The impact of ‘free fees’

Regular readers of this blog know that I am most sceptical about the benefits claimed for the abolition of tuition fees in Ireland in the 1990s. A regular contributor to this blog, Kevin Denny of the Geary Institute in UCD, has now published a paper in which he analyses the impact of free fees. Whatever your views might be, it’s a very well argued piece and worth reading.

His main conclusion is that ‘free fees’ did not improve participation in higher education for those from a poorer background. Apart from explaining why this is so, he also looks at some of the issues arising from the Leaving Certificate and the impact these have on both disadvantage and gender.

A summary can be found here, and the full paper here.

In the end the evidence is overwhelming that free fees have not helped the disadvantaged enter higher education. They have however ensured a near-100 per cent participation by the wealthy. Middle income groups have benefited, but there are much more cost effective ways of achieving the same result.

The commitment by some Irish politicians to maintain free fees, in the context of a much greater understanding of the limitations of the scheme, is now much more about avoiding middle class anger at the polls than about doing something progressive. It’s a position that has to be brought to an end.

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13 Comments on “The impact of ‘free fees’”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    I note that Kevin’s paper deals only with the universities, which recruit slightly less than half those going into undergraduate education. It is possible that there has been an expansion of access via the Institute of Technology sector, which in effect operates as a parallel university sector.

    One could hypothesise that an expansion of educational opportunity has occurred through the expansion and development of the IoT sector. It would be interesting to see the figures on this.

    As I suggested in an earlier posting on this blog, if the argument is that ‘free fees’ inevitably disproportionately favour the well-off, it seems logical that full economic fees be charged for all IoT and PLC programmes, as presumably a similar logic operates there also?

  2. Brendan Says:

    Why do you insist on using the term ‘free fees’? Free to whom? Where does the money to run universities and IoT’s come from? Some mysterious wealthy benefactor?
    Education is largely funded by the taxpayer. About 40% of the population pay no taxes so for them third level education is ‘free’ I suppose. The remaining 60% pay taxes and therefore fund third level education for themselves and their children.
    Penalising the middle classes by imposing a direct ADDITIONAL contribution to third level will not increase access by the disadvantaged. And please don’t suggest that the universities would use some of the money to subsidize the less well off – that simply would not happen on any scale that would make a meaningful difference.
    Would you also advocate introducing fees for apprentices and PLC courses?


    • Brendan, the expression ‘free fees’ is not mine, it’s the official term for the scheme. And no, it’s not free to anyone. Nobody in the population ‘pays no taxes’ – those not paying income tax still pay VAT, excise duties, petrol tax etc etc.

      Higher education is a very specialist and very expensive service. It is unlike pre-tertiary education, and unlike apprenticeships etc. Its impact on graduate pay is also much greater. It is also an area of life where the poor still benefit to a very minor extent only, so that we are spending resources primarily on the wealthier classes, but making the poor pay for it also (in taxation). It’s a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. To change that we need to target money much more deliberately at the disadvantaged, but right now we simply cannot afford to do that because we are spending so much on the middle classes.

      While it is my contention that the state needs to direct this money, I don’t know why you think the universities wouldn’t. They already do: our access schemes are entirely funded by the universities and target the poorest; they need to grow.

  3. Vincent Says:

    One of the most trenchant points he makes is the total absence of official statistics.

  4. Colm Harmon Says:

    Nice work by Kevin. On the point of IoTs it is unquestionably the case that the socioeconomic mix is greater – but that masks the issue as perhaps the reason for this is that the points required tend to be lower and therefore the secondary school kids from poorer (in income and in quality!) schools can only hope to make it to the IOT’s. This choking off of potential students due to socioeconomic status is shameful and given the evidence of the effectiveness of access programmes for these students it is also bad for the country as it is not clear that the most productive are getting the education they deserve.

    Related to this – and amplifying the point about official statistics – is work on school performance tables. I am just back from Oz and the fuss there about myschool.com website was intense. Through this parents get tons of data. Teacher unions hate it – and hate also the high school tests that underpin the data. Each parent gets a very easily understood graphic of their child’s score, the average for the school, and the average for the class that child is in. Yikes – there is behavioural economics at work!

