Labour Private Members Motion on Student Loans

12 July 2017

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 publically 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.