Investigation to probe fees

Trinity College students are already paying tuition fees, according to internal College accounts. The government cut funding to the University and its response was to increase the Registration Fee to make up the difference.

This practice will now be placed under Government scrutiny as the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Government Spending Watchdog, made a commitment last Thursday to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee to launch a full investigation into the Fee and how it is spent in Trinity, according to a Students’ Union spokesman.

The Fee for 2008/09 was €900 but a breakdown of the figures show that only €640.20 (72%) per student was spent on what the Government and the College claim the Fee is intended for, with the remainder compensating for cuts in the core teaching grant from the Government. €537.25 per student was spent on student services in 2008/09 from the €900 Fee.

The Fee is meant to provide for the cost of Registration, Examinations, Careers Advice, Counselling, the Health Centre, Grants to Student Organisation such as the SU, Societies, Sports Clubs and Publications (including Trinity News), and other services to students. The HEA said there are no formal rules on how the funds from the registration fee, which currently stands at €1,500, should be spent. There is a “framework of good practice” which lays out how the funds should be allocated among student services and calls for “transparency and accountability”, but is silent on whether the Fee can be spent on anything other than Student Services.

The documents were released by the SU President Cónán Ó’Broin, who said that “the Government and the HEA have been justifying Registration Fee increases by claiming they pay for student services, but this is simply not the case. People need to be aware that only a small fraction actually goes to services that directly benefit students.”

“We need accountability and transparency in how Registration Fees are spent. In the current climate where value for money is essential, students and parents deserve better than a Minister lying to them.”

The SU are now bringing their case to Dáil Éireann; Ó’Broin to the Chair of the Oireachtas Education Committee, Paul Gogarty TD, to accuse the Minister of Education of being “either wilfully ignorant of this situation, or else has been deliberately misleading the public. Neither incompetence nor duplicity are characteristics that inspire confidence in the administration of our education system.” The Minister is on record as saying the Fee is charged solely to provide student services.

Last week NUI Senator Ronan Mullins raised the issue in the Seanad with a parliamentary question to Minister Batt O’Keefe on the issue; and it was also raised in the Dáil Public Accounts Committee last Thursday. The Comptroller and Auditor General gave a committment during the meeting to launch an investigation into how the Registration Fee is spent in Irish Universities. Brian Hayes TD is set to raise the issue again in the Dáil today. A College spokeswoman confirmed that “as informed by the HEA, a significant proportion of the increase in the student charge in 2002 and 2008 was intended to secure savings to the exchequer … since the core grants were reduced by the additional income generated from the increased charge.” College also said that it “has engaged proactively by making this information available each year to the student body thorugh its representatives at Committee and Board level”.

At the Board meeting last year that approved the 66% increase from €900 to €1500 in the Registration Fee, then SU president Cathal Reilly is on record as having asked for the Fee to be ringfenced to pay for Student Services and not to help reduce the College’s deficit. The record of the meeting states “a number of Board members stated that the manner of increasing the student charge for 2009/10 was tantamount to the introduction of tuition fees and expressed their dissatisfaction at the manner in which this was being done.”

One university president, Ferdinand von Prondzynski of Dublin City University, agrees. He argues that the Fee could be “Tuition Fees by the backdoor” and that “in the general setting of budget cuts and operational restrictions on universities, it is difficult for any of us to turn down this charge. And yet I have been and am uneasy about it. It helps us all to fudge the issue of funding and to kick real solutions ahead of us.” The comments were made on his blog, Diary of a University President.

A spokesman from the Department of Education and Science declined to state what the Government position is on higher education institutions charging tuition fees except to add that before the increase to €1,500 this year the charge didn’t fully pay for all student services and so they were partly funded from the core teaching grant. The increase this year was intended by the Government to bring the amount contributed by students more into line with the cost of providing student services in the institutions, according to the spokesman.

Tuition fees were abolished in 1994 in a bid to widen access to third level education.  A Registration Fee was introduced to pay for registration, examinations, and services to students. The fee now stands at €1,500, up from €190 (£150) when it was first introduced fifteen years ago, a rise of 440% in addition to inflation. The Government had intended to reintroduce tuition fees up until recently, until the Green Party won a committment to “not proceed with any new scheme of student contribution to Third Level Education” in the revised Programme for Government last October.