More than €560,000 is owed to the country’s seven universities, as well as the State’s largest institute of technology DIT, in library rental and late return fees alone, according to documents obtained by The Irish Times newspaper. Furthermore, they are owed more than €1.3 million of outstanding debt in Student Contribution Charges.
UCC itself had approximately €231,000 in charges left unpaid prior to the current academic year, spread between 150 students, while just over 100 students of Dublin City University owed €165,000 between them. NUI Maynooth had the largest amount of money owed to it, with almost €450,000 of Student Contribution Charges left unpaid by October 1st, 2016. Other large amounts under the same heading include legacy debts of €208,000 at UL, €176,000 at DIT and €110,000 at Trinity College Dublin. The overall figure for unpaid charges is likely to be substantially higher as Ireland’s largest university, UCD, was unable to provide a breakdown of how much was owed under this category, as was NUI Galway.
First introduced in 1995 at a nominal rate of £150 (€190), student fees were gradually increased over the following years, and rose at a more accelerated rate during the late 2000s as part of government-imposed austerity measures. Today, the charge currently stands at €3,000, although about half of the third-level student population is exempt from payment due to household income status.
When it came to library fees owed, Maynooth was also on top, with a bill of €170,000. Only UCC came close, with a debt of €135,000. When asked why such large amounts remain outstanding under the categories of student charges and library fees/fines, an NUI Maynooth spokesperson said the university does not write off the debts, and it does not prevent students from graduating if they have a negative account balance. The spokesperson added that the library debt is spread between 14,000 past and former students, almost 10,000 of whom owed less than €10. When asked if third-party debt collection agencies are used to recoup amounts owed by past or present students, only UCD and DCU said they hired external agencies. The rest, including UCC, perform the function in-house.
The responses also revealed a large burden related to unpaid on-campus accommodation fees. Despite enlisting the services of a third-party collector, UCD still had an outstanding balance of €380,000 for unpaid accommodation fees; Trinity was owed €114,000, and NUI Maynooth €60,000. Other institutions responded that on-campus accommodation is either not offered to students, or the units are managed by a separate management company, whose finances are not subject to Freedom of Information requests.
The current funding regime for third-level institutions has come under intense scrutiny in recent years since the financial crisis. The situation has been given a sense of urgency by the faltering performance of some of the country’s top universities in international rankings tables. Heads of Irish universities often claim that the high levels of fee income generated by international universities, which then invent those fees into the university, are a major reason for this faltering performance.
The Government is currently assessing the outcome of a report by former trade union secretary Peter Cassells. In his report Cassells gives various options for the third level sector, including the possibility of implementing a student loan scheme and the potential elimination of the Student Contribution Charge.