Free education for now, but for how much longer?

By Lochlainn Coyne

Last Tuesday the findings of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance were presented to the UK Government. It had many suggestions for the government which is struggling to curb a deficit, a mere fraction of the one faced by the current Irish Government.

The two main suggestions from this finding are that the cap on tuition fees be cut completely, and that graduates only pay after they are earning over £21,000 up from £15,000. This may seem beneficial to students, but if these proposals are implemented we can be certain that uncapped fees will increase by a lot more than 40 percent, this being the increase on the minimum wage before graduates pay their fees.

Here in Ireland the government has been worryingly tight lipped on the subject of protecting our precious “free education”. While various students’ unions across the country campaigned to elicit promises and guarantees from various TD’s that the status quo would be maintained, a similar movement was happening in the UK, but now we are waiting with bated breath to see what will become of the Lib Dem’s when they bring down the wraith of 50 percent of the voting student population. Will the country fall to pieces or will it simply pave the way for governments around the world to turn their backs on promises made in good faith to students.

The Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan announced that Welfare and Pensions “are on the table” for the upcoming budget in December. It would be a very bold and frankly insensible move for the government to financially cripple the poor and elderly while those with the best chances of viable employment, ie those with University Degrees, continue to coast through without funding their own education. Even those of us in our final years may not be out of the woods.

It is entirely possible that the government will introduce a retrospective fees system where those who graduated in recent years will have to help fund the deficit which the government faces. If someone suggested this even a year ago, it would have been laughed off as impossible or insane, but then who thought five years ago the celtic tiger would come crashing down, or that a financial institution worth €23.75 per share at its height in 2007 would have to be nationalised. We are living in the midst of the impossible and to deny this is folly.

If fees are introduced, it is most likely to take on the suggestions from the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in the UK. So, we will probably be facing a 9-10 percent tax on all our earnings from a fixed threshold onwards. Assuming parity between UK and Irish third level education, we can speculate that this will be around €25,000. However, the duration we will be expected to pay this is entirely unpredictable.

There is a distinct lack of clarity by the College on where the fees money we claim from the government twice a year at registration ends in the system. We cannot determine the actual cost of our education, and so the government are able to place a graduate tax on us potentially indefinitely.

Evidently, we have to look honestly at ourselves and ask, do we deserve free third level eduction. Is it not in the interest of the greater good for us to be forced to pay off our debts to the Government at a time when we will be in a financially sound position to do so. We as students are in serious danger of alienating ourselves from discussions by taking a hard line policy on fees rather than acknowledging that every sector of public spending is going to have to take cuts and that possibly a graduate tax is the answer.