Never Mind the Neoliberalism: Free Fees is the Only Sensible Option

Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh


There have been many comments made about the outcome of the USI special congress, with considerable criticism of the continued ‘free fees’ stance.  In particular it has been labelled unrealistic given the current economic climate. My question to these self-professed ‘realists’ is this: what other outcome could you expect? How could a union morally or ethically accept a stance which would be to the financial detriment of its members? To have taken any other position would have been to sign the death warrant of student representation in Irish life.
Furthermore, all available information indicates that 100% Exchequer-funded education is the only sensible option. The new HEA report claims that students will have to be charged €5,000 or more to plug the higher education funding gap. If the USI had backed the Student Contribution charge, which was the second most popular option, it would have been less able to oppose this. It would, essentially, have been a vote for fees by the back door.
While the high levels of support in Trinity College for the Student Contribution charge shows a widespread acceptance that students must foot a certain amount of the bill, the rejection of 100% upfront (or tuition) fees shows that this must be within reasonable bounds. On a pragmatic level, it makes a lot more sense to support ‘free fees’ as a means of warning the government that excessive increases will be unpopular.
The alternatives are also impractical. The student loan scheme would leave young people in debt before they even start working. The graduate tax would have similarly burden us with debt. Both schemes include perverse incentive structures. For instance, in a country with a well-established history of emigration, graduates would be incentivised to emigrate to avoid payment. Why would the government back such a flawed structure?
100% upfront fees is obviously a non-starter, especially at a time when most families have seen a substantial drop in their incomes. It would also be economically unwise, driving people out of higher education at a time when we are trying to bolster our high-tech sector – which demands a highly-skilled workforce.
When all due consideration is given, the 100% Exchequer-funded option in fact seems to have the best chance of working. The measures required to make it work might seem unpalatable but we must acknowledge that if we want to have a well-funded higher education system we will have to pay more taxes.
The opposition to what would be a worthwhile investment seems quite odd – especially given the fact that both a loan scheme and graduate tax are deemed to be worth consideration. Both are additional taxes on income, and both will take quite some time to completely plug the funding gap. In contrast, increasing income tax itself could plug the funding gap within a year.
No matter how great the odds stacked against us are we must never aspire to mediocrity. We are citizens of this country and it is our right to demand the best, even when it seems unlikely that we will get it. A fully Exchequer-funded model appears politically impossible in the short to medium-term in Ireland. But how do other European countries manage to make it work? Is it particularly impractical for Ireland? Or do we suffer from an excess of neoliberal values?
Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh is a member of Ógra Fianna Fáil in Trinity College Dublin.