The Irish government will an-nounce in next week's budget whether it is to abolish tuition fees in universities and other higher and further education colleges.
The issue is being pushed by Niamh Bhreathnach, the republic's education minister, with the support of her Labour Party colleagues. She argues that most of the costs involved can be recouped by abolishing tax breaks on covenants. However, ministers in the majority party, Fine Gael, are known to have reservations and the attorney general has been consulted on the legality of withdrawing tax relief on covenants.
A commitment to abolish fees was contained in the programme for government negotiated two months ago but the differences of opinion have surfaced now that it is decision time.
Fianna Fail, the main opposition party, is split on the issue. Its education spokesman initially favoured the plan and then said the country could not afford free tuition fees just yet. The matter was not resolved at cabinet last week and was referred to a cabinet committee which is finalising details of Wednesday's budget.
Ms Bhreathnach's proposal has provoked widespread public debate. Teacher unions and the Union of Students in Ireland have come out in favour but university heads and one of the leading Catholic Church bodies - the Conference of Religious of Ireland - say that it will not help the disadvantaged or create any additional places in colleges.