Fees would guarantee equality

The return of college fees is inevitable, writes Iain Mac Eochagáin. The student unions’ anti-fees stance is flawed and misrepresents students.

The return of college fees is inevitable, writes Iain Mac Eochagáin. The student unions’ anti-fees stance is flawed and misrepresents students.

We are told that it was the week when an enraged public assembled and took to the streets; when young and old seized democracy by its roots and marched on the seat of power with one, unequivocal message: you have made us very angry. It was, of course, the week when pensioners and students alike protested in response to Minister Brian Lenihan’s budget for 2009.

Aside from the bombast about the people uniting in spite of age and clawing back democracy, the harking back to 1968, and the Beloved Leader-style address from Mr Shane Kelly, President of the USI, in this paper, there are two important questions that remain to be answered. Is the current system of free third-level tuition for all sustainable? And how representative is the stance of the USI?

Firstly, let us place the fees themselves in context. Our current system regarding tuition fees must be understood in both the political context of 1995, and the economic and academic context of today.

In 1995, Minister for Education Niamh Bhreathnach announced the end of tuition fees in most third-level institutions over the next two years. Why was this done? Because it was politically both expedient and timely. By making third-level education free, the Government of the day in effect handed back the urban upper classes, the groups most likely to avail of third-level, large sums of money. This was to calm their irritation at wealthy farmers claiming free-fees (which were available through means testing) with creative accounting. What better way to win votes?

It was a timely move – the country could afford to take on every student’s tuition fees. Unemployment and emigration were down, and the boom years were just around the corner. The result was, naturally, a huge increase in third-level entrants. Thirteen years later, and the effects are fully felt by academia, government and society. Universities are starved of capital (this year, Trinity’s deficit is €7 million), government is beholden to paying for a system that cannot be sustained in the long term, and the very degrees we earn are devalued by the sheer number of them.

Our current economic woes do mean that education should be supported and funded to ensure society can be as equal possible, but our current system is far from just. The present system demands no financial commitments, in exchange for teaching and qualifications that lead to appreciable material rewards after graduation. What can this say about the level of most students’ commitment? Because, let’s be honest, not everyone in third-level education entered it for purely academic reasons.

Instead of making our universities spaces for the brightest minds to expand and interact, “free-fees” have made them sites of an obligatory rite of passage for the young undecided. Yes, many of them have been educated, but what, financially, have they contributed, and how much could many of them have? I don’t wish to sound haughty – of course not everyone can be sure of their ambitions at eighteen years old – but nothing in life is free.

“Universities are starved of capital and very degrees we earn are devalued by the sheer number of them.”

If we continue to allow our universities to rely on the State’s funding, we are not doing them, or indeed ourselves, any favours. Colleges and universities who participate in the free-fees scheme are simply not paid enough per student to pay staff and keep offering all the academic programmes they would like. Any more of the one-size-fits-all free-fees regime will mean fewer courses on offer, less teaching time, and fewer places. The race for smaller courses will, of course, be won by the better-off, who have been using the money saved on fees since 1995 to put their kids through grind schools, to give them the best chance at the golden 600 points. How fair is that?

We should be considering all options – deferred payment for those on low incomes, graduate tax, low-interest student loans – instead of clinging to our own model, a product of pure politics.

What doesn’t help is how the USI, with their constituent member, TCDSU, couldn’t see this logic and went for the crowd-pleasing stance that “Fees Are Bad Because.”

The current system is beyond questioning. Any attempt to touch the system, which charges all taxpayers, benefits a minority, and short-changes the universities, is “short-sighted”. To consider reversing a political decision designed to refund the rich in exchange for votes is “cynical”.

The line that the hike in the student services charge is the back door to tuition fees also casts doubt on the USI’s mathematics. Can €1,500 per year,

which barely covers buildings, exams, library services, etc., really cover tuition as well?

The USI would be a shred more credible on this topic if it could put the same people-massing muscle into campaigning on grants. The current county council grant system is slow, has very high income thresholds, and gives out grants that at the top rate cover only half of an average student’s living costs. But, for some reason, this issue, which also affects everyone on low incomes who would like a college education, isn’t as important for the USI.

“Rather than fostering the brightest minds, free-fees have made going to university an obligatory rite of passage for the young undecided.”

Both TCDSU’s and the USI’s approach to the fees issue has presumed that all students are against fees in any form, without all of us being consulted. A referendum would be the correct way to ascertain student opinion and form policy, even if that meant deviating from the usual practise of referenda solely for constitutional questions. They presume that all of the students who marched on Leinster House were fully committed to the cause. In fairness, we and students in other Dublin colleges didn’t have far to go, but I would like to know how many came from around the country just to have the day off classes? It’s simply not credible that TCDSU and the USI can assume the support of each of us for its policy, when we did not directly decide that policy line.

The boom is over, and the government can no longer afford to blindly subsidise everyone’s third-level education, irrespective of their income. The question now is how we fund our universities in the fairest possible way. Fairness means entry criteria that measure real intellectual ability, fees for those who can afford them, and a manageable way for the less well-off to pay them. In the current debate, we should be clear about the student unions’ role and how they represent all of us. I, for one, will not trust an organisation whose website oddly omits its anti-free-fees stance in 1995, as USI’s website does. The question is too complex to generate a unanimous, enraged response from all individuals. Don’t count me in.