The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has criticised the lack of detail contained in a plan on future funding for the third level sector which was published today.

According to the new policy agreed by Government, future budgets will increase the amount of public funding for the third level sector, and reduce the cost burden for students and their families.

Under 'Funding the Future', the financial cost to students will be reduced "over time" through changes to both the student grant scheme and to student fees.

A core funding gap of €307 million will be plugged through funding granted in addition to what is required to meet future demographic growth and new policy proposals.

While no timeframe has been set out during which this target will be met, a spokesperson for Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris said his preference was that the shortfall would be addressed over the coming three years.

The USI said the fact that there was no information on the kind of reduction that would be made to student fees was not acceptable.

It also said that this was a key area of concern for students across Ireland who face ongoing financial struggle while trying to get a third level education.

Responding to publication of the plan, the USI reiterated calls for Ireland to move to a fully publicly funded higher education system, which is free at the point of access. It said it was frustrating that student contributions will continue to be a key part of the funding stream.

USI President, Clare Austick said: "While there has been mention of bringing down the costs for students through better student grants and reduced student fees, there is no funding allocated for the reduction of the Student Contribution Charge.

"There needs to be a holistic approach to removing the barriers to third level education and that must involve the scrapping of student fees and bringing the SUSI grant to a level that reflects the actual costs of living. At present it is not fit-for-purpose."

The union said the most recent research showed that the cost of going to college currently stands at around €50,000 for students, including fees, accommodation and other costs. It said this was not acceptable or sustainable.

Minister Harris said the plan was "ambitious", but cost could not and should not be a barrier to accessing education.

"It is my firm intention to take the pressure off families and listen to the calls of our younger generations. Measures to reduce the cost of education through changes to the Student Grant Scheme and the student contribution will be on the table for the coming budgets," he said.

Mr Harris said the new policy settled the question on future funding of the sector and confirmed that any introduction of a student loan system was "off the table".

The proposal of a student loan system with higher student fees was one of three options put forward in a 2016 government commissioned report on the future funding of the sector, known as the Cassells report.

While the universities sector favoured this option, the proposal was regarded as highly politically sensitive, and in recent years a number of education ministers, as well as other government leaders, publicly ruled it out.

A rally held on student fees in 2016

Minister Harris said the planned investment of €307m, which would be in addition to the current €2bn annual spend on higher education, will focus on improving the quality of programmes, outcomes, and providing a third level education system which is accessible to everyone in society.

The minister also confirmed that he will chair a new oversight group to drive reforms.

The group will focus on creating a unified system and improving pathways between further and higher education. It will be co-chaired by Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney.

The Higher Education Reform Implementation Review Group will ensure investment is used effectively.

According to the minister, it will focus on improving the quality of programmes and learning outcomes with better verification of outcomes and costs to ensure value for money.

Over the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in the number of students attending further and higher education in Ireland.

In 2010, Ireland had 200,000 students enrolled in publicly funded higher education colleges.

By 2020, that had grown to 245,000. The Department of Further and Higher Education said that since 2016, public investment in the sector has grown by over 40%.

The department said that the new model of funding will be a mixture of additional Exchequer investment, employer contributions through the National Training Fund and student contributions.

The current student undergraduate fee is €3,000.

However, the minister has signaled it is his intention to review the student contribution with the aim of reducing it over time, "subject to budgetary processes".

In terms of reforms, the Government has identified a number of strategic outcomes as a priority. They include a greater linkage between existing further education, higher education and research sectors, as well as more people from underrepresented groups attending higher education.

It also wants to reduce the ratio of students to academic staff to comparable EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development norms.

IUA welcomes new plan

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) has welcomed the plan announced today.

It said the acknowledgement by Government that the sector is currently underfunded by €307m represents an important milestone.

The IUA said the Government had responded to calls from the sector to directly address the student-staff ratios in our colleges through the funding plan.

"This is imperative in order to maintain and enhance the quality of Irish third-level education in a highly competitive international environment," it said.

But it said that to be effective, it was essential that the Government removes the restrictions on hiring staff under the Employment Control Framework.

Jim Miley, Director General of the IUA said: "Today's announcement will mean nothing if the Government fails to follow through on this policy commitment with a significant first tranche of investment in Budget 2023 and a removal of the embargo on hiring permanent staff under the Employment Control Framework."

The IUA said it was imperative that the funding gap was closed within two years so that additional costs related to rising demographics and other issues could also be catered for in future years.

Funding gap has to be addressed

The Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education said he would like to see the €307 million funding gap closed in the lifetime of this Government.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Niall Collins said they also want to modernise and increase resourcing for the student grant scheme, and look at reducing student contributions.

Deputy Collins said funding to the sector had increased significantly since 2016, but the Government recognises there is a gap.

"We're clearly saying that has to be addressed over a number of budgets over a number of years," he said.

"We want to see the cost of going to college reduced."

Speaking on the same programme, Aine Daly, Student Union President at Technological University of the Shannon, said students are struggling due to inflation.

"We need open education for everyone," she said. "Finance is always a barrier for students accessing and staying in education."