Paying for student services

Yesterday (Thursday, January 28) all seven Irish university presidents, the CEO of the Irish Universities Association and the CEO of the Higher Education Authority all appeared before the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science. The topic? We were being asked about whether we were spending the student services charge (or student registration charge, now standing at €1,500) appropriately. There was some fairly robust questioning, prompted in part by the suggestion made in a letter from all seven student union presidents that financial information on this had not been consistent and that money was possibly being spent inappropriately on things other than student services.

A fair amount of time was taken by committee members trying to ascertain whether the categories of services for which the charge could be used had been added to by the universities without proper decisions being taken. In reality of course in each university the revenues from the charge are taken together with all other revenues, including fees paid by the state, fees paid by international students, the recurrent grant paid by the state, and all other income; and from that total sum a budget is constructed. Items supported by the charge are not budgeted separately. However, all the universities have ensured that the total revenues from the charge have not exceeded the cost of the services for which it can be used.

At the hearing, the presidents agreed that the student services charge is a ‘fee’. albeit not a ‘tuition fee’. It amounts to a part of the universities’ overall income and helps to pay for core services and activities. It was introduced first in 1996 at the time of the abolition of tuition fees, and probably represented an after-thought by the then government based on the fear that the abolition of fees might create excessive financial pressures for the universities unless there was at least a minor student contribution, which was then described as a contribution to specific student services unrelated to tuition. But once this had been introduced, it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a blurring of the distinction between it and tuition fees in the years ahead. The student services charge always contained within the seeds of the confusion we are now facing.

The position we are in is wholly unsatisfactory and cannot last for long. We have no tuition fees, but we have a student charge that looks like a fee and, in reality, is a fee. As the government reduces its contribution to the universities and raises the student services charge, the inevitability is that it takes on all the characteristics of a full fee, and in this case a fee in which the students are replacing previous government funding rather than adding value to it. It is easy to understand student representatives who assert that this is a subterfuge. All I can say is that we are being quite open in agreeing that this is a fee, while however continuing to emphasise that it is not higher than the cost of services.

But it would be far preferable to have a proper tuition fee, because then we will be honest about what we are doing and how we are funding higher education, and moreover we can then make available supports (such as loans) that will make the fee more affordable. The current framework is not, in my view, a subterfuge (in that nobody is pretending to do one thing while actually doing another), but it is not fully honest either, because it amounts to the reintroduction of fees by stealth. If we want to fund higher education in part by fees or other student contributions (and I for one do), then let’s say that and do it properly.

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3 Comments on “Paying for student services”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Hmmm, Using the current yard-stick, what isn’t a Student services fee for undergrads.
    It is a blessed wonder you are not taking a bite for ware&tear on fixtures and fittings.

    If there was no component within this fee for the Societies and Clubs, there would not be a hope in hell that it would exist at all.

    And at the time of the introduction of the fee, the SU of the various Colleges were seeing Pound signs flashing before them and became blinded by them. For the first time the SU had a budget that was not wholly dependent on the gift of College Union.
    Some of the Su’s went to the Courts to get a bar licence so as to remove another layer of control.
    For, like the Railways, the Universaties did not need a licence for the sale of drink. And still don’t.

  2. Steve Says:

    Bearing in mind that I’m only speaking from my experience, and that of the people I directly know…
    From the linked Irish Times article: “Mr Boland of the HEA said that tuition was paid for by the state. “There are no tuition fees for higher education,” he said.” – People can call it what they like, but on the ground, when you have to pay the money yourself, it’s a fee to go to college. Whether it’s called ‘registration’ or ‘tuition’ makes zero difference to me. In my eyes, and in those of fellow students that I know (admittedly not a huge number), it’s whether you pay just the registration fee or ‘full’ fees. It’s all tied up into one thing when you’re the person paying. I still need to go to the bank to beg for a loan to cover it and when they ask me what the loan is for, I say college fees.

    Also from the linked article: “The universities jointly supported a student loan system to fund third-level education.” – I would sign up for this in a heartbeat if I could. There’s plenty of people, like me, who would happily leave college 20, 30, 60 grand in debt just for the opportunity to be able to get the education we want.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Of course it is not only students who pay this fee: for those on a local authority grant the fee is paid on their behalf by the taxpayer. So it is quite legitimate that questions are asked about its distribution.

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