Free Fees: Chasing the Rainbow

David Barker


Third-level education in Ireland is at crisis point. The scenario is simple: costs are soaring and standards are plummeting. Seemingly the only constant third level students can rely on is the USI and their stance on fees.

The USI affirmed this stance by holding a special congress at which students’ union delegates from colleges around the country voted to persist in their campaign for 100% exchequer paid fees. Every year students see their college rankings slowly slip and their registration fees not so slowly increase. Yet this never seems to weaken the resolve of USI and their chasing of the rainbow. The fact that the result of their special congress was met with a swift “no way” from HEA executive Tom Boland, the man charged with presenting Ruairi Quinn a solution to this problem in a few months time, should indicate to us all just how unrealistic this policy is.

To my mind there are three clear arguments against USI and their free fees policy. First: it just won’t get done. I have a lack of faith in the USI as a negotiating body to sit at a table with members of the HEA and hash out a comprehensive long-term agreement that would give students a glimpse of their education’s future. The USI are yet to show that they are capable of delivering a clear and confident proposal. backed by student mandate, to the HEA or Department of Education. Even if the HEA said “okay, let’s hear you out” I don’t think the USI would have the capacity to negotiate beyond ‘free fees for all’.

Second: it shouldn’t get done. Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think it’s ‘fair’. If we’re not paying for education, somebody else is. But let’s posit that the USI and the HEA could agree that, in principle, all students should be entitled to third-level education. There is still the issue of whether this is right for recovery. Tying more of Ireland’s money to the future, when it is so desperately needed in so many places now, is hardly enticing.

We might, as students, choose not to concern ourselves with these matters in a fees debate. Still, even with the focus reduced to education, this is a bad idea. If the USI continues to believe in free fees then students will get exactly what they pay for: nothing. USI’s policies are as much an attack on third-level institutions themselves as they are on fees. If the Exchequer‘s money is needed to pay fees the first place it will be taken from funding and grants. The only light at the end of the tunnel for this policy is that in a few years the standard of education will be so bad that students won’t see the need to attend third level education and eventually the burden on the Exchequer will be alleviated.

The final, and crucial, argument is that this can’t get done. Regardless of whether the USI could put together a decent proposal or whether we should support the idea in principle we’re arguing the impossible. We don’t need reports or inquiries to know that the Irish Exchequer does not have the capability to pay 100% of fees for 100% of students in Ireland for the foreseeable future. Even as I write that last line I am struck at how ridiculous it sounds.

The free fees movement is a distraction. The USI’s time would be better spent negotiating in reality rather than defending ideology. A reduction in the contribution charge is a realistic aim. Hashing out a viable student loan scheme is a valuable pursuit. But we shouldn’t be chasing rainbows: the Irish taxpayer simply cannot afford to send us all to college for free.

Trinity students’s votes indicate that they have recognised this. Disaffiliation from USI now looms large. The gap between USI policy and Trinity opinion has become too great to manage. The majority of Trinity favour some form of the current Student Contribution system. They will be poorly represented by USI.

It appears that students in TCD favour negotiating a flawed but realistic solution rather than blindly following USI and its ideology. I’m sure there were a large number who did consider the 100% exchequer paid option: but for many students a sense of economic realism will be accompanied by a lack of faith in the ability of USI to pursue this agenda. The concerns of many Irish students about their ability to attend college in the future are being undermined by a national students’ union that refuses to swallow its pride. The economic circumstances of today have shifted the focus of many debates from morality to practicality. For our own sake it’s time for debate over higher education to follow suit: there is no pot of gold. The USI must abandon its inflexible policy of ‘free fees for all’.