Tuition fees and universal benefits

Kevin Denny’s study on the impact of the ‘free fees’ scheme has sparked a lively discussion on the ‘Irish Economy’ website. One of the participants in the discussion is Labour Party TD Joanna Tuffy, and one of the points she makes there is the following:

‘My purpose in taking part in this discussion is not to stifle debate, nor political expediency. Labour passionately believes in the right to universal education at primary, second and third level and it is something that Labour has stood for right back to when its founder James Connolly called for free education up to the highest university grades back in 1896.’

At the heart of the Labour Party argument (when it’s not about shy taxi drivers) is the view that third level education should be treated as a universal benefit – i.e. a benefit that should be made available to the entire population. It is worth asking whether higher education is best provided as a universal benefit, but actually we could usefully ask how effective universal benefits are nowadays in a wider setting (a topic I have covered before).

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

Higher education is an extremely expensive service to provide, and in a developed knowledge economy it is probably beyond the taxpayer to fund it without a very significant targeted increase in taxation. Attempting to provide it free at the point of use without significant additional resources will result in a lower quality education system; but more than that, the very significant resources being provided to those who have the personal means to pay for it themselves compromise the state’s capacity to target the disadvantaged more effectively, as the money simply isn’t there (the wealthy have it). And it is this that has resulted in the lowest socio-economic groups still remaining largely excluded from higher education. Furthermore, it is also possible to address the needs of middle income groups without throwing money at the rich.

Joanna Tuffy, in her contribution to the debate on the ‘Irish Economy’ website quoted above, suggested that James Connolly’s call for free universal education ‘up to the highest university grades’ in 1896 is still relevant today. It isn’t. Back then fewer than 2 per cent of the Irish population participated in higher education, while today it is over 60 per cent. Back then it needed a revolution in educational practice across all of society, while today we need a targeted approach to secure inclusion for the most disadvantaged. You cannot look to 1896 to find an appropriate education policy for today, any more than you could find the right approach to broadband delivery in policies developed back then. These are wholly different times with quite different needs.

It needs to be understood by politicians pressing the ‘free fees’ case that this case is no longer a politically progressive one. One would like to think that those arguing against tuition fees are not influenced by the undoubted fact that reintroducing them will annoy middle class voters, but that they are doing it out of genuine if misguided motives. If that is so, they should now reconsider.

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33 Comments on “Tuition fees and universal benefits”

  1. John Says:

    Why not make it free but put up the level of entrance qualification? That way you get the best rather than the wealthiest and you keep the numbers down. A perfect unity of egalitarianism and elitism.

    • John, the question of numbers is important, but not necessarily in this context. I will be writing a blog post over the next few days on whether we need to re-think our policy on student numbers in Ireland.

    • John Says:

      In James Connolly’s Programme of 1896 he calls for:

      “Free education up to the highest university grades.”

      So Connolly is not calling for “free universal education up to the highest university grades” as you suggest he is. He’s not, here, saying who should get education up to the highest university grades, but that it should be free for whoever does.

      I agree with him. As I said above, that way we’d get the best rather than just the best of those who can afford it.

      Imagine how the standard of football would go down if talented children from only better-off families were considered.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    The principle of free education at all levels is not just an outcome of the Beveridge report, but is a feature of many countries and for a longer period. (If I was being parochial I’d point out the free, universal education was provided in Scotland since 1515, gradually extending from primary to secondary and then to third level the same basic principle). And, indeed, the philosophical standpoint that seems often missing from debates in Ireland and England is the concept of ‘society’ is wider than that of the ‘economy’. What I mean there is that the argument about who pays and who benefits, targetting etc, only applies if you presume that every aspect of life should be subject to market and economic analysis, rather than base the social contract on the provision of a series of basic rights and supports to all citizens including health and education. Because social division still exists in our society despite free education, doesn’t mean that free education has failed. Is it not conceivable that such is necessary but not sufficient in tackling social inequity?

    I know I’m on a losing argument here in a country in which there isn’t even a universal free public healthcare system, but proposing a system in which the state will spend an even smaller proportion of GDP on education than its already low baseline seems a very retrograde step and is likely to hasten Robert Reich’s ‘secession of the successful’.

    Of course, I’m an old romantic idealist in the context of modern Ireland and England, but at least I find reassurance that there are plenty of other people who think the same way in other European countries. As a ‘first generation’ student from a less than affluent district who benefited from not just free education, but also a maintenance grant, supporting the reintroduction of fees would be too much like ‘pulling up the ladder’ after me.

    Besides, is it not unlikely that this government would allow fees to do anything other than replace state subvention rather than provide additional ‘top up’ income? And what of the impact we’re seeing in England of the closure of entire academic subjects that fail to reach the income targets for the coming year?

