“Students who hope to avoid the payment by enrolling this September will not escape, as they will have to pay from 2010.
The move will signal the end of the era of free college education which began with the abolition of tuition fees in the mid-1990s.
The plan is likely to create serious tensions within the Coalition and spark widespread demonstrations by students, who are vehemently opposed to fees, loans or a graduate tax.
Officials have presented Mr O’Keeffe with a series of options for the new student “contributions”.
These range from the straightforward re-introduction of tuition fees to a scheme whereby graduates start paying for their study, in the form of a tax, once they reach a certain income threshold.
Students would be able to pay fees up-front at a discount or pay the cost, with interest, after they graduate and find work.
Students already in college this year will not be affected by the end of free fees. “I would view those students as having a contract with third-level institutes, and I wouldn’t see those students being affected,” the minister said last night.
Mr O’Keeffe first raised the spectre of a return to third-level fees last August.
Despite continuing opposition to any form of a return to college charges, Mr O’Keeffe last night argued there were many people in society who could well afford to pay fees or to make a contribution to their third-level education.”