Niamh Bhreathnach, taxi drivers and tuition fees

As we continue to struggle with questions of university funding, there is a fascinating little debate in today’s Irish Independent between Niamh Bhreathnach and Colm Harmon. Ms Bhreathnach was Minister for Education in Ireland when tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s, while Professor Harmon is the Director of the Geary Institute in UCD. Colm Harmon makes the extremely important point that it is not the absence of higher education fees that generates educational equality, but proper investment in combatting disadvantage at much earlier stages.

But for today I want to focus a little on what Niamh Bhreathnach writes. The article is really a plea to be recognised for her personal contribution to higher education, and she makes her point by quoting a taxi driver who told her that she was personally responsible for the successful university education of his four children. Indeed we are told that he expressed ‘muted thanks’ and then drove off ‘shyly’ (however one does that), and I think as readers we are supposed to contemplate the scene with a lump in our throats and a sense of deep admiration for a social project well done.

I don’t, as it happens, doubt that Ms Bhreathnach meant well when the government of which she was a member abolished fees, though I might add that I have personally heard from five cabinet members of the time who now believe it was all a mistake. It is also understandable that she should be anxious that her legacy should be recognised and celebrated. And I accept that the situation that existed prior to the introduction of ‘free fees’ was not satisfactory, including the distortions created by tax relief to which she refers. But none of that can overcome the fact that the abolition of fees turned into a disaster for the universities, who ended up having over time to absorb the money that had previously been paid by students, and that it did nothing whatsoever for the poorer sections of society, who have largely remained outside higher education.

Niamh Bhreathnach’s taxi driver could have had his children supported through university in a much more targeted way. It is silly to suggest that the price we have to pay for supporting middle income and poorer people in higher education is that we must also throw a lot of money at the wealthy. And experience has shown that the latter expenditure meant that we didn’t have enough money to direct at the disadvantaged. It is nice that she had her sentimental moment with the taxi driver, but at this stage it makes more sense to recognise the flaws of the ‘free fees’ framework and to move to something that is both socially more productive and of benefit to the financial needs of universities.

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12 Comments on “Niamh Bhreathnach, taxi drivers and tuition fees”

  1. Robert Browne Says:

    It is not the fees that is the problem. The fee mentality is warranted as a direct consequence of the golden circles who pretend, that Ireland, a country of 4 million people can afford salaries, pensions and perks of of university professors and administrators as if we were the United States of America.

    Now the same people see that their unsustainable and insider negotiated salaries are under threat from shrinking revenue streams and the influx of massive sovereign debt to pay for same. What is your solution? Your solution, bring back fees and make the same suckers who are having to rescue the banks, pay for NAMA, tribunals, DDDA madness, quango’s, sovereign debt interest and a host of dysfunctional semi state and public sector departments…… pay for their little Johnny and Mary, otherwise they won’t be able to get a good job in NAMA or they won’t be able to emigrate when they qualify. Wrong and cowardly.

    You cannot pay? No problem! Go and take out a loan after all you take out loans to pay for all the rest. This mindset will lead to the demise of the Euro and when you see your campus turn into a dreary, third world place you will remember the works of alexander Solzhenitsyn.


    • Hm. I don’t actually think that Solzhenitsyn ever developed a detailed view of Irish university fees 🙂

      But seriously, Robert, there are many ways of supporting those who need support without also throwing even more money at those who don’t need it.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    “The article is really a plea to be recognised for her personal contribution to higher education, and she makes her point by quoting a taxi driver who told her that she was personally responsible for the successful university education of his four children. Indeed we are told that he expressed ‘muted thanks’ and then drove off ‘shyly’ (however one does that), and I think as readers we are supposed to contemplate the scene with a lump in our throats and a sense of deep admiration for a social project well done.”

    Exactly what I thought when I read it.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    As I have had my say perhaps I should keep quiet but…
    If we are to have sensible public policies then they have to be firmly based on good evidence. I believe my paper is a contribution to that: not the last word by any means but some progress was made. The remark of one person, even a Dublin taxi driver, is irrelevant. Politicians get lots of remarks addressed to them: how do they choose which particular ones to take to heart? I am not familiar with the other study she mentions & no detail was provided.
    I find it depressing that politicians are more interested in justifying their past actions despite the evidence which they cheerfully ignore. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

    • Jilly Says:

      Entirely agree, Kevin. In fact my jaw dropped when I read that she was offering up one anecdote as a rebuttal to statistics and detailed analysis. I find that extremely depressing.

      But well done on the study, it’s a very valuable piece of work!

  4. Vincent Says:

    I think people are being a bit harsh on that Government on this issue.
    The central point at the time was that the PAYE workers were the only people that payed anything at all.
    I would dearly love to know how long those tax breaks were in existence and how the hell they got past the view of the Labour Party for however long they were in existence. But one thing is certain, there was not a snowballs chance in hell of that bit of legislation getting past were Labour not in Government.
    Now, I will grant you that this situation is far from ideal, but what it replaced was just unbelievable.

  5. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    Aside from the funding issues it created, the abolition of tuition fees did have the effect of raising the expectation level that many young people had for themselves. Whatever else, this is to be welcomed.

    The current problems is just as likely to be the consequence of reforms of the third level sector not taken since the abolition of fees.

    (by the way, interesting piece in the NY Times : are degrees too long? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/opinion/25Trachtenberg.html?hp )


  6. When you talk of giving support to those who can already afford to pay, roughly speaking what income are you talking about?


    • I don’t like income thresholds, for all sorts of reasons. It is very difficult sometimes to identify the family income, and to prove that the student has access to it. I actually think that all fees/grants decisions should be taken on a case by case basis.

      • Eve Says:

        “I actually think that all fees/grants decisions should be taken on a case by case basis.” Call me cynical, but wouldn’t the volume require more resources? So we pay fees to pay for more administration staff?


      • If you accept that “afford to pay” means being able to prove that a student has access to his or her rich family’s income, then you are effectively back to “free fees”.

        In any event, I wasn’t talking about implementing policy. I wanted to know very roughly what “afford to pay” might mean? I ask this because I find that rich people tend to view themselves as middle earners. (As I recall, the Minister asked his civil servants to calculate the likely take if families above 120k were required to pay fees.)


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