Today’s Irish Times carries an opinion piece by a Gerard Horgan, described only as someone who ‘works in the education sector.’ The article, entitled ‘Free education can benefit all of society’, takes issue with the idea of the reintroduction of university tuition fees, principally on two grounds: that fees will hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that they will lead to increased indebtedness of students.
I am sure this is a well-intentioned piece of writing, and as I have mentioned before, I am myself not hugely comfortable with the principle of tuition fees. But the arguments he uses here are weak and the analysis is incomplete. In particular, his contention that people from ‘impoverished backgrounds’ will be affected is actually silly, as one thing that everyone is agreed upon is that the current supports for such persons are inadequate and that any system of fees will continue to exclude persons from such backgrounds from the obligation to pay them. Indeed, one of the key arguments for bringing back fees is that people from socio-economically disadvantaged groups can actually receive more targeted support, as money currently funding wealthier students can be redirected. The problem, as I have mentioned previously, is not with impoverished students, but rather those from middle income backgrounds, and it is here that some analysis will have to be carried out.
The argument about indebtedness is a more serious one, but here there is considerable experience in other countries with how to provide financing that is sensitive to student needs and does not financially cripple people at the start of their careers.
But the key point we cannot escape from is that the taxpayer, represented by the government, is clearly unwilling, and now probably unable, to fund higher education to the extent that it needs to be funded to maintain quality. For each student an Irish university enjoys a per capita level of funding which is only about half of what is available in the UK, and a fraction of what a US university on average can expect. That is unsustainable. There is a choice, of course, and the state could pick up this bill properly: but only if taxpayers, as voters, were willing to see income taxes rise to fund this, and if the funds so collected could be ringfenced. This would be a positive scenario, but realistically it will not happen.
There is still a debate to be conducted around this, and there are important issues to be debated, but the contributions to this debate need to be somewhat more sophisticated than this one.