it is that we want.

I have to call the Minister of State at 6.42 p.m. and four Members have indicated to speak in the meantime. The next speaker is Senator Mullen who has eight minutes. If the Senator will stick rigidly to the time then everybody will get in.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chuir roimh an Aire Stait agus, dála an scéil, fáilte a chur roimh an díospóireacht seo agus roimh cinnirí na mac léinn atá anseo linn sa Seanad inniu. I have no problem with the Labour Party jumping in ahead of the working group committee because I find it important that Members of the Seanad express their views on this important issue.

I canvassed views from friends and contacts with an interest in the area. One correspondent wrote back to me as follows:

As we speak many third level students are working around Ireland, Britain, Europe, and on J1 visas in America having left college two or three months ago. These learners have up to five months off between the calendar academic years and therefore have ample opportunity to earn some money to pay for tuition fees. During the college year many students work during the day, at night or at weekends to fund their study. Not every student can or does gain employment during the summer but the point remains — students do have a source of income during the length of their academic programme, and that also includes Leaving Cert. students who are about to start level six, seven or eight programmes.

This is not my view. I do believe, however, that students are responsible for their own learning. This means they attend regularly, they complete their exams and continuous assessment assignments to the best of their ability, and also that they pay a contribution towards their third level education. If students are financing their own higher education programme by way of proposed income-linked loans, it could mean they might be more accountable for their own academic lives and career prospects.

I do not say this with 100% certainty, however. What concerns me here today is that we stay with ideas. We need to be willing to accept that there are different legitimate points of view on an issue like this as we try to identify the common good and what it is that makes for the most just solution, having regard to finite resources. We need to be aware of the important value and privilege attached to a third level education. This is why I dislike the tone of today's debate. Competing parties, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party in particular, seem interested only in competing for the left-wing label. Listening to some of the Senators today, it sounds to me like they are less interested in student welfare and more interested in co-opting students as a lobby or demographic to be manipulated or taken ownership of. This lets down students and lets down this debate because there are legitimate issues here that need to be held in tension.

Knowing that one has to repay fees when one has reached a position of relative prosperity after college might help give students a real desire to achieve high grades by meeting all of the learning outcomes set out in their course of choice. I do not say that it definitely will, of course. It might perhaps create a healthier third level sector overall. Third level institutions are facing multiple challenges regarding growing learner numbers, funding provisions, and also retention and progression rates. Recent figures from the Higher Education Authority show that every year some 6,200 students, one in six, drop out during their first year in college.

These issues might be affected by the decision that we make here. At present students are taking out bank loans, with many being charged the associated interest fees. These loans are already a serious burden on the shoulders of learners. Income-contingent loans could be more equitable in that they allow students to pay back the State subvention when they reach a certain income threshold. My point is that we should not be afraid of ideas. We should not label as "ideological" ideas that are opposed to our own. I would rather hear the case being made for different ideas in an honest way that seeks to understand the point of view of the other side. What concerns me, however, is where we set this threshold. What threshold of income would a graduate have to reach before being required to pay his or her education back? This is the really relevant point here. If the threshold is high people have a fair chance to enjoy the benefit of their third level education and then give something back to society. A low threshold, however, would be less just.

We also have to be aware of the greed and ambition of higher education institutions. These institutions have sometimes inflated notions of their entitlements, not least to pay high salaries to their staff. Many of them are also becoming very conscious of their image in the international education marketplace but this is not always to the benefit of students. In the lead story in The Irish Times yesterday we learned yet again that some institutions have resisted declaring the millions of euro they hold in private trusts and foundations. We need to be very careful about the vested interests in education. We also need to be very wary of the possibility that the introduction of an income-contingent loan scheme could be taken advantage of by both institutions and, indeed, the State in order to ramp up fees and, by extension, the students' future debt.

Many students currently find themselves just outside the eligibility limits of the SUSI income indicators. They cannot get a grant, therefore, and must struggle financially through college or not go at all. At least the proposed loan initiative could help in this regard by removing the student’s parental income, via the grants support system, as a significant factor. That could be fairer.

