The Minister for Finance, Mr Brian Lenihan, has refused to rule out a further increase in registration fees for third level students. In an exclusive interview last week with Trinity News (see Business and Careers Section) the Minister was asked what plans his government have with regard to the annual ‘student services’ registration fee which has increased substantially over the last few years. Mr Lenihan said he could not offer an assurance that it would not rise again in the coming academic year but hastened to add that the Government had by no means made up its mind. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to increase it again,” he said. €4bn in cuts in government expenditure are expected to be announced in the forthcoming budget and it is doubtful that universities will escape unscathed with registration fee hikes most likely on the agenda.
The Minister’s refusal to comment on the issue one way or another means that students are still forced to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the issue. Registration fees have risen to 17 times their 1994 levels, an increase which was initially associated with higher rates of inflation but became increasingly high due to reductions in government funding for third level institutions. Up until recently the Minister for Education, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, had hoped to bring an end to the Free Fees Initiative which was introduced by the Labour-Fine Gael coalition government in 1994. However heads of the colleges were disappointed when the new programme for government drawn up by coalition partners Fine Fáil and the Green Party specifically ruled out the introduction of college tuition fees. They are now looking to the Higher Education Authority to increase the student service charge as a means of plugging the hole in the universities’ finances.
The Irish Independent reported that the HEA has estimated the colleges need to find €500m meet rising demand. The body also stated that the third level education system in Ireland was facing a funding crisis, something which the heads of the colleges have maintained for some time. The Irish universities are now looking to the HEA to approve a rise in registration fees as a means of staving off disaster. It is thought that the colleges will look for a significant increase in these charges as it has already been stated by the President of Dublin City University, Dr Ferdinand von Prondzynski, that the cost of providing services to students is over 50% higher than the income the colleges receive from the existing registration fee. University College Cork President Dr Michael Murphy has already said that although the colleges are disappointed with the government’s failure to introduce tuition fees, the student charges are effectively “fees by another name.”
This belief is shared by many and although the Minister has not declared himself to be in favour of an increase, the Union of Students in Ireland is already gearing up for a fight. A protest held outside the Dáil on October 27 opposing any hike in student charges is a sign of things to come. USI President Peter Mannion has already stated that the student charge is too high already and that if it were increased to over €2000, as is feared, then many students would be priced out of college education.
Mr Lenihan however does not share the USI’s pessimistic view of the situation. He still continues to back the introduction of a student loan system at some future date as a viable alternative to the Free Fees Initiative but he was quick to reaffirm that “there was a decision not to introduce fees in the lifetime of the government – or student loans…it’s off the agenda.” The Minister also accepts that the registration fee represents a “substantial amount” for students and that while he cannot confirm that a hike is off the agenda he has “no great ambition to fleece students.” However, he maintains that the issue is not so much about raising revenue as empowering students. He believes that when students contribute directly towards the cost of their education there is a greater check on staff performance. “If the student is making a contribution it does mean that there is far more supervision of staff performance because the students want value for money…[they] are far more conscious of the cost of college education and are more critical of staff standards,” he said.
“The fact remains that the most pressing issue for Irish universities at the moment is their financial difficulties and that the quickest way to make up the shortfall is to increase revenue,” said Trinity Student’s Union President Conan O’Broin, reacting to the Minister’s remarks.