Educational pricing

Referring to recent disclosures regarding fees and student loans for higher education programmes, a reader has written a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times which the newspaper published today. In this the writer (Mark Sugrue) warns that higher fees for science and engineering programmes could push more students away from these subjects.

He is absolutely right. As we know, we already have a problem persuading students to take courses in science and engineering, but we also know that our need for skilled graduates in these areas will grow. Unless we can address this we may be unable to present Ireland as an attractive place for foreign direct investment.

Right now there is a perception amongst many students applicants that science and engineering programmes are harder and require more work. If on top of that we are saying that it will also cost more to do these courses, the result is almost certainly going to be a further reduction in student numbers in these areas.

It seems to me that there is a good argument for institutional solidarity here, and that all fees (together with the associated loans)  should be set at exactly the same level – but a level that will allow the university to redistribute some of the income in internal processes so that the more expensive subjects are covered. It also seems to me that all of this should not just be determined centrally by government, but should be the subject of detailed discussions with the universities and colleges; it may indeed be necessary to vary the fee slightly between institutions to reflect different disciplinary mixes across each university.

If we were to have flat rate fees that are the same for everyone, this would put in place an innovative approach that should benefit the sector as a whole. We would also be among the first in the world to do this.

In the end, this is another aspect of any new framework for student contributions that confirms the importance of full consultation with the higher education institutions before any final model is put in place.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

Tags: , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

15 Comments on “Educational pricing”

  1. Mark Dennehy Says:

    I still find it enormously depressing to see the reintroduction of fees embraced in this manner, especially by university heads, despite their being a suboptimal solution to a blatantly manufactured problem.

    My father was the first in his clan to go to college, which he did as a mature student on a scholarship and money earned by my mother working sewing curtains for a furnishings shop. Once he graduated, my mother then became the first in her clan to go to college, supported by my father’s now higher income. And the year she graduated, I became the first child from either of our clans to go to college after finishing the leaving certificate course. We did not receive a single penny in grant funding for this; every resource available was pooled to fund that education, along with the initial scholarship which was the end result of five years of work by my father getting his leaving certificate as a mature student by studying in the evenings after a day’s work. There were no holidays, no new cars, no fancy clothes, no fancy food, no eating out, no computers, no rented movies, no going to the pub (on any night), not in all that time. To this day, I can’t wrap my head around the concept of a holiday in a foreign country, it’s simply too alien a concept compared with the necessary austerity I grew up with. We sacrificed *everything* for the goal of further education, it was our family’s bet on our collective future.

    However, in the third year of my undergraduate course, my younger sister completed her leaving certificate, and had free fees not been introduced in that year, we could not have sent her to college. There simply were insufficient resources to allow for that. We were stretched long past breaking point financially. There were no grants available, no scholarships, no bursaries. The free fees are why she got to go to college, we had no other options whatsoever. We all knew this at the time. The free fees were the one thing I can think of in the past decade that were unquestionably a good policy from a bad government, and they did enormous good for the community and the economy and the country as a whole.

    To now see that same bad government turn around and start actively working to subvert free fees, to discard them as being a bad idea, is monstrous, because that absence won’t affect me; it will affect my children, by saddling them with a debt of tens of thousands of euro in return for them undertaking years of study for a job that will see them contribute more to the tax take of the state than would otherwise be contributed. We are, in effect, financially punishing those who defer gratification and train in the professions which our society requires, unless they choose the morally dubious route of defaulting on their loans and emigrating.

    Logically speaking, this proposal creates a situation where the best options pragmatically are those which are morally repugnant, such as deciding to not work and contribute and to live off the dole; or deciding to study for a professional degree and then emigrate and default on the loan. The only other option – the one most likely for those of us who actually try to live honestly – is that that extra thirty thousand euro or so of debt *per child* will be loaded onto the account of the parents.

    That’s not even mentioning the kind of stress this will induce in students. Asking a 17-year-old to choose the career path they will follow for the rest of their life is idioticly ill-advised to begin with, yet we do it every year. We see several suicides every year in colleges, often several per course, often when those same teenagers find they made the wrong choice, that they aren’t cut out to be a doctor or an architect despite their parent’s wishes. Now, we’re talking about asking them to take on a debt that will eat 9% of their pay every year for a decade right at the time of their lives when they are at the bottom of their earning potential, right when every euro counts and when such a loan can be enormously damaging in the long term. This will add to the stress. And given our socially backward way of dealing with mental health issues, it’s a desperately sad prediction, but you can pretty much guarantee a rise in the suicide rate in colleges as a result of this.