The idea of an income-contingent loan, one of three possible third-level funding options proposed in the Cassells report, could be a way forward. I am willing to state that and to engage with the ideas on that basis. I note that a recent sitting of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills was told by Dr. Aedín Doris of Maynooth University's economics department that a careful analysis of the fiscal implications of income-contingent loan schemes shows they are feasible in Ireland. She concluded that a scheme, "would allow a substantial increase in higher education funding without reducing access and at a lower cost to the Exchequer compared with other alternatives". If that is true then it needs to be considered. What we need to test is whether it really is true. There is a lack of realism in today's motion from the Labour Party and the way in which it is presented. It is just too ideological. The agenda is too much about co-opting students as a class with this superficially attractive idea. I agree, incidentally, that a significant number of people from rural and lower socio-economic backgrounds have benefitted from a publicly-funded path to third level.

I come from a farming background and benefitted from it myself. An income-contingent loan scheme can also provide people from this demographic with the opportunity to go to college, upskill and compete in the labour market upon graduation. They will then be less vulnerable to future economic and social changes. The loan initiative need not force students to emigrate, cripple students financially for years after graduation, deter potential students from applying to go to third level nor leave the State with a large bill for unpaid fees. It all depends on how it is done.

The Minister of State has said that doing nothing about the future funding of higher education is not an option. It is estimated that the third-level sector needs an extra €1 billion investment and that has relevance to decisions to be made by the Oireachtas. Members must stay with the ideas and recognise that there are compelling arguments but that it has to be done right and cannot become an excuse for ramping up fees. It cannot become an excuse for the State not to invest in education. I am a firm believer in giving something back and that third level education is a privilege. If I thought that money could be more generously diverted to particular socially disadvantage areas that perhaps require greater investment, I would be very tempted to support this concept. However, Members must not allow themselves to be manipulated by political parties that are only interested in clamouring for votes and attention. We should focus on the common good and where that might lie.

I welcome the Labour Party motion. I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment and I welcome the citizens in the Public Gallery.

I regret that Senator Mullen feels that a to and fro has developed between Sinn Féin and the Labour Party. I think what Senator Gavan has set out and what I will set out is a vision for a political system that does not make promises it cannot keep but rather keeps every commitment it makes. Sinn Féin and I have worked well with the Labour Party. That has certainly been the case on every occasion I have brought forward legislation in the past year.

This motion strikes to the heart of social inequality in the State. Sinn Féin and I believe that equality of opportunity is key to combatting classism and that education is the means to achieve that. Article 42 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, published in 1937, instills the right of every child in the State to a primary education. In 1966 the then Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, introduced free secondary education for all children. In 1995 the then Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, abolished third level fees. Throughout the history of the State, governments have realised the social deprivation caused by a limited access model and taken significant steps to address issues of access to education in order to break down the socio-economic barriers that exist.

It has been said in the House and at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills that the free fees model is no longer free and that the current model is unfair and undue fee rises are unsustainable. I listened to the presentations on this issue to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and noted that no advocate for a deferred payment model made reference to a working international model, the fiscal flexibility of the State to incur such debt or the horrific and inequitable burdening debt that has been incurred by students in Australia, the United States and Britain. We currently have an access crisis with fees being among the highest in Europe, maintenance grants having been slashed and student assistance fund applications having surged as students and their families struggle to bear the rising costs of living. The arguments for a deferred payment model heard by the committee do not hold true and have been completely dispelled by Professor Kathleen Lynch of UCD and Dr. Charles Larkin of Trinity College Dublin.

I commend Senators Bacik and Ó Ríordáin for bringing this motion to the House alongside the significant work done on the issue by representatives from various organisations such as the Union of Students of Ireland, USI, the Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education and the Irish Secondary Level Students Union. Progressive forces in this House commend their activism. The Oireachtas is nothing without the people and I thank those organisations for the arguments they have presented for a publicly-funded education system which I and progressive forces in the House believe have won. It will take political will and bravery for the Government to meet the aspirations of previous visionary Ministers for Education.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus déanaim comhghairdeas léi ar a ceapachán agus cuirim fáilte roimh na haíonna sa Ghailearaí inniu.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. I have no problem with this issue being discussed in the Seanad and coming off the fence, as I wish Fianna Fáil would, because the overwhelming body of evidence that has been presented to the committee is totally against the income contingent loan model. There have been very few compelling arguments to support the other side. In the context of the third level education sector, in recent years there have been cuts to non-adjacent grants and post-grad grants, increases in registration fees and cuts to young people's social welfare payments. That drove tens of thousands of young people out of third level, out of the country and to places such as Canada, Australia and so on. That created a class divide because people with money in their back pockets were able to continue to go to third level. Those people will get degrees and be able to afford to do a post grad and will be more qualified when applying for jobs in the civil service and so on. We are creating a divide and one has been created. That is one of the arguments in favour of free third level education.