    • Iain, you make a number of points here I’d probably want to argue with a little. Let me take a couple.

      You suggest that we should ‘base the social contract on the provision of a series of basic rights and supports to all citizens including health and education.’ I think one of the real problems with purely demand-led public budgeting is that is not affordable. It’s all very well setting out all sorts of rights and entitlements, you need to know who is going to pay for them and how. We know that raising taxes beyond a certain level produces diminishing returns as taxpayers disengage from the system.

      You say: ‘Because social division still exists in our society despite free education, doesn’t mean that free education has failed.’ True. But if free education has not made any difference at all to a social problem (access for the disadvantaged), then you need to start worrying a little. The evidence is that free fees have not in any way addressed this problem of educational exclusion.

      As for the argument that fees will replace rather than supplement public investment, we can’t be sure, and I agree that it’s possible. But with fees the vulnerability of the institutions to unpredictable state decisions is lessened. The state is en extraordinarily unreliable funder, as recent decades have shown consistently.

      But now for your final point: ‘As a ‘first generation’ student from a less than affluent district who benefited from not just free education, but also a maintenance grant, supporting the reintroduction of fees would be too much like ‘pulling up the ladder’ after me.’ Iain, I need to say this gently, but that’s an absurd argument. Why should removing free fees from the wealthy and giving at least a share of the money to the disadvantaged mean ‘pulling up the ladder’? It is exactly the opposite. Right now the system is heavily geared to favour the wealthy. Indeed it is pernicious, because we allow the wealthy to feel good about their windfalls by letting them pretend there is a progressive social dimension to it all. Which there isn’t.

      • iainmacl Says:

        I know, I know, but as I said its what if ‘feels like’. I prefer decent progressive tax system to tackle those issues, however horribly old fashioned that is and to say we can’t raise taxes because some people ‘disengage from the system’ is a cop out- in fact in that case we need more ‘cops out’ 😉

  3. The argument against “free fees” is essentially that the money would be better concentrated on the few poor rather than wasted on the well off who can afford to pay. The problem with the argument is that it doesn’t address the real world.

    Sure, there’s been enormous progress since the early 20th century but we’ve not reached the kind of society sketched by Ferdinand

    We don’t live in a society where 80% can afford to pay. I’ve argued here, on Irish Economy and elsewhere that “afford” needs to be examined. (My original piece can be found down quite a way on my blog.)

    I’m certainly not defending the interests of middle class whiners or rather rich people pretending they are middle income. Over on Irish economy I extrapolated crudely from figures I had which showed the numbers of people in various salary bands and pictured a family who will be assumed to be able to afford fees.

    Let’s SCREAM this: There are very few people on 100k +. Making them pay won’t do the trick.

    Because the majority of people are not well paid, you will have to ask people on half that or less to find fees of several thousand euro per annum. Yes, they will find it but they won’t have a holiday and they won’t go out very much.

    By the way, I’m not happy about the mocking directed at Niamh over the taxi driver anecdote. Moreover, on Irish Economy Joanna was rudely treated by an academic who disliked argument. I’m not unhappy with the free expression of views; I’m unhappy with the impression given of academics involved in public debate.

    • Colum, if you look at the percentage of university students whose family income is more than EUR 100k, you get a surprisingly large number. And that’s where the problem lies. The free fees system takes away the capacity to assist those who are not in that bracket.

      As for being mean to Niamh Bhreathnach, she really ought to know better than use such an anecdote in that way.

  4. Ferdinand,
    You’ll have to point me at that figure. However, according to the HEA 23.4% of undergrads are from “Employer and Manager” or “Higher Professional” backgrounds.

    There’s no surprise that the kids of the rich are well represented at university but they’d have to be a large majority for your argument to stack up.

  5. Joanna Tuffy Says:

    Ferdinand I put this comment up on the Irish Economy debate which you posted your link to this blog post on last night. The link to my comment is here and I just wanted to add a couple of points having read over your post again:

    You say that today is different to 1896 and that free fees are not progressive now because 60 per cent go to third level and not the 2 percent apparently that went in 1896. If that is a sound argument why do you not apply it to second level or even primary level education. What is it about third level that you don’t think it should not be universal in the way primary and second level is?

    You say its not appropriate to modern prosperous and fair society – well what about Sweden? Sweden has free third level. Is that not a prosperous modern and fair society?

    You say that fees are an anomoly when we are prosperous and that we should move in prosperous times from universalism to more targetting of pockets of poverty. Is that not an argument against bring back fees now at a time when in fact we are not so prosperous and many families are facing increasing hardship, cuts, levies and extra taxes?

