Tuition fees and middle income earners

Harvard University got mentioned here yesterday, and today I shall do so again – but in a different context. It’s to do with tuition fees. But before I do so, let me go back first to remind us where we are in relation to one particular anticipated development in Ireland.

As readers will be aware, the Irish government is considering the reintroduction of higher education tuition fees. The Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, indicated in the summer of 2008 that he wanted to examine the fees issue, and since then he has made a number of further comments, clearly indicating that he favours the reintroduction of fees for those who can afford them, but promising also to make then family-friendly in the light of tax increases and other burdens imposed by the current recession.

It is not necessary to rehearse again all the arguments concerning fees, which I have covered a few times before. It may be worth pointing out however that while ‘free fees’ have done little or nothing to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they did allow people from what are often referred to as ‘middle income’ groups to go to university without either placing an excessive financial burden on their families or amassing unacceptable levels of debt. To that extent, there is a genuine issue to be addressed, if fees are to be reintroduced, of how this can be achieved without creating unmanageable obstacles for middle income earners.

And this is where my reference to Harvard comes in. Harvard charges some of the highest fees for a university education that can be found anywhere in the world, but it is very conscious of the need to maintain access to its programmes for all people with the necessary intellectual qualifications, regardless of their means. Two years ago it introduced what it described as a ‘middle income initiative’, targeted at all families with incomes below $180,000, but with the undertaking in particular that those with incomes below $60,000 would not be asked to contribute towards the fees at all.

It seems clear to me that, in establishing a framework for fees, we must also pay attention to the need to attract and support those from low income groups, and to ensure that there are no excessive obstacles for students from middle income groups. This can best be achieved by maintaining the state’s block grant to the institutions, while also placing an obligation on universities to ensure that all students are given access and that financial arrangements are made to ensure this is feasible. There will, I think, still need to be a combination of fees, loans and grants (or scholarships), but I believe it will be possible to provide a higher education system that is both effectively funded and equitable.

It is time, I think, for the debate on all this to be moved into the public arena. Right now we still don’t have any idea what the Minister is proposing, or when he is proposing it. This has prevented an intelligent discussion, and that phase needs to be brought to an end.

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20 Comments on “Tuition fees and middle income earners”

  1. Mathieu Says:

    My comment will be a side-viewed one:

    In 1998-99, I was doing my “Maîtrise” year (fourth year) in History at the university of Caen, France. I always wanted to do my MA thesis on Ireland, and, as I developed a specialty in Early Modern History, I wanted to study the influence of the French Enlightnment in the 18th-century Catholic Ireland. Thomas Bartlett suggested to me that I study the case of Charles O’Conor of Belanagare, since his correspondence had been published.

    I wanted to study in Ireland of course, to be able to work directly on the primary sources. However, the History Department in Caen had not exchange program with any Irish university. My professor proposed that I go to Montreal, Canada or even to Alexandria, Egypt. I did not demure and insisted on going to Ireland. I tried, with the help of Joseph Long from Trinity College, to use the Letters exchange program with UCD, to no avail. I considered paying the fee to be able to study as all other students to UCD, without any exchange program. I remember the letter from the head of the History Department of UCD (though I do not recall his name) telling me that it was possible and when I read the sum, I thought: “no way my parents will pay this” despite the fact that I come from a upper-middle income family.

    I was despairing when I heard about Paul Brennan who had founded and directed the Irish Studies in the universities of Caen, Paris and Lille. I went to him and he managed to have the Irish Fund grant me a small financial support that helped me go to Ireland for only three weeks. Three weeks during which I went each day to the Royal Irish Academy and to the National Library and to the Trinity Library to copy manually the sources (because photocopies were much too expansive).

    Coming back to France, I wrote my thesis with great difficulties: I would have liked to have an access to the sources for clarifications and corrections, but could not, obviously.

    Well, finally, I managed to have my thesis validated under the title “Ireland and the French Enlightment in the 18th century: the example of Charles O’Conor of Belanagare in the Catholic Question.”

    But I only got a “Good” mention (allowing me to continue researches in a DEA — now called Master) whereas I strived for a “Very Good” or even a “Congratulations.” And this small disappointment is due to the rush I had to work under during my too short stay in Ireland.

    (Happily enough I was able to come back to Ireland several years later, but this time only for vacation.)

  2. Vincent Says:

    Converting your figures into Euro, the 180 becomes 130 and the 60 to 43. No one will quibble with that. But how many students will you get who have income above 130,000E.


    • Thanks, Vincent – I suspect we would have to have different thresholds. But you’d be surprised at the percentage of Irish students whose families have income above that level – I suspect it’s around 40 per cent.