I have likened the creation of the income contingent loan scheme to an Irish Water model for third level. The cost of setting it up has not been clarified and the State would be pumping money into a model which has been seen to fail internationally. We should not put money into such a scheme.

A report of the Committee of Public Accounts has considered how money is spent at third level institutions. NUI Galway is sitting on a war chest of over €50 million while at the same time it comes in with one arm longer than the other seeking funding for students in colleges where labs do not have the proper equipment and supplies needed to teach students or are over crowded and so on. We should examine how money is spent in third level. There needs to be far more transparency in terms of fees paid to staff at high levels in the colleges. When cases such as the NUI Galway gender equality case arise there is no shortage of money to fight those legal battles, nor when it comes to hiring consultants. However, in terms of the conditions for university staff, many lecturers and teachers at lower levels are on contracts of indefinite duration, do not know when their contracts will end or whether they will be continued and are already struggling for money. There has been massive outsourcing of staff within universities as well and people on very poor pay and conditions are being employed as cleaners and so on.

Young people should not come out of college with a millstone around their neck because of the income contingent loan model. In relation to credit ratings, if a student graduates with a loan of €50,000 to be repaid and he or she wants get on the property ladder and take out a mortgage, buy a car or undertake further education or professional training of any sort and they go and look for a loan, the first thing the bank will do is ask him or her what his or her credit rating is and whether he or she has any other bills. The student will not be able to take out those extra loans etc. That will be a huge disadvantage unless he or she has someone who can offer financial support and if he or she has that disposable income.

Issues in respect of people taking the wrong courses at third level need to be addressed. Part of that reason for those issues has been the cut to guidance counsellors at second level. A full complement of guidance counsellors at second level is needed to put people into the right course in order that they stick with it.

Several third level institutions are operating subsidiary companies, some of which provide services like online training and so on. There needs to be an examination of how those companies are being run because they are bringing in a significant amount of money and many are operating under charitable status, which is questionable.

The Fianna Fáil amendment to the Bill is cynical. It is about time Fianna Fáil got off the fence. I am confused by its Jekyll and Hyde approach to this model. Its members need to tell us whether or not they are in favour of income contingent loans and stop trying to hide behind an amendment that is going to get them off the hook.

It is condescending and sanctimonious of Senator Mullen to say that Sinn Féin is trying to steal the votes of certain people in the third level sector. Anybody I have met from the third level sector is well able to make up his or her own mind about who he or she wants to support politically.

I am sure they will do that. We are very much in favour of this motion. I hope that Fianna Fáil and the Government will withdraw their amendments.

I congratulate the Minister of State on her appointment and look forward to working with her. I welcome all the visitors to the House.

I strongly support this motion, but not the amendments. We have heard many nice words and many words about education across the House. Some practical proposals have been made, including on grants, but the nub of the debate today is where we, as public representatives, stand on publicly funded and supported education and, specifically, on the question of income-contingent loans. I slightly disagree with one of my colleagues on the other side of the House in that it is not a case that the income-contingent loans might lead to better or more equitable education outcomes because the evidence shows they do not. It is not a question of "might" but of "do not". That evidence is not from people of left-wing or other ideological perspectives but from the very designers of the schemes. They put them into practice and the evidence shows they do not work. I will not go into all the figures because others have outlined them. With regard to access, to which everybody in this House says they are committed, the rate among the lowest socio-economic group in Australia, for example, is 16% while it is 23% in Ireland. In Australia, 70% feel they have to work part-time during their education because they are in debt from the beginning. They are chasing themselves all the way through their education. The percentage in Ireland is 41%. Therefore, there is no benefit in terms of freeing people to focus on their education. It does not lead to greater access.

