‘Free’ higher education: the quality dilemma

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.

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7 Comments on “‘Free’ higher education: the quality dilemma”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I, like you, was behind the idea of free fees, but I have seen the reality of this situation. Where the people who needed to benefit were the very people who were hurt most. For all it did was to push the money into earlier schooling and/or into rents.

    For my tuppence worth. I see little reason why the tax bands are not used. Where there is another band set about 130k and above that figure you pay 130% of the fees. 100k-100%, 80k-80%, 60k-60%, 30k-30%. Below that amount the cost of collection would make the exercise pointless.
    Also, if one has steps running together, well a short stepladder these days, there the fee could be passed over twice the time.
    All could be assessed at 120%, and five years worth of tax paperwork would be required showing 80,60 or 30. Pushing the requirement onto the student/parent to prove the amount. But it should be simple, no bullshit, for the simpler it is the less loopholes.
    This also has the beauty of using the tax code but not interfering with it.

  2. Clare Says:

    Herzlichen Glueckwunsch zum Geburtstag!

  3. cormac Says:

    I saw that article, and found it very curious. What struck me most was the manner in which, on every point, the author simply ignored well-known counterarguments, rather than attempting to tackle them.(for example, no mention at all of a grant scheme for disadvantaged students).
    A second criticism is that in discussing recent access to third level, the author completely ignored the impact of the Institutes of Technology. It is striking how many commentators in the university sector make this mistake and it is more than a little irritating (for example WIT has several thousand students studying to degree level, most of whom come in on lower points than the traditional universities – and there are 12 other such elephants in the room). Presumably, this has had a significant impact on third level takeup and should be included in any discussion on the topic…

    • Perry Share Says:

      @Cormac
      I couldn’t agree more. Indeed it is even possible that if those in the University sector knew more about the IT sector, they might learn some useful things.


  4. While I think the content of this blog post is reasonable, I think the Irish University presidents are a bit naive in how they are speaking publicly in favour of the reintroduction of fees. A number of university presidents have recently called for the reintroduction of tuition fees when what they really wanted was more funding for their universities.

    In the current economic environment it is entirely unrealistic that the government is going to take a decision that the universities should have more money to spend. If fees are introduced, the government will simply deduct the money from the amount that they provide and there will be no more nett gain in funding for the 3rd level sector.


    • Brian, the position at the moment is that we are going to face severe funding cuts. Fees would in all probability at least arrest that. At any rate it is absolutely clear that the government alone is unable to fund the sector. I regret that, but it’s a fact of life.


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