Tuition fees on or off the table?

As we all know, the Irish government parties – Fianna Fail and the Green Party – reached an agreement last October in their revised programme for government to exclude the possibility of reintroducing tuition fees. But if this was an attempt to kill off the idea, it was an ineffective one. First, there has been all that fuss about whether we have fees anyway in the form of the student service charge. But now we also gather, courtesy of a report in the Sunday Times, that the steering group overseeing the strategic review of higher education is to recommend that a student contribution should form part of the higher education funding model.

Assuming this is accurate, how will it be received? It is hard to see how the government can get out of the corner it has allowed itself to be boxed into in relation to fees. So if Fianna Fail in particular feel that they might want to run with this proposal, presumably they could only do so in a new government; but would they find it easy to go into an election with a commitment to consider fees, which would probably be unpopular with some key voters?

To make the case for tuition fees easier, the universities themselves need to become better communicators about this. It seems to me that the following issues need to be faced in public debate:

• better information on how universities spend their money and use their resources;
• the consequences of the decline in higher education public funding;
• the relationship between tuition fees and the objective of widening participation;
• the financial pressures on various sections of society that would flow from fees;
• the potential for targeted support for groups needing help from fee income;
• a commitment to admit students on ability only, and that nobody would have to forgo a university education on financial grounds.

I may of course have missed other important issues connected with tuition fees – comments on this would be welcome. Starting tomorrow, for the next few days, I intend to address each of these issues separately, in order to present a view of what issues and dangers we face and whether and how these would be addressed by tuition fees.

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7 Comments on “Tuition fees on or off the table?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If I rang Harvard and asked them to tell me how much a year of study would cost their answer would exclude nothing. Now, while you can do this for the half-dozen non-EU, you cannot do this for all. Harvard can do this because it controls the environs of its people. You don’t, and none of you do.
    So, what’s the problem, it cannot be all that difficult to say that a three-bed house is ‘X’ price per month. You can after all guarantee the income. Ditto with bookshops, the PBA is gone with 20 years. But no, none of this happens, you allow that your members are dealt with by some of the most rapacious business people on the island, mostly the SU.
    What I’m on about here is certainty, Harvard can provide it, but you not only don’t you go out of your way to muddy the waters with moody definitions of what is or isn’t student service. And in all the mud the only bit of clarity is the Free Fees.
    At the moment all we are seeing is tortured convoluted internal financial arrangements like some Gordian knot, and completely of your own making. While the population in general want to know exactly how much it will cost to send Oisinn and little Medbh to Uni, and they want to know this about 5 years before they go.
    Overall, I now think it is not the Free Fees that is causing the resistance for generally what you are speaking is the cost of the average motorcar. No, I think its the uncertainty.

    • Vincent, I think we can provide the certainty easily enough, but we need to know the context in which it will happen, and in particular what investment (if any) the government intends to make.

  2. Pidge Says:

    Some sort of student loan system is the only idea which will have any traction (reasonably so), and it doesn’t start to pay for itself for at least seven years, presuming that nobody defaults or emigrates.

    The state simply doesn’t have the cash right now to set up a loans system, since they won’t see any savings for at least seven years. If you can magic up the amount of money required to bring this in, then you’ll have an answer. If you can’t, then I imagine that you’ll just be another lobby group looking for increased government spending on their sector.

    • There is a lot of truth in this. In fact, the way it was being planned by the government before the Greens pulled the plug was to set up a system that would have been described as a loan but which would in fact have been a deferred payment, which the universities would only have received when the (now former) student makes the payment, probably some 8-10 years down the road.

      • Pidge Says:

        Exactly. That would mean that for the government to bring in such a scheme, they would have to continue the funding of universities at current or higher rates for the next seven or eight years.

        Add to that the costs of setting up and administering such a scheme, and the government just doesn’t have the money to do this.

        That, and the presence of the Greens in government and the likelihood of Labour in any future government, means that fees are off the table. University presidents are only likely to weaken their case by arguing for something which just isn’t going to happen.

  3. belfield Says:

    There is something so wrong in all of this. Surely the essentialising, there-is-no-alternative nature of this discussion can only stifle the possibility of viable other ways?

    • I suppose there is always an alternative, but that would need to be argued closely. So far the only argument I ever hear is that there should be no fees and possibly higher taxation to pay for that. That, however, is not a viable option, since it is the position that accompanied the introduction of ‘free fees’ but which has not been delivered; and I suspect cannot be delivered.

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