In the United Kingdom, significant issues are associated with the fall-away in terms of access. One of the reasons we need to have this debate is the regrettable fact that the Cassells report did not dive deeper into the issues of equality. There is a considerable gender aspect. Women are deeply disadvantaged in this. There is a huge drop-off in participation by women, particularly part-time and mature students. The figure is very stark. Ireland is currently one of the world leaders in terms of the number of mature students who participate in our education system. In the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2015, there was a 40% fall in the mature student number. This is massive. Those particularly affected are those who feel they cannot go back to education after a certain period, including carers. We have a child care system in Ireland in which women are carrying that burden. Those who have had an education face an issue in going back into education. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are affected. We have heard about disability. All the evidence, when drilled down, shows that inequality features right across the spectrum.

A point I wish to make in addition to that on individual access concerns the public good. There is a considerable public good associated with education - we have heard it talked about passionately - but there is also a danger in incentivising migration and encouraging people to stay away. Vulnerable departments, such as humanities departments, face real risk because we do not have in Ireland the same scale as in the US or UK. There is a real danger that we will see vulnerable departments, crucial to innovation and creativity, not getting students because of a more utilitarian route being forced upon them.

The dividend comes out in different ways. We need to have a progressive taxation system. Absolutely, if one has benefited from education and is earning high wages, something should kick in. It should be a progressive taxation system. When one is earning is when one should be paying back. Getting it at that end rather than at this end means we can recognise there can be social dividends. In respect of our institutes of technology, for example, the dividend students give back may not involve an arrangement as simple as paying back a loan to a financial institution, probably abroad and probably not paying tax itself. It may be that they would give back through the community, social change, the kind of innovation about which the Minister of State is very passionate, and the kind of creativity that is the foundation of long-term growth.

I cannot support the Government amendment. I have many ideas for how one could pay. Some of the research and development tax breaks associated with the knowledge box would be number one for me. I recognise Fianna Fáil is coming towards this position but I cannot support the motion because it involves too much of a process.

I welcome this opportunity to address the House. I look forward to engaging with Members of both Houses as we seek to address some of the important challenges that are currently facing the higher education sector. I look forward to engaging with colleagues from all parties and none on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which has a most important task regarding higher education. It is examining the Cassells report, commissioned by the former Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn. I really hope it can reach broad agreement on the most appropriate sustainable future funding model for higher education.

Until the committee concludes its work, it is premature and disrespectful to the committee and its members to discuss the funding options for higher education at this point. Many of the committee members spoke today, including Senators Ó Clochartaigh, Ruane, Gallagher and Byrne. I believe Deputy Joan Burton represents the Labour Party on the education committee.

Senator John O'Mahony asked me a direct question as to whether the decision was made regarding the income-contingent loans. May I say loud and clear that this Government has not made a decision? What we have done is tasked the education committee, which is cross-party in nature, with examining this issue. If our Oireachtas committee system is to work, it is right that the Government should await its deliberations.

I have listened very carefully today and have heard excellent contributions. I do not want this debate to be divisive, based on left-right politics, or to be ideological; what I want is the committee to come back to me. We will respectfully consider its deliberations. As Minister of State responsible for higher education, I will do so.

The motion, as tabled, contains a number of sentiments with which I am in total agreement: the importance of promoting equality of access across the education spectrum for all citizens; the benefits that accrue to individuals and the wider economy and society as a result of increased access to educational opportunities; and the recognition that there is a significant funding challenge in higher education, clearly identified in the Cassells report, that must be addressed in order to provide a more sustainable future funding model for higher education. I do not agree, however, that we should be seeking to pre-empt or undermine in any way the work of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. Today, I met the Chairman and learned there have been many hours of deliberations with the stakeholders. The committee is currently considering the funding options that are contained in the Cassells report.

A key role of the joint committee is to build political consensus on the most appropriate future funding model for higher education. I do not believe that the motion, as currently tabled, contributes towards that objective. For that reason, I will not be supporting it.

That does not mean a decision has been made, however. I do not want the message to go out that we have made a decision. We have not.

As Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, I am committed to promoting access to third level for all of our citizens. However, in recognition of the importance of education as a key enabler in breaking down cycles of disadvantage, the Department is promoting access and widening participation across the full education continuum.

In the early years sector, the Department works closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to ensure children have the best start available in terms of their educational and social development. This includes universal provision complemented by specific supports for children from less advantaged backgrounds. While Members spoke about primary and secondary schooling, preschool is important, as well as third and fourth level, lifelong, apprenticeship and skills training.

In the school sector, the Department is investing more than €100 million in 2017 to support the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, plan. DEIS is the Department’s main policy initiative to tackle educational disadvantage in schools. It provides supports to learners to participate, succeed and contribute effectively to society in a changing world. The overall objective of the 2017 DEIS plan is to target resources at identified educational need by ensuring schools catering for the highest concentrations of children at risk of educational disadvantage are fully supported to optimise improved educational outcomes. The plan identifies more than 100 actions to contribute to that objective. Key actions include prioritising school leaders and teachers in DEIS schools for professional leadership training. All post-primary schools participating in the school support programme will have access to a dedicated career guidance counsellor. The plan involves strengthening the connections between preschools and primary schools. Schools will set specific targets, including targets for literacy and numeracy, and will evaluate these annually. A new school excellence fund will support the implementation of new interventions while book rental schemes will become mandatory for schools participating in the school support programme. There will be a greater prioritisation of the National Educational Psychological Service to DEIS schools and supporting transitions from school to further and higher education.

A critical element of the new DEIS plan is also the involvement of other Departments and agencies in the delivery of key actions. The new DEIS plan is also underpinned by a new identification process for educational disadvantage which provided a robust evidence base for the targeting of resources at those most in need. This new identification process resulted in over 70 new schools which will begin to receive supports in the 2017-18 school year. A further 30 schools will receive increased supports as a result of moving from DEIS band 2 to DEIS band 1. The new identification process is also more responsive to demographic change in school communities.

The Department is promoting educational opportunities through the further education and training sector for school leavers, as well as those who are availing of second chance education and upskilling opportunities or both. In total, the Government is investing over €800 million in further education and training annually through SOLAS and the education and training boards. Further education training programmes are delivered nationwide in a wide range of settings including post-leaving certificate and further education colleges.

We are also investing in apprenticeships as a pathway to sustainable employment. The programme for Government commits to providing 31,000 apprenticeship places by 2020. The Action Plan for Education states 50,000 people will be enrolled on apprenticeship and traineeship programmes in the period to 2020. Last year, we saw the first of the new apprenticeships developed by the Apprenticeship Council, following its first call for proposals in 2015. Three further new apprenticeships got under way last month. A key commitment set out in the plan for this year is the issuing of a second call for proposals for new apprenticeships. As well as developments in new apprenticeships, registrations in the craft trades are rising as the employment and economic situation improves. Registrations at the end of June were almost 40% ahead of the same period in 2016.

In my area of higher education, the Department is active in promoting access and widening participation. Although access statistics show the position in most disadvantaged areas has still not improved, we need to do something different in this regard. The overall policy framework is provided by the national plan for equity of access to higher education. Its vision is to ensure the student body entering into, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of the population.

The plan contains more than 30 actions to achieve these targets including: addressing the issue of non-progression in higher education; developing a system for recognition of prior learning; developing measures to promote participation in initial teacher education by target students; developing measures to engage directly with communities where participation in higher education is low; and developing a data plan to measure progress. Implementation of the plan is being supported by investment of approximately €450 million in 2017. The Department provides a suite of supports intended to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as other under-represented groups, to overcome financial barriers to accessing and completing higher education. The main support is provided through the student grant scheme which will benefit approximately 80,000 students in 2017 at a cost of €380 million. Students in third level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can also apply for support under the student assistance fund. More than 77,000 third-level students have been supported by this fund over the past six years. For students with disabilities, the fund for students with disabilities provides funding for the delivery of key services and reasonable accommodations. It benefits approximately 10,000 students each year.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister of State. However, the order of the House is that I should be calling Senator Ó Ríordáin at this time. To facilitate the Minister of State completing her speech and Senator Ó Ríordáin getting his five-minute slot, I propose we extend the time for this debate for it to conclude at 7.20 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, also secured additional funding of €8.5 million for access measures in budget 2017.

