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Third Level Costs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (56)

Ivana Bacik

Question:

56. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on the student protests which took place on 23 November 2021 led by a union (details supplied): the way he plans to reduce the cost of the student contribution and student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59096/21]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

I ask the Minister to make a statement on the student protests which took place on 23 November led by the Union of Students in Ireland. How does he intend to reduce the cost of the student contribution and address the rising and alarming cost of student accommodation? I ask in the context of the socially distanced protest outside Leinster House which I was glad to support last week. It had an acerbic title for a demonstration but with an important message.

I do not think we are allowed to repeat the title of the demonstration in this House.

And I did not.

The Deputy did not and I am well aware of it. Students being able to demonstrate in a socially distanced and Covid-appropriate way is an important part of students highlighting issues of concern to them. I thank the Deputy for her question.

I have engaged closely with student representatives on issues concerning the costs of higher education. USI will concur on that point. We have agreed to a schedule of monthly meetings. Tomorrow, I have a meeting with student union presidents from throughout the country. We are in regular and ongoing dialogue with the USI and with student unions around the country. In advance of the current campaign and protest, I met USI officers in my Department to discuss issues, including funding options for the higher education sector and how students most in need are supported.

It is not often highlighted that at present State supports mean that an estimated 45% of students are eligible for free tuition fees. In other words, not every student in this country pays the registration fee and a very significant proportion do not. As I said in response to the previous question, in 2021, we will spend more than €400 million on student supports, including supporting 74,000 students through the student grant scheme.

I am extremely aware of the rising cost of living and of the student accommodation crisis. I am often expected to stand up here as a Minister and explain away the challenge, but I have no interest in doing that. The model for student accommodation is broken. We have been too reliant on the private market. In politics it is important to put up one's hand when a policy is not working and concede that point. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I are working and will work with student unions to put in place college-owned affordable accommodation.

Until Housing for All was published, a technological university or an institute of technology could not borrow a cent to build student accommodation. I recently went to DCU. It has an opportunity to build many more student accommodation places, but it needs a model that works. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, was there with me. I would like to see a cost-rental model put in place for students and for colleges. In the new year, I expect to bring forward proposals on this. A working group, chaired by my Department, is working on it. I will come back with more details in a moment.

I will not repeat the title of the protest, but it was an effective way of conveying students' immense frustration and dismay at the spiralling cost of accommodation in particular but also the cost of the student contribution. I have seen the figures for students' eligibility for free fees and I very much welcome the increase in the SUSI maintenance grant and the Minister's commitment to having that review completed by Christmas as well as his acknowledgement that the SUSI scheme needs overhaul.

As the Minister said, the issue of student accommodation is not new. For far too long, we have had an over-reliance on the private rented sector which clearly does not have the capacity to deliver accommodation for students. It costs between €7,000 and €11,000 per year for accommodation on campus in UCD and in Trinity. These are exorbitant costs for students. At the protest last week, we heard stories of students who are commuting several hours to college each day, students who are sharing unsuitable cramped spaces due to unaffordable rent and competing with young professionals for scarce beds in Irish cities. Developments designated as so-called student accommodation are out of reach for them. We should not forget the plight of PhD and other postgraduate students who are suffering as a result of cost-of-living increases.

I point out that in the time I have been in this role, we have seen four changes to the SUSI student grant scheme. We have seen the first increase in the postgraduate SUSI grant. We have seen the first general rise in the student support scheme that the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I introduced in the budget. We have seen the threshold increase so that more families qualify and the adjacency requirements reduced so that more families will qualify. I am not suggesting that is everything we need to do, but those are four concrete measures that will ensure more families qualify for a student support and will increase the amount that every student in receipt of student support is receiving for the first time in over a decade.

The broader issue of registration fees and having sustainable funding model has been kicked around this House for far too long. In the last Oireachtas an all-party committee asked for an economic evaluation. My predecessor asked DG REFORM in the European Commission and Indecon to carry that out. I have now received that report and it is my intention to brief the Cabinet committee next month.

I expect to be able to bring forward proposals shortly thereafter.

On the cost of student accommodation, the Deputy is correct that any conversation about access to cheap money or borrowing must be matched by a commitment to ensuring that is an affordable rate of rent. I have no interest in providing access to State borrowing if it is not affordable for students.

I thank the Minister for raising the broader question of the student contribution to the funding of the third level sector. As he said, the matter has been kicked around for too long. The Cassells report is now five years old and it was supposed to be the blueprint for reform. Labour certainly wants to see the State taking up the challenge in one of those three options in the report; we want to see that option rather the option of fees or loans. It is welcome to hear there will be progress and the Cabinet will be briefed on this in December. Will the Minister say what option from the Cassells report is likely to be taken up by the Government and how will this have an impact on students who are already paying €3,000 as a student contribution charge, which is, in effect, the highest fee in the EU? We can contrast that with €170 in France and no fee in Germany or Denmark. I am conscious the Union of Students in Ireland called for a reduction in the budget but it was not included in the overall package. The Minister has outlined welcome measures with the likes of increases in the SUSI grant and so forth but there is still the lack of clarity over what the funding model for third level will be and the future of the student contribution charge or student fees more generally.

Those statistics around the European Union only hold up because the United Kingdom and, sadly, Northern Ireland are no longer in the European Union. We certainly will not implement the system that the UK and Northern Ireland has for student loans. I do not believe in them or that they work. I have yet to see a country that has implemented this successfully. I also do not like the concept because it could have an adverse impact on people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who tend to be more risk-averse in taking on debt. I do not support that. I cannot go further only to say we should settle the question. We have had enough all-party committees and we must move forward on this.

The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and others have called for a reduction in the student registration fee and it would probably have been a politically popular act. I had to make the decision and I made the point to the USI very publicly and clearly. I thought in the first instance we should look at some things that had not been done in a long number of years that directly affect the most disadvantaged students in our country. I am sure the Deputy as a social democrat would agree with the increasing of access of those most in need, whether they are students from the Travelling or Roma communities, students with disabilities or students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These are the measures we have taken in the very first instance but we want to do more and build on this. We want to ensure cost is never a barrier for anyone entering third level.

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