The last half-decade has been one of the most tumultuous of recent times: be it the detested FF government that implemented the bank guarantee or the Savita Halappanavar tragedy that absorbed the nation, there has been plenty for students to raise their voices about. Yet we have resolutely refused to engage as a collective to support or oppose anything, with one exception: a €500 increase in the student registration charge provoked upwards of 25,000 to protest on Dublin’s streets in November 2010. The prospect of paying higher college fees antagonises students like no other, so I could hardly have positioned myself more at odds with the student body than in arguing that they should do exactly that. However, I hope to show that it is in our interest as students and in the interests of society that we pay our own way. First, though, some background.
In the mid-1990s, when a member of the rainbow coalition, Labour implemented a policy of abolishing third level fees. The aim at the time was to remove perceived barriers to entry and make education available to all. When tuition fees were abolished, a provision was introduced to allow universities to charge to cover examinations, registration and student services – officially the “student services charge”, it was commonly known as the “registration fee”. Initially the equivalent of €190, it increased almost annually, breaking the one-thousand-euro mark in 2009/10. What the charge was originally supposed to finance is rather ambiguous, something higher education institutes were able to exploit. With revenue from the charge being used to fund libraries and, in one case, to vaccinate vets, it was labelled by one university head as “fees by another name”. According to an HEA report, the registration fee, in the year in 1996/97, accounted for about 3-5% of the cost of educating a student; by 2009/10, that had more than tripled to 15%. Students were bearing an ever increasing proportion of the cost of their education. How was that compatible with the original intentions of the registration charge? The charge was abolished and the “student contribution” was born.
Inequality of access
It’s clear that the free fees scheme has been altered dramatically since its introduction. Higher education in Ireland is no longer universally free, merely subsidised. But a question remains as to whether the initial policy was successful in its aim of balancing the socio-economic distribution of higher education, as Labour would contend.
This is the damning assessment by UCD economist Kevin Denny in a paper examining the effect of the abolition of fees: “Prior to the reform, many low-income students did not pay fees because they received a means-tested grant covering both tuition costs and a contribution to their living expenses. In effect, the reform withdrew the one advantage that low income students had relative to high income students .. The only obvious effect of the policy was to provide a windfall gain to middle-class parents who no longer had to pay fees.” It’s hardly far-fetched to suggest that free fees has allowed those middle-class parents to spend the money they would ordinarily have saved for college fees instead on sending their children to fee-paying schools at second level and/or providing them with grinds. The central conclusion of Denny’s paper is that performance at second level is the overwhelming factor in deciding third level progression. So such spending on private education by the wealthy would only further widen the gap to low-income students. In effect, therefore, the policy does nothing to encourage children from low-income families to attend college and improves the ability of middle class ones to do so.
Several OECD studies have shown Ireland to be one of the developed countries with the least social mobility between generations.
Given Denny’s conclusion that progression to third level is largely determined by success at school, let’s examine Ireland’s second level system. Several OECD studies have shown Ireland to be one of the developed countries with the least social mobility between generations. Denny says in his paper that, “the educational immobility between generations in Ireland is high relative to many other countries”, with one study of OECD countries in particular finding that “the association between education levels of individuals and their parents was highest in Ireland.”
The CAO recently released statistics concerning progression based on postcode. 84% of students from D4 (with schools such as St Michael’s and Muckross) progressed while 99% of students from D6 (with schools such as Alexandra College and Gonzaga) did. By contrast, the figures were 15%, 16%, and 23% for Dublin’s (and Ireland’s) worst-performing postcodes – D17 (Coolock, etc), D10 (Ballyfermot, etc), and north-inner-city D1 respectively. Those figures are for progression to higher education, not to universities where there is reason to believe the balance is even more tilted towards the wealthy. Over a third of Trinity’s students attended a fee-paying school despite such schools educating less than ten percent of second level students.
There exists in Ireland, then, a second level system that allows for a huge divergence between the poor and the rest. And, with the CAO’s one criterion for allocating places being Leaving Cert results, there is no way for colleges to offset that advantage in their admissions. It’s a problem created at second level that cannot be fixed at third level.
