Loans for third-level education? We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it

I recently spoke in the Seanad on a private members’ motion from the Labour Party that opposed any introduction of an income-contingent loan scheme for students. An income-contingent loan would help a person to secure a place at third-level by offering them a low-interest loan to pay for their college fees and maintenance. The money would only be repayable once they hit a certain income threshold in the future.

The Seanad visitors’ gallery was full of student representatives and what struck me about the debate was the jostling between Labour and Sinn Féin members to appear most virtuous in the eyes of the students by opposing the idea of income-contingent loans.

I think there are arguments on both sides. Politicians should get away from the sloganeering and posturing and look at the issue in the light of the common good.

In favour of such a proposal, one could argue that third-level education is a privilege and its successful completion generally confers significant social and financial advantage on people. People who have been given such advantage should be willing to give something back. This might encourage buy-in from students because of the element of sacrifice involved. It might reduce financial pressure on some families, and it might free up resources which could be spent in other areas where there is educational disadvantage.

On the other hand, might the requirement to take on a debt into the future discourage some students from taking up college places? Might it also tempt college authorities to hike up their fees — something they are always tempted to do anyway?

The Seanad debate is available here.