Remind me again what we’re in college for?

By Michael Gilligan

LAST WEEK’S rather discreet announcement by the Government that college fees will be increased next year by between five and eight hundred euro seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the student community.

This rise in the registration fee, which will be the second in two years, will put the cost of going to college somewhere in the region of €2000 per annum. And, if we spot the pattern, this probably means that the coming years will see further increases in fees as the Government frantically attempts to reduce the country’s colossal budget deficit.

So what does this backdoor introduction of tuition fees mean for students and for third-level education in general?

It means, plain and simple, that the increased monetary worth of university education requires a corresponding increase in the value which we attribute to that education.

We all know of that “ledgendary” (spelling mistake intended) student who parades around College – usually residing, admittedly, in the Arts Building – and boasts about having attended only seven lectures this semester.

We all know the students for whom the enjoyment of a social event is directly proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed. We all saw the large cohort of intoxicated students in last week’s protest who destroyed its credibility by binge-drinking (at three in the afternoon) and throwing their empty beer cans at the Gardaí. And worryingly, some of us see an ironic truth in the Facebook group “College, it’s like being on the dole but your parents are proud of you. lol”

No longer can certain Irish students afford, financially or morally, to indulge in such a lifestyle.

The problem with higher education in Ireland (and elsewhere) is that it has been taken for granted. What used to be a prestigious route of self-betterment and a guarantee of employment has become almost a rite of passage. The results are obvious: a decrease in the appreciation of higher education and a subsequent rise in academic inflation. Master’s and PhDs have become what Bachelor’s degrees used to be. And as we all know, further study is anything but cheap.

In last Saturday’s Irish Independent, the eternal last-page aggravator “Mick the Maverick” turned his eye on the student protest. In his tongue-in-cheek article, he complains about the tax-payer having to “cough up” for “facebook-fiddling fatheads up in toffee-nosed Trinity college… who sleep ‘til noon and write essays on Existentialism”!

Although the article was not meant to be taken seriously, it certainly captures the reputation that we students have built for ourselves over the years.

While it may not be possible for us to ever live down this stereotype and while many students do, in fairness, take their education seriously, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of entitlement that pervades our institutes of higher learning. At the expense of sounding clichéd, it is very easy nowadays to take these opportunities for granted. It is very easy to overlook how, in our grandparent’s time, the prospect of a third-level education was exclusive even where it was a possibility and unheard of in the majority of social spheres.

What then, in the current economic climate, should be re-configured about how we view education?

It’s surely time, for example, to reject the college values which we have imported from the US with such zeal. Most of American popular culture would have us believe (as would, closer to home, half of the most recent UT “culture” supplement) that college simply revolves around, or gravitates towards, students’ sexual gratification, or that ritual alcohol abuse and living a life of excess are norms for your average student. Most of our wallets, however, argue quite convincingly that this is not, or cannot be, the case.

I will not venture to say that it is inherently beneficial for students that the cost of education should go up, but it may be beneficial for our education. As long as the grant scheme is not reformed and remains in place for those who otherwise wouldn’t be here, an increase (within reason of course) of fees may have the effect of making us think twice about what we are in college for. It is universally acknowledged that we value something more if we pay more for it. And if fees (for those who can afford them) are a means of achieving this, so be it.

But for that minority out there who still don’t know that Ireland is on the verge of economic ruin and needs to make across-the-board cuts, and for those who still don’t know what a Government bond is or what a bank bailout entails – for those who, in short, are livin’ the dream, it’s time to wake up.