Tuition fees: facing up to reality

In this post of a couple of weeks ago I drew attention to the funding problems facing Irish universities; I pointed out that it was unlikely that we would resolve the problems unless those students who can afford to pay contribute to the cost of their university education, and that we would fall further and further behind internationally. Last year DCU entered the top 300 universities in the Times Higher world rankings for the first time. But while we may rise a few more places, our funding environment will absolutely prevent us from entering the top 50 or so. And even Trinity College Dublin, the highest ranked Irish university at 53, will not be able to advance much beyond that without the kind of income enjoyed by US and (increasingly) British universities. It is notable that not a single university in the world’s top 20 derives its income for teaching solely or even significantly from state grants.

When tuition fees were abolished in Ireland in the late 1990s (or rather, when the state took over responsibility for them in the ‘free fees’ programme), it was done for entirely laudable reasons, to do with the desire to make access to higher education affordable to the disadvantaged and to ensure that education is not seen as a commodity. But even then many commentators correctly predicted what would happen: that the taxpayer would be unable to resource a growing student population adequately and that universities, relying excessively on just one funding source, would become unable to develop and innovate at the appropriate speed. In the decade since then, the income per student in real terms has dropped dramatically, and by 2008 virtually all universities are in very serious financial crisis – while still managing, just about, to maintain quality.

In fact, even the social objectives of ‘free fees’ have not been achieved. While participation has grown, the increase in numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds owes very little to ‘free fees’, or indeed more generally to state initiatives, but almost everything to the very successful and expensive access programmes that the universities themselves have put in place and secured with private funding. In the meantime, public money that could be targeted at the disadvantaged is being spent on the education of the more affluent. The big winners have been private secondary schools, as parents who would previously have spent their money on the university education of their children have redirected it to secondary schools – the main losers being good state-funded schools.

All in all, it is arguable that the abolition of tuition fees has been one of the most notable examples of redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich. While those who have supported it have done so from noble motives, the policy itself has, if analysed closely, been morally indefensible.  In the meantime, most politicians acknowledge privately that the abolition of tuition fees was wrong, but are afraid of the wrath of middle class voters should they do anything about it.

However difficult this subject may be, it is time for a re-think. As we face harder times economically, it is time to be courageous and imaginative and to correct this mistake, honourably made but with appalling consequences. Then maybe we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

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4 Comments on “Tuition fees: facing up to reality”

  1. Guy Bague Says:

    OK, then. Let’s introduce them. Can you give us a potted inventory of what students would be expected to pay for a selection of undergraduate courses, how you calculate that figure, and what contribution you expect those fees to make to a) tuition, b) research, c) salaries, d) facilities, and e) other?

  2. universitydiary Says:

    Guy’s question is interesting and reasonable. The answers are not easy, however. The level of tuition fee would depend on what the state is still going to pay. Assuming that the purpose is to hold the state’s contribution at the current level and to use fees as a ‘top up’, I would expect the fee to be in the region of €3,000. But if the state reduced its contribution, then the fe would be adjusted accordingly.
    The purpose of the fee would be to help fund tuition, including its overheads (i.e. salaries, buildings maintenance etc). Research needs to be funded separately, except in so far as it is research solely designed to keep pace with the knowledge needed for teaching.

  3. Guy Bague Says:

    3,000 does not sound unreasonable, if anything a little low given the lifestyle of many students.

    Therein lies the problem – everytime this comes up in the media, a price – and it is a price is never mentioned. It should be.

  4. Paul A Says:

    3K does not sound like a big issue, but it would be for some. If the average industrial wage is 34K EU before tax, it doesn’t take a genius to work that out.

    Also, it should be pointed out that what needs to be discussed here is the *total cost of ownership*. In other words – the total cost of going to college. Even living at home, I would be surprised in travel costs to/from DCU didn’t come close to 3K. Getting to DCU via public transport is NOT easy despite the promotional material. Furthermore, there are capitation costs, bar fee, etc. that add up. Living away from home obviously adds to the cost. And then there’s eating. Any, these are undergraduate fees too.

    Anyway, I listened to Dr. Von Prondzynski on RTE yesterday. I didn’t disagree that fees should return. However, yet again, no figure mentioned? And what they would be used for. What does “fund tuition” mean. Pay for postgrads delivering tutorials or poor lecturing? No Dr Von Pronzynski, that’s not on. We’re not paying for the same old stuff. A whole new deal is needed.

    Why not say for 5 grand you’ll get a quality education, with a quality infrastructure (the WiFi provision in DCU is dismal), expect to be a class where all students can speak English, opportunities to express things differently, a social life, etc., all backed by a contract that if your experience is substandard then your money back if you want – and standards and guidelines corrected.

    Let’s stop this drivel about education as a right and a social good. It’s a commodity for sale.

    If some University presidents are at ease saying their salaries should be 500K (I am not saying the DCU pres did) and that they should be treated like CEOs, then they should be able to price the products they are selling and say it.

    Come on – a Westmeath man should be able to grab nettles! Michael O’Leary would!

    On a related subject, the thorny aspect of access programmes must also be dealt with. the state should NOT be the main funder here. There are huge questions unanswered about such programmes (TAP in TCD, etc) – they issue is not getting into college. It’s staying there and what is done with the learning afterwards. Think of this as reverse CSR (corporate social responsibility). Who cares how you got there, what are you doing with the outcome?

    Are there any figures on the % completion of entrants to access programme? Where did they go? What was the total cost of the exercise, etc? How does this compare with the CAO or mature students route.

    California struck down positive discrimination in university entrance (I think about 10 years ago) with good reason…. so what’s the case here?

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