    Does it matter – look at the recent paper from the Netherlands at http://www.cpb.nl/eng/pub/cpbreeksen/discussie/149/disc149.pdf – schools that had a negative score suddenly worked their butts off to improve them….40% in some case!

    • Perry Share Says:

      @ Colm

      I don’t think it is necessary to see the ITs as a negative choice, in terms of ‘only hoping to make it to the IOTs’. There is also the fact that the sector focuses on a more practical, applied and possibly relevant field of endeavour that provides the possibility of relatively predictable employment options at the end (or at least it used to!). There are people who cannot afford the luxury of education for its own sake.

      That said the programmes offered in the ITs provide a different type of educational experience to the universities – one that may well be more attractive to people within those social groups that have historically been excluded from tertiary study in the past.

      Universities in Ireland largely continue to offer an intensely middle-class and exclusive milieu, with a very strong emphasis on the deployment of particular types of cultural capital. This dovetails very well with the cultural milieu of elite fee-paying schools, or indeed with the ethos of many ‘free’ secondary schools that have particular type of religious ethos. I suspect that the social world of the majority of urban and many rural second-level schools remains somewhat removed from the world of our universities, especially the four older ones.

      • cormac Says:

        It’s a very interesting study, and long overdue. certainly, the rationale of ‘improving access’ is shown to be the canard that it always was.
        That said, it seems to me that ‘free fees’ is a bit of a misnomer. As I understand it, students in both the university and IoT sectors pay about 1000 $ p/a in capitation fees – not that much less than what I paid in fees at UCD.


  5. […] A University Blog. the Kevin Denny research on the impact of the third level free fees initiative has been […]


  6. This is a blunderbuss accusation of political cynicism:
    “The commitment by some Irish politicians to maintain free fees, in the context of a much greater understanding of the limitations of the scheme, is now much more about avoiding middle class anger at the polls than about doing something progressive.”
    There may be some behaving in this way but others are perfectly straightforward and honest. Yes, I can see the “some”!

  7. kevin denny Says:

    Thanks for the comments folks. I left out the IoTs because they are quite distinct from the universities (or vice versa) so would have needed a separate treatment since I think they are more heterogeneous and I think the universities provide a cleaner test. They certainly deserve to be looked at. Whether I get round to it, I don’t know.

  8. Celine Says:

    I haven’t read the article yet but, as I am French and live in France(applying in Ireland), I was really surprised when I heard about the “free fees” and “tuition fees” thing.
    In France, we have public universities and private “grandes écoles”. Public universities are what we could call “free of fees” because when you apply there, you just have to pay about 200€. When it comes to “grandes écoles”, then you have to pay about 6000€ a year (10 000€ in some schools…). So it seemed a bit “unusual” for me when I heard that the Irish “free fees” were that expensive (compared to the French fees or the Spanish ones too).
    But then, when we compare the Irish fees to the British or American or Australian ones, the Irish fees look really low. Is it a good thing or not ? I don’t really know… At least the families in Ireland don’t have to take out a loan to pay the university fees. But they still pay them in their taxes as someone said above.

    Off-topic : To me, it seems really difficult to be accepted in the Irish universities because of the Point system. Everything depends on the Leaving certificate and the results you have during the year don’t count. So, those who are stressed by exams are less likely to get the points they need. Besides, if it is like the French Baccalauréat, the score you get also depends on the person who corrects your test (mood, previous tests corrected, strictness) : if 3 different teachers correct the same test, there is a high chance they will give 3 different marks (especially when it is an essay). In France, to go to public universities, we just need to get 10/20 to our Baccalauréat (except for some courses). I am not criticizing the way it works in Ireland, I just wanted to tell that it is more difficult to go to an Irish university than to a French one. Being accepted in DCU will be my challenge of the year !

    PS : There might be some mistakes in my comment… sorry.


  9. […] Irish rationale for full public funding was principally for narrow party political gains. There is no clear evidence that this free fee initiative has resulted in the ostensible aim – increasing participation by […]


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