Minister Joe McHugh accused of having 'no vision or direction' for third-level funding shortages

By Elaine Loughlin
Political Correspondent

Minister Joe McHugh has been accused of stonewalling an Oireachtas Committee for a year-and-a-half on the future of third-level education.

The chair of the Education Committee has said the funding crisis at third-level is being ignored by the Government, which has yet to start value-for-money report on the three proposed funding options for higher education.

A report on how third-level education should be funded was produced in 2015. However, while the report has now been sent to Europe for analysis, the Government has not given a commitment as to when a decision will be made.

The Cassells report identified the need for an extra €600m a year by 2021 to maintain quality in higher education, rising to €1bn annually by 2030. Three options were put forward - a State-funded system, an increase in student contributions, and a loan scheme or a mix of both.

Fiona O'Loughlin, chair of Oireachtas Education Committee, accused Mr McHugh of having "no vision or direction" around tackling severe funding shortages across universities and institutes of technology and said the report has been "lying idle on the Minister's desk for over three years".

Ms O'Loughlin said the committee has been "completely ignored" by the Minister who has failed to provide any update since July 5, 2018.

We have looked for an update and have looked for a copy of a draft terms of reference for the evaluation but we actually haven't received a copy of the draft terms of reference.

"Cassells has been lying idle on the minister's desk now for three years and there are obviously very real concerns highlighted in that regarding the future of the third level sector and the Minister has done absolutely nothing about it."

She added: "It's not about us as a committee being precious, it's about trying to do the right thing for higher education in this country.

"Another year and another budget has gone by without any plan in place for the future of third-level education," she said.

Ms O'Loughlin warned that the lack of a long-term funding plan for universities and institutes will have an impact on multi-nationals seeking to locate in Ireland, as many of these companies use third-level education standards as a "barometer" to measure the future workforce.

"We are slipping behind in the [international] tables and that does have an impact down the line in terms of FDI and business investment," she said.

The Education Committee has already heard from stakeholders and experts as part of its own work but this has now stalled as it waits for the economic analysis from the Department.

Former Education Minister Richard Bruton had suggested that the review would be completed by early 2019. However, this work has been referred to the EU Commission and is still ongoing.

A spokesperson in the Department of Education said it is working closely with the EU Commission under the Structural Reform Support Programme (SRSP) to undertake this economic analysis of the three policy options identified in the Cassells report.

"The review, which will focus on ensuring increased sustainability in the higher and further education systems in Ireland, is currently at contract award stage," the spokesperson said.

"Following the finalisation of the terms of reference for the study and the completion of the process to appoint consultants to undertake the study by the Commission, the Department will be providing this update to the Committee."

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