There has been “no indication” from the Department of Education and Skills that any changes to third level institutions’ fee levels are imminent, according to a spokesperson for the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Concerns have emerged on how University College Dublin (UCD) intends to mitigate a negative financial impact of up to €100 million by the end of this year. The projected drop in international and EU student enrolments at UCD next year will pose significant difficulties for “Ireland’s global university,” with almost a third of its students coming from outside Ireland.

The last increase in students’ €3,000 “student contribution” was in 2015, and with renewed financial difficulties for institutions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in tuition fees has been ruled out for the moment.


Department To Soon Revaluate Its Funding

The Department recently engaged with the European Commission through the Structural Reform Support Programme (SRSP), a scheme that aims to assist EU member states in improving governance structures, administrative systems and technical support and analysis. The SRSP will assist the Department in addressing a number of funding issues in the sector.

A landmark report on exchequer funding for higher education institutions, commonly known as the Cassells Report (2016), offered a number of solutions to the government funding crisis that colleges have experienced since the 2008 recession. A HEA spokesperson has told The College Tribune: “The Department of Education and Skills is progressing work on reviews and reforms of Higher Education Funding which includes an economic examination of the three policy options proposed by the report on future funding of higher education (Cassells report).”

In September 2019, Joe McHugh TD, Minister for Education and Skills, told Dáil Éireann that the Department engaged with the European Commission’s SRSP on an economic examination of the Cassells report, saying that it will “provide access to the type of independent international expertise and analysis that will be very beneficial to a major evaluation of this nature.”

In response to queries from The College Tribune, the HEA indicated that when the SRSP review is complete, which the Minister has indicated to be in September 2020, this “will inform future policy decisions on higher education funding.”

Following the SRSP’s review to the Department, an overview of how to effectively implement the recommendations of the Cassells report may emerge. This will advise the Department with how best to proceed with tuition fee levels in response to funding difficulties.

A spokesperson for the HEA has said: “During this Pandemic, the HEA is working closely with higher education institutions, sectoral bodies and the Department of Education and Skills to establish and mitigate against the financial implications of COVID-19 for Irish higher education institutions.”


How Do Fees Work?

Under the terms of the Free Fees Initiative, the Department of Education and Skills pays the fees to the institutions instead of the students, which is allocated by the HEA based on the number of enrolled students that fit the criteria for the Free Fees Initiative. Students must be EU citizens or residents and be first-time undergraduate students. Graduate students cannot avail of the scheme.

The Department of Education and Skills introduced the “student contribution” in 2011, which currently costs €3,000. This fee, which replaced the Student Services Charge, stands as the primary cost for college in Ireland. The fee has not increased since 2015.

Institutions can also demand a student levy as an additional charge to students. UCD’s student levy stands at €254, which was implemented to fund the new Student Centre which opened in 2012. The combined payment for the university is therefore €3,254. Last year, students voted to extend the current student levy in order to fund additional facilities in the future including new sports facilities.

According to the HEA, almost 50% of full-time undergraduate students have their student contribution paid for by the state under the Student Grant Scheme. A student levy is not included within the scheme.

Recent figures from the 2017/18 academic year show that out of 183,642 full-time students, around 80,000 availed of funds from Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI).


Not Looking Good For UCD

In the financial year ending in September 2018, the university brought in €587.1 million in income, with a €35.2 million surplus. In 2017, UCD had over €440 million in reserves, which will likely be used to soften the blow of the incoming recession. UCD President Andrew Deeks explained to the College Tribune that the university is “taking mitigating actions to defer expenditure where possible”.

The Irish Times reported that universities expect international student numbers will fall by as much as 80% next year, presenting a number of problems for UCD as “Ireland’s global university”.

Last year, UCD had 8,428 international students on the main campus, 3,984 students in overseas operations and a total of 33,285 students enrolled worldwide. Non-EU undergraduate students can pay between €10,000 and €55,000 for tuition fees alone, while postgraduates tend to pay between €10,000 and €35,000. With thousands of internationals likely to stay in their home countries next year, the loss of income for UCD may prompt cuts in services, supports and capital projects on-campus.

Outlining that students will not be expected to suffer financially, President Deeks told The College Tribune: “We do not expect to impose any additional costs on students beyond the increases already communicated,” referencing the rent increases on-campus next year going on to suggest “there are likely to be delays in continuing our improvement in student: faculty ratio, in implementing additional student support measures and in executing some elements of our capital programme.”


Conor Capplis – Editor