  3. Aidan Says:

    I can see a number of issues with reintroducing the old Irish model of fees for students from middle class backgrounds. For a start I think it is unfair to means test based on the income of somebody’s parents. The expectation in this model is that parents will make a contribution so effectively those from richer backgrounds don’t get to cut the financial umbilical cord until much later than would be possible in a model based on grants or loans. Personally I like the British or Dutch student loans model and, to a degree, the Australian graduate tax (though collection would surely be an issue considering the mobility of Irish people).
    I actually did my undergraduate studies at the University of Sheffield because of the fact that British universities had no tuition fees at that time (1989) whereas Irish universities charged relatively high fees. Although I was supposedly from a wealthy background my parents also had five other children to look after so everything is relative. In that period quite a number of Irish people chose British universities for purely financial reasons and I am pretty sure that many of those people never returned to Ireland afterwards.
    I do think that students should pay for their education but I fundamentally disagree with basing the level of payment on parental income. Personally I would be happy to help my children in the future if they got a place at Harvard or Oxford or Lund but if they choose to stay in Holland they will have the exact same access to financial support as every other Dutch person. That is fair and right. You shouldn’t have to pay for the success of your parents.

  4. muriel Says:

    I think this debate about ‘free fees’ really distracts from the real issue, whether we as a country believe that education is a right rather than a privilege, if, as I believe that education is a right then it is the states responsibliity to provide and pay for it for all citizens. Otherwise it is an open door for the privatisation of education similiar to what is happening in the health service.


    • Muriel, in many ways I agree with you philosophically. For many years I campaigned against fees. But in my present job it gradually became clear to me that the state simply will not fund higher education properly, no matter how well the case is argued – it was wholly under-funded in the good times! In addition, I became more and more aware how the disadvantaged were actually being neglected by ‘free fees’ – money that could have been used to increase grants, develop access programmes, open up programmes for schools in disadvantaged areas and so forth was instead being paid to wealthy families so that their already over-privileged children could go to college ‘free’. It stopped making sense to me.

      • muriel Says:

        By the State you mean Fianna Fail or Fine Gael! I agree with you that working class students have not benefited as much (or at all!) as those from the middle classes but I really don’t think that treating working class students almost as charity cases of the state really does anything to address class inequality, infact it has been argues that it perpetuates it….

  5. Jilly Says:

    There are wider social/economic issues at play here, especially related to the points raised by Aidan regarding the measuring of parents’ income for those over 18.

    Deciding at what level fees should be charged, or where to set the boundaries for partial payment of fees is only part of the issue for the wider subject of class and the extent to which middle-to-upper socio-economic classes ensure that their children inherit social and economic privilege.

    Middle-to-upper-middle socio-economic classes have always provided economic support to their offspring way beyond the age of 18 or indeed 21. This is one of the ways in which their young adult children are able to enter professions or models of education and training which require either the payment of high fees, apprenticeships which last for several years after completion of a university degree, or a system of professional development which effectively doesn’t allow people to earn a living wage for the early years. Academia, with its requirements of PhD training, and the bar, with its system of deviling, are the most traditional models of this, but other high social status careers such as the arts and some parts of the media are also examples.

    The near-impossibility of self-funding or being self-supporting on income earned in these professions for so many years functions very effectively to keep the socio-economic profile of these professions disproportionately middle-to-upper-middle-class, without ever really needing to discriminate against other entrants in ways that are covered by equality laws. Look at our own profession of academia: there are more of us than there used to be whose parents aren’t upper-middle-class, but the demographic profile of the profession is still starkly at odds with that of the wider population. There are of course many reasons for this, but a big one is the fact that new entrants to the profession are barely able to keep body and soul together until somewhere around the age of 30, unless they have some family support.

    The introduction of ‘free fees’ at undergraduate level certainly means that those from poorer family backgrounds are more likely to be able to go to university in the first place. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the degree they earn will then open the doors that a similar degree would have opened under a fee-paying system. The fact that there has been a rising demand for MA qualifications for jobs which once only asked for a BA during the time in which BA degrees stopped charging fees is not a coincidence.

    None of which is to suggest that I don’t agree with providing fee exemptions to students from poorer backgrounds. I just think we need to be aware of the broader ways in which class privilege is maintained within our society.


