'The Third Way' - Green Paper on the reform of Higher Education launched

Fine Gael today ruled out the introduction of 3rd Level College fees and said that a new Graduate PRSI contribution scheme would raise in the region of €500m per year for the 3rd level sector. The new scheme proposed by Fine Gael would allow for the abolition of college registration fees and see new entrants to college, after graduation, make a contribution through the PRSI system to the value of 30% of the cost of their college education.

Speaking at the launch of the Green Paper The Third Way prepared by the Fine Gael Education Spokesman, Brian Hayes TD, the Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny TD said:

"The future prosperity of this country depends on getting higher education right. As these proposals show, Fine Gael is determined to reform the higher education sector and reposition our Universities and Institutes to become world leaders in education. Delivering quality higher level education cannot be left to chance.

"If we want to regain Ireland's position as a location for hi-tech, cutting edge new industry we have to make sure that our education system is up to the task of supplying the necessary graduates to make that ambition realistic. Currently there is a funding problem in our 3rd level sector that is undermining the achievement of that ambition. Fine Gael recognises the need to bridge that funding gap and has set out a fair and progressive means of doing that."

Speaking at the launch of his Green Paper, The Third Way, Brian Hayes TD, put forward an alternative and sustainable way of funding higher education in Ireland for the future:

"The Minister for Education's strategy in deciding a new funding model, while not setting out at the same time a Reform Agenda for the Sector, is doomed to failure. Asking students or their parents to bail out higher education, when reform has been left to another day is an approach that I cannot support.

"In addition, we do not support the reintroduction of fees and we propose to abolish registration fees which both act as barriers to entry to 3rd level. What we have proposed, as part of a wider ranging set of proposals, is a Graduate Contribution through the PRSI system that would see new entrants to college today pay 30% of their college costs over a period of years once they start working, based on current estimates, but that this cost could come down. This approach would raise in the order of €500m per year and would be ring fenced for the 3rd level sector.

"We have already seen fees by the back door with the recent Budget decision to radically increase third level registration fees from €900 to €1,500. However, I recognise that the current funding mechanism for higher education in this country is unsustainable in the long run. If we want to develop a knowledge based economy, we have to recognize that the current funding arrangement must change. Putting the funding of higher level education on a secure financial foundation must be faced down.

"Since the decision of the Rainbow Government to abolish college fees in 1996 the number of students participating in higher education has risen from about 120,000 to about 170,000 now. That's an amazing achievement in just 12 short years. In the 1980s about 20% of the leaving cert students went on to higher education, today it's over 60%.

"Fine Gael opposes the reintroduction of fees and will not support the introduction of a loan system where students are straddled with substantial debt when they leave college.

"We have opted for a deferred graduate contribution scheme, where graduates pay through the PRSI system in the order of 30% of the cost of their undergraduate course once they are working. This system is straightforward, free at the point of delivery and would only apply to new entrants.

"The graduate contributions would then be ring fenced into a new Third Level Change Budget, estimated to be in the region of €500 million when fully operational, and distributed back to colleges based on their performance to deliver change under certain criteria. New money must follow new ways of delivering for students.

"Fundamental questions about each University and Institute must be asked before funding from this new source is delivered. Questions such as:

- Is there a new approach to quality?
- Are students from poorer backgrounds supported when they get to college?
- Are colleges collaborating?
- Is there a new model of student participation?
- Have colleges changed courses to meet labour force needs?

"In the Green Paper I have launched today I have set out what I believe to be a minimum requirement in terms of achieving basic reform within the higher education sector. It is not an exhaustive list. I have set out below the main reform proposals that are outlined in this green paper."

1. Drop the aim of having 72% of the age cohort in higher education by 2013 as it is nether affordable nor required if a proper further education and training system was put in place at a national level.
2. Colleges should be encouraged to specialise in core areas rather then replicating courses which are offered throughout the entire sector.
3. Co-ordination between Universities and between Universities and the Institutes offer great potential in developing world class standards.
4. A new Quality Assurance system needs to be established on an independent basis.
5. Review Maintenance and student supports for students from poorer backgrounds.
6. A new National Technical University to be established as a means of branding internationally the entire Institute of Technology sector.
7. Relocate the Higher Education part of the existing Dept of Education and Science into a new Dept of Technology, Skills, Innovation and Higher Education.
8. Abolish third level registration fees once new Graduate Contribution system is in place.
9. Establish a new Student Contract where students can be clear about their entitlements to basic standards of education when in college.
10. Introduce new labour market needs survey for all new courses.
11. Introduce rigorous system of evaluation for research funding which has radically increased in recent years.
12. Change rules on philanthropy to encourage the potential of additional funding for the sector.

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