This will provide for new measures to support the national access plan. There will also be incentives for higher education institutions to engage directly with disadvantaged communities in order to attract more disadvantaged students. The maintenance grant will be reinstated for the most disadvantaged postgraduate students - a comment was made about postgraduate students - and there will also be measures to facilitate more lone parents in accessing higher education, as well as a new 1916 bursary scheme. The Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, and I will be in a position to announce more details of these measures shortly. The Department also announced earlier this year funding of €2.4 million to promote access to the teacher profession for students from under-represented groups. This has real potential to provide positive role models for disadvantaged students and contribute to breaking the cycle of disadvantage.

In terms of higher education funding as a whole, I welcome the recognition in the proposed motion that there is a significant funding challenge in higher education. The expert group on the future funding of higher education, under the chairmanship of Mr. Peter Cassells, was established to develop a strategy for funding the third level sector. It engaged in a thorough process of analysis and consultation, national and international. The report which was published in July 2016 outlines the funding challenges in the higher education sector and offers a number of approaches and recommendations for consideration in the medium term.

The expert group estimates that an additional €600 million per annum will be required to meet increasing student demographics and deliver high quality outcomes by 2021, with the additional annual requirement rising to €1 billion by 2030. The expert group identifies three funding options for consideration, including a predominantly State-funded system. This would involve a significantly increased core grant for institutions and the abolition of the student contribution. The expert group also identifies as options increased State funding with continuing student fees and increased State funding with the deferred payment of fees through income contingent loans. I again state no decision has been made in that regard. The report was referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills by my colleague the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, to build a political consensus on the most appropriate sustainable future funding model for higher education. I look forward to receiving the recommendations of the joint committee once it has concluded its consultations.

It is clear that doing nothing is not an option when it comes to the future funding of higher education. To this end the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, secured additional funding for the higher education sector of €36.5 million in budget 2017. It is part of a three year package, amounting to €160 million for the sector. It is the first increase in funding for higher education since 2009. The funding will provide for improved access to higher education, demographic increases, the reinstatement of the postgraduate maintenance grant for the most disadvantaged students and additional funds for research and skills.

The Department is also working closely with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to explore the potential for an increased employer contribution to further and higher education through the national training fund. This is a recommendation made in the expert group's report on future funding. In addition, the Higher Education Authority is reviewing the recurrent grant allocation model used to allocate funding to higher education institutions. It is expected that the group will present its report shortly. These are all important developments that will contribute towards a more sustainable funding model for higher education in the future.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to promoting equity of access and opportunity across the education continuum. This is evident in the level of investment being made to promote educational opportunities for all citizens. There is a key challenge in providing a more sustainable basis for the higher education system in the future, but we are taking steps that will contribute to a solution to this problem. We have committed to providing an additional €160 million. We are developing the employer-Exchequer investment mechanism. We are reviewing the resource grant allocation model. We have referred the funding options presented in the Cassells report to the Oireachtas joint committee for its consideration. At this point in the deliberations of the joint committee it really is not helpful to seek to rule out particular policy options as that would undermine the work of the committee which is trying to build a political consensus on this complex issue. There is a responsibility on all of us as policy makers to seek to work together to find the most appropriate future funding model for higher education. For this reason, I cannot accept the motion. The increased Government investment in higher education has been substantial. The ongoing exploration of a new employer-Exchequer funding mechanism could yield up to €200 million per annum. Doing nothing is not an option.

Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor is right - the closing date for the submission of applications to SUSI is tomorrow. I, therefore, ask Senators to get the message out through their contacts. SUSI has an appeals system and students can pay their contributions in two moieties. Postgraduate maintenance grants are being reintroduced for the most disadvantaged groups this September. These are the main points I want Senators to pick up.

I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, particularly those Senators who are supporting the motion. I am a little disappointed by the negativity in the Chamber and those who are intent on engaging in a party political point-scoring exercise. If they read the motion, they will see that there is not one negative word in it. It is aspirational and seeks something better for young people and potential third level students. It does not attempt to criticise anybody or the current or any past Government. Contributions which sought to score cheap political points do not reflect well.

