… and the debate on fees continues

Another day, another bout of media coverage on tuition fees. On the whole, this is a good debate for the sector, but there are also some red herrings. For my own part, I am increasingly of the view that we need to emphasise and re-emphasise the two most important points in this debate: (a) that the Irish higher education system is horribly under-resourced; and (b) that the current ‘free fees’ framework is actually preventing money from being directed effectively to the lower income groups so that they too can properly access the university sector.

I understand why those who introduced free fees thought this would be a good idea: but since then the evidence has been overwhelming that it has not been, and that the stated goal of increasing participation from disadvantaged groups has not been furthered in this way. Instead, the main effect has been to asset starve the universities while channelling money to the well off. I find it hard to see how this could be justified.

The debate as a whole is welcome, but it is to be hoped that we will not end up with a system that targets the super rich with high income thresholds for the payment of fees. That will not work in practice, will be highly bureaucratic and will bring in only very small amounts of money. It will also create undesirable effects in the cases of those who may well have wealthy families but do not have access to their funds. Whether someone is able to pay fees needs to be assessed in a much more sophisticated way.

It is likely that we will all be able to see much more clearly how all this will go when the university presidents have had an opportunity to meet the Minister and discuss these matters with him.

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2 Comments on “… and the debate on fees continues”

  1. Ultan Says:

    “It will also create undesirable effects in the cases of those who may well have wealthy families but do not have access to their funds.” I really hate parents who inflict such misery on kids because they have smart accountants, don’t you? Or maybe the EU farming subvention cheque got lost in the post. Or admitting to funds would be a hard one to explain to the barrister at the Tribunal. However, it seems like the wealthy in Ireland had no problem in funding DCU in the past:

    http://www.tribune.ie/business/article/2008/aug/17/dcus-helix-racks-up-72m-losses/

    I still don’t understand why this funding issue is constantly being conflated with one of access. There was not one word about “access” for years. And furthermore everyone knows that inequality begins well before third-level, so providing funds for “the disadvantaged” to get to college (excluding the poor sods who are subject to their parent’s accountancy decision) will not do one thing to alleviate inequality. Without any figure on completion rates and where individuals who avail of programmes like TAP do in college and go, this access stuff is a just a sop to liberal opinion in the letters pages of the Irish Times and another warm armpit photo opportunity for the home pages of third-level institution website throughout the land.

    Isn’t the real issue here that universities have failed to raise their own funds privately, are incapable of leveraging what they do get, and are now running crying to the tax-payer to fund their managerial incompetence and poor deliverables that has come to a head now because the economy is tightening?

    And has non-fees really channeled money to the well-off? 80% of third-level students come from non-fee paying schools: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2008/0815/1218747922281.html. You’d think it was 20% the way this debate is being conducted.

    If you want to have a debate about fees then have an honest one. Let’s see fee-paying introduced on some kinda scale (maybe even the more economically valid courses – however you define them – are cheaper), but with a new deal on what undergraduates will getting for their money and what they’re expected to do with their qualifications after they graduate. And I have to say, let’s see some rationalization and efficiencies on the supply side too, as well as an examination of the whole grade inflation that’s taking taking over the years (I know IT graduates who can just about manage “Hello, World” at the programming level).

    Otherwise, this debate just reads like yet another budget submission…

  2. Cian Brennan Says:

    There’s one point, that I think is being missed in the whole fees debate. That’s where the money’s going to go. I’d have no problem paying fees tomorrow, if I didn’t think that the Universities would continue to be research/postgrad centric organizations. Undergraduates seem to be an unfortunate after thought. If DCU brought in fees tomorrow, you’d be competing with the likes of Griffith, who seem to focus on actually *teaching* students, rather than on research, and with the Scottish universities, who aren’t charging fees. You’d have to start treating undergraduates as actual customers, rather than something irritating but necessary to pay for research.

    There’s the other point, that (certainly currently) there’s an incredible amount of disdain amongst lecturers for the fact that some students have to work to put themselves through college. The number of times I’ve heard lecturers complain about how my degree is a full time degree, and students should not be working on top of it defies belief. Were fees reintroduced, this would have to stop pretty much immediately, something I can’t see happening.


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