    And as a solution, this doesn’t even net the most money. Ordinary income tax does this already. For example, this year, I will pay in tax about three times what these estimates say a year of engineering undergraduate courses cost. Next year, it will be more, and that will continue (though not indefinitely). That’s the nature of a profession; those in it contribute more to the tax take. That is why free fees is the appropriate solution.

    What we need to do is not raise even more money; what we need to do is to decide that it is more acceptable to pay colleges what it costs to run the courses from the exchequer funding, as the scheme was supposed to do before the government cut it repeatedly. We need to put our children’s education before the expense accounts of our Ministers and Deputies and Senators, before the enormous overspending on poorly chosen projects in Ministerial constituencies.

    That, or those of us with the intelligence and transportable skills need to emigrate to a state which doesn’t punish our children to teach them that education is a burden.


    • Mark, thank you for your interesting post. I fully appreciate the sacrifices made in your family, and in many others, in order to be able to secure a good education. And whatever we do, we need to ensure that people can get such an education in future without having to contemplate excessive hardship and extraordinary sacrifice.

      However, at the same time that your sister was able to enter university with the support of ‘free fees’, many others from wealthy backgrounds were able to do the same, and money that should have been invested in higher education went into someone else’s private luxuries. Like you, some argue that the answer to this is higher taxation, particularly for the better off. That’s an outcome we are heading for anyway, but the problem is that almost no government is ever willing to prioritise higher education (and no government of any particular combination has been good at this) – the money is spent on other areas that are thought to be more urgent or more important. Higher education relying solely on the exchequer is asset-stripped and made to run on minimal, inadequate resources, whatever the level of taxation.

      However, we do know that a university degree dramatically improves the career and income prospects of a graduate, so that a framework that provides for a contribution from graduates at a point when their salary suggests they can afford it is not unreasonable, particularly when this is accompanied by an appropriate grants system for the less well off.

      • Mark Dennehy Says:

        The lesson I learnt from my experiences, however, was not that free fees meant that the children of the Smurfit and Haughey families benefited from the exchequer funding, it was that the degree of financial hardship attending college imposes on those at the bottom of the financial ladder is so monumental that it is a highly effective deterrent. Removing it eased a burden on families across the state.

        As to the families of the rich enjoying the savings from free fees, to be honest, that was more a story for a slow news day in a bad tabloid newspaper, not a concern for those drafting policy. If those drafting policy were truly concerned about the wealthy gaining services funded from the exchequer like that, they would be far more concerned at the high level of tax evasion amongst that subset of society.

        And we already have a framework which provides for a contribution from graduates at a point where their salary suggests they can afford it. It’s called income tax.

        Arguing that no Government will ever prioritise funding for education is not acceptable from the universities. No Government will ever prioritise any funding for any project that does not secure their seats in Government, that’s so much a given in Irish political life that it’s a truism. Universities, however, have a moral duty to take the opposing side in the adversarial system that the allocation of State funding has become. They must be unreasonable in the face of demands such as these, they owe that duty to their students in the short term and their own survival in the long term. Such an adversarial system is ridiculously inefficient and unjust when it comes to distributing State funds, but it’s the one that’s there at the moment; and given the degree of immaturity in Irish politics, I doubt it will be changing in nature anytime soon. So if that is the nature of the system, the universities must work to that system, and not to a more rational one which is not in force.

        When a recent letter arrived at the various colleges from the HEA advising them to freeze recruitment or lose all funding, the immediate response was to call the solicitor and start talking about legal challanges, calling the papers and beginning a PR campaign against it. That is the kind of action that the universities should be engaging in against the proposed loss of free fees and for the proper funding of the programme. It does involve acrimony and conflict with the Department, and that is to be regretted, but the simple fact is that the universities owe a moral duty of care to their students; and none to the Department, which has created this problem by demonstrating time and again that it feels it has no duty of care to the universities.


  2. […] with the recent announcement of the proposed new college loans plan, he’s written more, and most recently this post discussing the levels of the fees for different courses, which he disagrees with, mainly because the universities haven’t been asked to the policy […]

  3. Vincent Says:

    Oh, I think you have a vastly larger headache. Near as I can find, £3225, for fees at Oxford and full year living £13000-ish for roof feed and water, 09/10. Irish people are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to money, they can be very romantic when it doesn’t. You and the rest of the Universities need to keep this in mind.