Having said that, I was a little taken aback when the Minister of State and representatives of the Government in the House suggested we should not even be discussing this issue because a committee was engaged in a wide discussion on it. We had a similar discussion yesterday, when the Government at very short notice had to ram through the Rugby World Cup Bill and we were told that we were being reckless and almost treacherous for even suggesting or raising questions as to why it was being done so quickly. It would be much appreciated by me, the Labour Party and everybody who supports the motion if the Minister of State gave her own view that she was against an income contingent student loan system. It would be extremely welcome if she, or the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, were to make that statement. The committee would very much appreciate knowing the parameters within which it would have to do its work. However, the Minister of State has not done this. To be honest, for her to state we should somehow be extremely appreciative or welcome the fact that she has not made any decision or that no decision has been made on the issue will not satisfy those in the Visitors Gallery who feel very strongly about it or those of us who feel very strongly about third level education.

Again, I find the accusation of populism remarkable. As Senator Gerald Nash most eloquently said, the summer economic statement references the €220 million the Government wants to give in tax breaks. It matches exactly the amount of money it would cost to abolish third level fees. Therefore, claims about where the Government is supposed to find the money and accusations of populism fall down completely, even on the Government's figures. This is about choices. People say it is not about the left or the right or ideology, but it is. If the Government decides to give back €220 million in tax breaks, it is making an ideological decision that is more right wing than left wing.

These are choices the Government can make. If the Minister of State believes in free education, it is not good enough to say, "I believe in free education, but..." If the Government believes in free education, it should put the money into the system. At this stage in the game no one in Ireland is going to be bought off with the idea of tax cuts; what they want is service provision.

I want to finish by referencing some of the contributions made yesterday at the briefing organised by Senator Ivana Bacik which was enlightening for anyone who was present. The last presentation was made by Mr. Kevin Donoghue, chairperson of Labour Youth. He referred to the glory of the sound of a pen on paper, the glory of the anxiety young people felt at examination time and the glory of the pride in the voice of parents when they spoke about their children going to college. People who have benefited from third level education and do not know anyone who has not gone to third level education and think everyone else is just like them do not understand the power of the words "college" and "university" or the bizarre fact that even examination time anxiety is so liberating.

The folder under the arm of a student is such a powerful symbol for the family and everyone in the community of what that student is doing and learning and how he or she is being empowered through life. I put it to the Minister of State that the last thing a student needs, aside from a folder under the arm, is anxiety about how he or she will pay for education in the future. Instead, a student should feel the excitement and anxiety that come with a learning experience. I use the term "anxiety" because it is part of the entire university experience. It is part of getting through the system and working through examinations. I realise it was a strange example to give, but I understand exactly what Mr. Kevin Donoghue was talking about.

There can be no return to a situation envisaged in 2011 in the Fine Gael manifesto which referred to a student loan scheme to fill the gap. We must have a better vision. We have to look forward and aspire to having a free third level system. The Government's amendment is not one we can support. I take the same view of Fianna Fáil's amendment. Let us move beyond party political point-scoring. Let us accept that free education is a right and an aspiration and something to which we can collectively work towards. It would be beneficial if Ministers in areas of authority in the Department of Education and Skills could say categorically that a student loan scheme was out and that they believed in equality in and equality of access to education. It would be beneficial if it was clear that the aspiration of the Government was free access to education for all. Everyone in the House would support it in that regard.

Is amendment No. 2 agreed to?

Let me ask for guidance. Why are you putting amendment No. 2 before amendment No. 1?

Because it was moved first. It is the Government's amendment.

Thank you for the explanation.

I am sorry if the numbers are confusing the Senator.

You confuse me terribly.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 23; Níl, 15.

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lawless, Billy.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Swanick, Keith.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
Amendment declared carried.
Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 23; Níl, 15.

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lawless, Billy.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Swanick, Keith.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony; Níl, Senators Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
Question declared carried.

Under Standing Order 62(3)(b), I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.

As the Senator is not a teller, will the Members requesting the walk through vote please rise? As no Member rose, the result stands. When is it proposed to sit again?

Maidin amárach ar 10.30.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 July 2017.