Bring back fees
A way of minimising the problem would be to provide adequate financial support to such students. Neither the state nor individual colleges can afford to, though. In Ireland, students whose family income is below €23,000 receive a grant of €2,400 and all incomes above that threshold and below €46k receive a grant of €300-€1,200. By contrast, students in the UK with family incomes below the first threshold receive a grant of €4,200 and are entitled to a low-interest loan of €3,600 for each year of study; those whose family income is at the upper-threshold receive a grant of €1,500 and are entitled to a loan of €5,000. The UK puts Ireland to shame: a grant of €2,400 for the very poorest students is patently inadequate. It effectively forces them into working alongside their studies. The state would be far better able to support low-income students if they weren’t constrained by having to subsidise fees.
The ultimate solution to the problem of inequality, however, is to increase funding to primary and secondary education. Decreasing class sizes, providing homework clubs, and many other measures would greatly improve the prospects of disadvantaged children. Again, the cash-strapped government is incapable of such funding without freeing up money elsewhere. And scrapping the free fees initiative represents the most obvious source.
In Trinity, library staff have been cut resulting in restrictions to opening times; class sizes get ever larger; additional, and highly regressive revenue-raising measures like the supplemental exams fee are proposed.
In fact it is in the selfish interest of every third level student to support the introduction of fees. The Irish Universities Association claims that income per student has declined by over a fifth since 2008. In that time exchequer funding has fallen by a third and only partly been compensated by increases in private funding and revenue from the student contribution. Ireland’s student-staff ratio has increased from 1:15 to 1:19 compared over the same period compared with an OECD average of 1:16. Judging by the Times Higher Education rankings, the quality of Ireland’s education has markedly declined: in 2010 both TCD and UCD were in the top 100; four years later, TCD has fallen out of the top 100 and UCD out of the top 200. In Trinity, library staff have been cut resulting in restrictions to opening times; class sizes get ever larger; additional, and highly regressive revenue-raising measures like the supplemental exams fee are proposed. The HEA judges forty percent of university infrastructure as below standard. Student numbers are set to increase by 15% by 2016, and that trend is set to increase. Irish universities are cash-strapped and will remain that way unless there is a substantial reform of the way they are funded. The quality and reputation of our education and that of future generations is declining and the only solution is to increase funding by implementing student fees.
But that shouldn’t happen without providing an adequate means of financial support. And there is the prospect that one could be introduced that is greatly favourable to the current one, which is not fit for purpose. By the next academic year, the student contribution will have risen to €3,000, and for a family earning anything above €55k there is no assistance with the payment of that. The threshold refers to gross income, and student contributions for the first child are non-tax deductible. So a family at that level is expected to pay over 5% of their after-tax income for each year of study. The burden becomes even greater if there is more than one child in college and represents a sizable barrier to entry for those from average-income families.
Government-backed loan system
That barrier can be removed by introducing a government-backed loan system. For a model, we need only look across our northern border, where anyone, regardless of family income, can have their student fees covered by a low-interest loan system. After graduation, one makes repayments at a rate of 9% of income over £21,000 (€26.3k). For example, someone earning £30,000 per year (above the national-average wage) would repay £67 per month. No one earning under that threshold makes repayments and anyone who falls below it ceases payment. All outstanding debt is written off after thirty years. While, admittedly, there would be associated cost and complexity involved in setting up such a system, it is hugely preferable that students rather than their parents are responsible for the payment of their tuition fees, and that system would allow students to defer repayment until they are earning.
In summary, the rationale for abolishing the Free Fees initiative is three-fold: it would lead to more equality; it would have the potential to improve the standard and reputation of our education; and it would lead to a more desirable payment mechanism. You may espouse a view that higher education should be a right and universally free. I believe that a scenario in which students pay for a superior education and in which there is increased participation from disadvantaged sections of society is considerably more favourable than the status quo. The state is struggling to afford to support the crumbling third level system as it stands and access to that system is grossly unfair. A richer future Ireland may be in a position to reappraise and decide that it is in Ireland’s interests to provide free higher education. But I urge that we allow pragmatism to trump ideology in the medium term. The rallying cry of students should be against injustice and in favour of fees.