The Labour view

As the discussion of tuition fees hots up, and in anticipation of the proposals which we understand the Minister for Education and Science is to put to the cabinet, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on education, Ruairi Quinn TD, was reported as saying the following:

‘I have no doubt that there is a funding crisis at third level, but slapping fees on families is not the way to address it. The resources for our education system, from junior infants to graduate school, should be sourced from the exchequer and should be funded by general taxation.’

That of course is where we are right now. The current position, introduced at the initiative of the Labour Party when it was last in a coalition government, is that in Ireland we have ‘free fees’ which means that the state pays tuition fees on behalf of all Irish and EU students. The fee levels are set in theory by the universities, but in practice by a government unilateral decision each year (these days generally not even preceded by notional consultation), and the recurrent grant (which makes up the rest of the funding package) is also unilaterally determined. University studies are free at the point of use (unless you are studying part-time), and are paid for by taxpayers.

This universal benefit approach to higher education has a lot to commend it in terms of general theory. It presents education at all levels as a social benefit which should be provided as a right (to those appropriately qualified), and it means that all those wanting to proceed to higher education can do so on the same financial basis. 

The major, and ultimately fatal, drawback of this is that the taxpayer quite simply and visibly cannot afford it. With participation levels exceeding 50 per cent, and indeed with a target of over 70 per cent, the cost of higher education has reached levels that have created serious affordability problems. The result is that the amount of taxpayer support per student has had to decline in real terms, to the point where it no longer covers the cost of a reasonable quality education. This has left universities and other providers in the quagmire between financial deficits and quality problems, and a situation where some institutions have become technically insolvent.

If we take the Labour Party’s position on all this at face value, what they are suggesting is that taxes need to increase to fund higher education. However, Ruairi Quinn is a former Minister for Finance (with a record of distinguised competence and vision in that role), and he knows well enough that any increased taxation cannot be ringfenced for higher education (or anything else). The result is that it is a running certainty that at any moment of economic stress the funds raised will be diverted to other causes, as is happening right now. The truth is that the taxpayer has a demonstrable record of unreliability as a funder of higher education, raising levels of support in good times while expecting even higher levels of throughput, and then dramatically cutting them in bad times. There is no real reason to believe that this would be any different if taxes were raised. Indeed, it is most unlikely that any government could declare that it was raising taxes to fund universities, as this would be electorally just as unpopular as introducing fees, even more so possibly as it would hit all earners, even those without any family members in higher education. So we would probably end up with a tax increase not declared to be for any particular purpose, leading to the situation where university leaders could not even make a public claim for ‘their’ money.

I understand the position of the Labour Party as a matter of principle. But it is a policy that has not worked in the past, and won’t work in the future. And just so as to deal with the possible claim that a different government would be more consistent and financially supportive, I would have to point out that the 1980s coalition government of which the Labour Party was a member cut funding for higher education just as brutally as other governments have done.

Universities need to escape from the current situation in which they cannot plan financially and cannot secure quality. It is a position which places the whole future of this country at risk, even if those who advocate the ‘free fees’ scheme do so for honourable reasons.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, politics, university

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