There’s Nothing Realistic about the Alternatives to Free Fees

Eoghan Boyce


The debate about how to fund third-level education has often been framed in terms of “realism” by those opposed to the idea of free education, either on principle or on a practical basis. “Is this real life?” asks David Byrne in his piece on disaffiliating from USI. “The fact is that ‘free fees’ is ideologically sound but practically unworkable in the current economic climate” states Rachel Barry in her article on the result of the USI vote. Both these statements ignore important facts about the nature of government, the state of the economy and the student movement’s imperatives.

Let’s take the ideas in order. First: that the position of the USI is unrealistic and therefore we should disaffiliate. “The economy is in a state of ruin,” goes the refrain. It is often said that “the country can’t afford” free third-level education. It would appear that the state will not be able to afford it. But this is mainly because of a decided lack of will to increase taxes to pay for services – an ideological point for Fine Gael and a practical one for Labour. However, the “country” is more than the state. The recession has hurt the citizens’ wallets as well.  Private debt remains high, while incomes have dropped. These problems affect the middle and lower income brackets the most, while upper brackets have been shielded from many of the problems.

So while David Byrne treats free education activists with ad hominems like “Che Guevara-wannabes”, he has not explained how the alternatives are any more realistic for the many families who increasingly won’t be able to afford to send their children to third-level. The options outlined by many of the USI top brass – such as student loans and graduate taxes – are fundamentally flawed and were decisively rejected in the course of the preferendum and congress vote. Indeed, it was the status quo Student Contribution and ‘free fees’ that won out in the end. Better the devil you know seems to be the sentiment coming from students. And they don’t seem to find much ‘reality’ to grapple with in the other options.

Graduate taxes have the flaw of not solving the funding problem quickly enough. That is unless they are massive and targeted at all graduates – in which case one might as well simply raise income taxes as it will have the same practical effect. There is also a strong moral argument to be made that taxing someone for being educated, rather than taxing them on their ability to pay, is unjust.

Student loans are even more ‘unrealistic’. A country with high levels of public and private debt and a massively mistrusted banking system should not be instituting a student loan system. We’ve seen the end of that experiment: it’s a trillion dollars of student debt in the US owed to the bankers. Some claim it could be implemented in a better way here, but they provide no evidence to support that. Precedent would suggest that our governments have been incapable of administering finance in a way that is equitable. Even if the current government could do it, would you trust Fianna Fáil to do so afterwards? Or, if you’re on the other side of the political spectrum, would you trust Sinn Féin?

Disaffiliating because Trinity’s position wasn’t adopted by USI congress would not only be the act of a child throwing their toys out of the pram because they didn’t get their sweets. It would also be a tactical and logical error made on the assumption that USI maintains an “unrealistic” position to which no other realistic alternatives have been proposed.

The ‘free fees’ stance is by far the most sensible starting point for students to support. It allows the government to clearly understand the priorities of the student movement: to protect students’ interests. Concede before reaching the negotiation table and the government gains advantage. We’ve seen this in the UK, where the NUS backed down from its ‘free fees’ position in favour of graduate taxes – only to be ignored as the government implemented a different and more regressive system.

If USI not only weakens its position but is weakened by disaffiliations on the scale of TCD or UCD then the government will divide and conquer. Very few people will be happy with the result. The idea that TCDSU can somehow do a better job with the government standing by itself is laughable.

A question that will arise in many readers’ minds when reading this article is “what is the realistic option?” It is clear that Fine Gael in government means the end of ‘free fees’ as we know it. However, ‘free fees’ were never really free. They were paid for by taxation and a redistribution of wealth. People have varying abilities to pay and therefore should be taxed accordingly. The same principle can work for university contributions. The university is the engine of social mobility. The well-off paying the same amount of money as the poor to maintain their social position is simply inequitable and unworkable if we’re going to fund third-level education to a world-class standard. One may call me a ‘Che Guevara-wannabe’ for saying this. But the alternative is the breakdown of social mobility. That is the reality.

Eoghan Boyce is a member of Labour Youth in Trinity College but is currently on Erasmus in Bordeaux IV Montesquieu in France.