    • Jilly, your points are very important. As a society, we need to re-think the whole concept of ‘the professions’, for all sorts of reasons. Oh dear, I think I can feel another blog post coming up 🙂

  6. Vincent Says:

    The cost of attending Harvard for the coming year is about $52000 E39000. Mostly absorbed by tuition at $33,696 E23878. Room and board makes up most of the rest at almost $12000 E8500. Now, given that the Dept’ of social community etc, a group not noted for their gift giving, define that E204 a week is the least that a human living in Ireland can exist and remembering that rent is not included in this 204. Living costs for attendance at a University comes to E6528.
    Rent on a three bed house, E1000pcm. And near enough the same in each of the Uni’ towns, comes to E2664. This total E9192 is E692 more expensive than living in rooms at Harvard.
    I do not know the amount of subvention you receive from Finance per under-grad, but I have a suspicion the number they have in mind is not E24000. But then Harvard has 70% on one sort of Ride or another. So with 30% or even a generous 50% paying for the costs of the other. The real cost per student is about E12000 and more than likely less.
    Now I will grant you that the odd thousand here and there will add up, the picture is not half so grim as is being made out by the brotherhood of Uni’ Presidents. Or to put it another way, if you received the fees that Harvard does, would you or even could you do with them as Harvard does.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      According to http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22673 the students paying full fees at Harvard are paying less than two thirds of the cost of their education; the subsidization of students paying less than full fees is not from the full fee students but from the Harvard endowment.

      • Jilly Says:

        And the endowments are why it’s really not worth comparing Irish universities (with or without fees) with Ivy League US colleges, or even many of their second or third tier institutions.

        Harvard’s endowment – even after having taken a big hit in the stock market meltdown – stands at US$36.9bn. Yes, billion. End of discussion, really…


        • Well no, not necessarily the end of the discussion. The way to look at it is this way. Our equivalent of the Harvard endowment is the recurrent grant (which Harvard doesn’t have). That’s what we subsidize the fees with. Even if fees are introduced, no student will be paying the full cost of the education.

          • Vincent Says:

            The only numbers I can get are for Trinity, last year. When the recurrent grant came almost to 200m. If one allows a 5% return on income. The direct implication is that an ‘endowment’ exists in the amount of 4 billion. In reality though, such would never happen where the entire return on income would be used. Only that above inflation such as to protect and grow the endowment.
            All in all, the recurrent grant equates to an endowment nearing 10 Billion.

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    I think any fees initiative at undergraduate level (which I agree is long overdue) should be accompanied by free fees for postgraduates. This is also a feature of most of the best postgraduate programmes in the US.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    Where is the evidence that ‘free fees’ has not led to greater access to tertiary education for students from working and middle class backgrounds? The research of Patrick Clancy et al at UCD has demonstrated a significant rise in participation amongst such groups. It may well be that the wealthy have benefited from ‘free fees’, but that is no reason to impose fees on all. Rather it is an argument for a progressive taxation system that is actually applied – then the wealthy will help to finance the system. Also, the state would want to look at the massive subsidy it provides to fee-paying secondary schools – this is where the class differentiation in education is most firmly entrenched.


    • Perry, progressive taxation is all very well, but there is no guarantee all or any of it would be transferred to higher education. Department of Finance rules don’t allow for any ‘ringfencing’ of taxation receipts, and the Irish experience is that in crisis the state (regardless of who is in government) reduces the allocation to higher education, and in good times under-funds it. We simply have to face that fact. By the way, Clancy’s research did not demonstrate that there was an increase in participation of those from working class backgrounds (well, there was a very minor increase) – what that research showed was that participation from middle income groups increased.

  9. Hugh Carthy Says:

    I suspect the biggest barrier to participation of students from lower-income backgrounds is the cost of attendance, and not the fees. I reckoned while I had children attending college that it was costing at least €10,000 each per annum to keep them there. I’m lucky – there are a lot of families that simply cannot afford this level of expense.

    Perhaps colleges should put some thought into innovative and accessible course content delivery (I seem to recall a reference to this in one of your blog posts?) We are technologically well enough advanced now to be able to deliver education to the desktop and/or the letterbox at home. There are plenty of highly motivated people from lower-income backgrounds who would appreciate and make use of this opportunity.

    This relates to Muriel’s point about whether education is a right or a privilege. My belief is that its a right up to second-level, but should be paid for at third level and higher. We don’t need everybody to be educated to degree level, nor does everybody wish to be educated to that level. I agree that for those who do, money should not be the make-or-break issue. It is not unreasonable (in my opinion) to ask everybody to at least contribute to the cost of third level education – the mechanism is a matter for debate and innovative solutions – but requiring potential students to physically sit in lecture halls, with all the additional living expenses that this method of delivery implies, is something that needs to be addressed if college education is to become more accessible.

  10. alphonce stephan Says:

    searching for help


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