THE HALCYON days of Hibernian education are well and truly over.
The acceleration of Irish universities in the eyes of the world – all for a fee of less than €1000 – has halted in the face of austerity. With students facing a registration fee of over double that in 2008, the latest QS rankings reveal that educational standards are nevertheless in overall decline. As the importance of university funding slips in the minds of government ministers, so do our institutions’ reputations.
Just 2 years have passed since Trinity College was ranked among the global top 50 elite universities. Now, the effects of funding cuts and a recruitment moratorium are evident. Admittedly, a fall of 16 places according to the QS rankings might not appear to be a radical symptom of falling standards. However, it indicates a wider malaise among Ireland’s fiscally-challenged universities. The government has been naïve to assume that educational standards will remain high if the funds are not
Trinity, with its selective intake and long history of academic excellence, is no exception. Provost Patrick Prendergast attributed lack of funds to the downward movement in rankings for Ireland’s universities. Trinity, he says, receives just 66% of that available to the university’s counterparts in the UK. Speaking to the Irish Times, Prendergast commented that Irish education faces a “speedy and inexorable decline, unless the funding crisis is addressed by introducing fees for those who can afford to pay.” Once UK universities start charging up to €9,000 a year for a degree course, our universities will certainly be ill equipped to compete.
Prendergast’s comment, while inexplicit, represents a growing sentiment in the university sector: Ireland needs fees. In this climate, it seems, tuition fees are the only option to sustain higher education funding.
There must be a viable alternative to the current situation facing students in Ireland. Undergraduates live in the worst of both worlds: they must pay fees (by another name) of €2,000, and the measures to aid payment are inadequate. Most students will be required to pay this money upfront. Even UK students, some of whom will face debts of £50,000, will not be required to pay a penny until they earn over £21,000. For some, this may mean never paying their student loan. In all cases, any remaining debt is cleared after 30 years.
While the incoming British fee system seems comparatively astronomical, the government could learn an important lesson from education policy across the sea. A system in which every student, regardless of family income, is entitled to a student loan, is unequivocally fair. It means that both poorer students and those that would not normally qualify for financial aid are not faced with an immediate bill for their studies.
The government and student population have been playing an ongoing game of tug-and-war on the fees issue: one attempts to implement the ineffable measure, whilst the other postulates and protests until the former’s concerns for re-election give way.
Now is the time for decisive action: a sustainable education funding system that treats fees fairly and honestly. The status quo simply cannot uphold quality education.
Instead of invoicing its students, the Irish government needs to invest in them. It’s time for our leaders to scrap the electioneering and implement the inevitable.