  4. Aidan Says:

    Vincent’s point is a good one. I studied in England in the 1990s. At my university (Sheffield) there were about 30 Irish students I knew of. The university set ridiculously high conditional offers because they could not compare the Leaving Cert to A Levels so these were all bright young adults that Irish universities missed out on. I would never have gone to England if it weren’t for the absence of fees. If you look at Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities they are all in the World Top 100 in the various rankings published. If you have to pay more to study at an Irish university choosing a British university becomes more attractive.
    I don’t think that having more students on engineering courses will necessarily deliver more engineers either. In the world of work those closest to the cashflow generally get paid more. It is hard to motivate people to stay in engineering when they can earn a lot more in other industries.


    • Aidan, I’m afraid it is impossible to motivate people to work in engineering when they don’t have an engineering degree. That has to be the starting point.

      As for the UK, they are about to lift the cap on fees, and at that point English university fees will be much higher than anything in prospect in Ireland.

      • Vincent Says:

        The fees might be, but the entire package would not. And for those who are below the level re. home finances there is a grant of sorts. Which will move upwards with the lifting of the Cap. Further, the example of Oxford is not so good as the rents in the town are high enough to keep the housing within high also. It is far from the best example and I put it in as the highest full ride (everything all in), I could find.

      • Aidan Says:

        I don’t think that it is impossible. Your idea is that creating a supply of engineering students will fulfill the demands of the knowledge economy. My point is that there may well be a demand for engineers but since the pay is relatively poor the best brains will not necessarily work in engineering even if they have an engineering degree. If the pay were better people would retrain from other disciplines. Having a degree in engineering is certainly not a prerequisite for doing all types of engineering work.
        If the fees in England are much higher then of course people will not choose to study there all other things being equal. If Ireland reintroduces fees though it doesn’t take a genius to predict more people going to Scotland to study. The issue for Ireland is that the majority of emigrants do not return and losing your brighest is hardly a recipe for success going forward.

      • anonymous Says:

        I totally agree with Aidan. In the Engineering Department in DCU all of the apparent ‘brightest brains’, the lecturers, actually act as administrators rather than taking an active part in university research. Supervising research projects from desks must come to an end. If this were to happen, it would be fair to assume the quality of academic output would increase, thus attracting further investment, which could be used to help offset costs of undergraduate courses. Not to mention that increased publicity in science and engineering departments would always encourage new undergrads to become involved in those subjects.

        However, the current situation means that lecturers supervise research about which they have little knowledge (in comparison with an expert). How is this feasible? How can lecturers supervise projects they would not be able to carry out themselves (as they don’t even know how to use the equipment)? Why is it the case that all of their talent and research experience / ability is wasted performing administrative tasks?

  5. otto Says:

    “It also seems to me that all of this should not just be determined centrally by government, but should be the subject of detailed discussions with the universities and colleges”

    There’s something of a tension between this and your earlier statements re university autonomy. It would seem better to allow all colleges to charge as they please without cartel-style coordination, and perhaps make very different decisions about what to cross-subsidise.

  6. Iain Says:

    Coincidentally, little anecdotal note in the Guardian today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/15/graduate-fall-off-career-ladder) about the increasing issue of graduate unemployment in England. As you move to a mass participation system of course, you begin to erode the so-called ‘graduate premium’ of higher salaries, whilst at the same time embedding education as a private rather than public good contrary to the UNESCO declaration of just last week. Still, we’ll no doubt have bigger worries after the publication of An Bord Snip Nua’s report tomorrow!

    p.s university is free in Scotland…but you knew that already from practically every one of my previous comments! 😉


    • Thanks, Iain – I knew that anyway, having given some advice to a couple of Scottish universities recently. They are however pressing hard for fees, as they are scared still of the consequences of the lifting of the fees cap in England. Ironically, the Scottish universities believe that higher English fees will create serious damage in the universities North of the border.

      • Iain Says:

        I know…but its still an interesting counter-example worth throwing into the pot. Yes the pressure will be upped by English fees, but the governing party campaigned on free HE and they are delivering what the general public wants even if its not quite what the University managers think is necessary…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: