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College fees to be 'frozen for 5 years'

Independent.ie logo Independent.ie 11/08/2019 Philip Ryan
Joe McHugh wearing a suit and tie: Education Minister Joe McHugh Education Minister Joe McHugh

Fine Gael is promising not to hike college fees or bring in controversial student loans to be repaid after graduation.

Education Minister Joe McHugh has made a significant pledge not to increase university registration fees beyond €3,000 per year if Fine Gael is returned to government after the next general election.

Ahead of the Leaving Cert results this week, the announcement will be a relief to parents who are already struggling with the rising cost of student accommodation.

However, it will cause concern for the third-level education sector which is facing significant funding challenges.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr McHugh says he has the backing of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his stance.

Asked directly if Fine Gael would increase fees if in government for another five years, he said: "No, in terms of increasing fees or even putting student loans, we have to look at the overall pressures on parents and see how to make it easier rather than [adding] to the pressures they are under already."

The Fine Gael minister's comments are the clearest commitment to date from the main coalition party to freeze college fees.

The third-level sector has consistently said it is facing serious financial difficulties, which are damaging its ability to compete internationally.

Colleges have been seeking clarity on proposals to bring in a loan scheme or higher charges for students.

Mr McHugh said parents were already burdened with huge costs from sending children to third-level education and it would be unfair to saddle them with more fees.

"Personally, and I'm at one with the Taoiseach, in that [I believe] the extra load should not be put back on parents and students, so we have look at and figure out a better way," he said.

The Donegal politician also revealed he is at war with Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (Dper) over a looming school bus seats crisis.

The minister insisted he had a solution to the problem, which sees hundreds of students miss out on school bus places every year, but said he was facing resistance from Mr Donohoe's department.

Mr McHugh believes the department's opposition to his proposal is not in keeping with the Government's commitment to climate action as it is forcing more parents to drive their children to school.

"I'm not looking for extra resources, I can get it from within my existing budget, but my concern is that we have Dper encroaching into policy decisions in my department which I believe are not in keeping with the climate change agenda," he said.

The school bus issue centres on a lottery system for assigning seats to students who do not live in the catchment area for the school they are attending.

These students have to apply for what are called concessionary places, which are only assigned after children who live closer to the school are given seats. In recent years, hundreds of students have missed out on places.

Mr McHugh said his solution would only add an additional €4m a year to the €200m yearly school transport budget, but Mr Donohoe's department is insisting on implementing a 2011 cost saving policy.

The minister said the policy would see more than 30,000 students lose out on school bus places.

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