    In fact while I disagree that prosperous times are the time to move from universalism, and only if we had done more of that during the celtic tiger years the economic bubble might not have got so out of hand, you may be right if your view is that less prosperous times are the times to bring in more universal benefits. And history has shown that there may be public sympathy towards moving towards more universalism during less prosperous times if the history of the establishment of the NHS is anything to go by. Similarly it was in 1943 that we brought in universal children’s allowance for the third and subsequent children of families here.

    If anything the lessons of the Celtic tiger are that treating things that should be part of the public realm as if they were market commodities is a mistake and that to build a properous society that won’t come crashing down on us when a speculative bubble bursts we need more universal benefits and they type of society and economy that Social Democracy built in Sweden, that provided third level education for free to its people.

    • Many thanks, Joanna – I appreciate your willingness to debate this, even if I believe you are quite wrong :).

      You say: ‘If anything the lessons of the Celtic tiger are that treating things that should be part of the public realm as if they were market commodities is a mistake’. I have to ask – what on earth does that mean? Charging fees has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘market commodities’. Rather, it is a way of ensuring that those who do not need support don’t waste resources that should be directed to those who do. In other words, it is redistributive, which is very much in tune with modern socialism.

      I also wonder how you can suggest we are not prosperous! It doesn’t matter how the economy has gone recently, we are still much more prosperous than the overwhelming majority of other countries, or indeed than we were 15 years ago. A developed prosperous country needs to tackle specific issues with proper resources, not throw around those resources at those who don’t need them. In a recession with strains on the budget that becomes even more important.

      As for Sweden, they have a system based on high taxation. Frankly, Irish voters would never accept such levels of taxation. Maybe they should, but they won’t. And for that matters, Swedish voters don’t always, either.

      In terms of higher education, Sweden has actually just for the first time introduced tuition fees, though at this point only for international students. Also, for what it’s worth, Swedish universities do less well in the global rankings than Irish universities.

  6. John Says:

    The term ‘universal’ seems to be the cause of the muddle created by our protagonists above. What do they think it means? Connolly never mentions it. (See reference above).

    I can guess at its meaning with respect to primary and secondary education – everyone goes and has to. But universal tertiary education wouldn’t mean that would it?

    What does it mean to you Joanna? And you Ferdinand?

    • Universal benefits is a term used to indicate that such benefits are available to anyone who qualifies for them, and that where a service is involved it is free at the point of use. It does not mean that they are conferred on the entire population regardless of need. For example, a free hospital service is one of the components of a system of universal benefits – but that still means it is available for the sick only, not that everyone is forced to go to hospital whether they are ill or not!

      Therefore, John, a universal benefit in the context of higher education means it is free at the point of use. But that tells us nothing about how many places are made available. But making far fewer available, for all sorts of reasons, will mean that students will be overwhelmingly from wealthy backgrounds, even if it’s free. Anyway, it’s never free.

      • John Says:

        Re: meaning of ‘universal’ in HE:

        – free for all those who qualify – academically? or financially (poorer)? or both?

      • John Says:

        Sorry, I was being a bit unclear myself there. Say A means academically qualified for entry to a course and P means too poor to pay the fees. Which of the following would get in and pay no fees under the ‘universal’ system?:

        a) not A and not P
        b) not A and P
        c) A and not P
        d) A and P,

        assuming there were enough places available on the course and the academically qualified applicants had equal qualifications


        • John, who ‘gets in’ is an impossible question to answer, because it depends on all sorts of things. For example, even where there are no fees the costs associated with studying may be too much for poorer people. Also, some may not get any encouragement from their families.

          A universal system means that those who enter university pay no fees. How they get there is an other matter.

        • John Says:

          Why not just call it free then?

  7. I am a believer in the defining a problem before you try to find a solution. In this debate it seems to me the contributors are coming at it from very different perspectives.

    I have opinions justifying access to third level for all that are capable of acheiving a success in education and I do not restrict that purely to a success at finding a job.

    However the main item driving this debate is the financial situation of the universities.

    I do not know enough about the individual financial positions of universities to comment on any particular organisation, however I feel one of the real issues that should be addressed is the issue of salaries of the teaching staff in particular.

    I believe they are overpaid and underworked. That is my perception, and that may be reality or not, as the case may be, but I am open to debating that issue. On the other hand a denate on the salaries and working conditions is just one part of what is clearly a very much wider debate on the provision and access to third level education (provision is different to access IMHO), the costs to the taxpayer, and the cost to indivual students and their families, the entitlement of wealthy people as opposed to the entitlement of poor people etc etc.

    As I said we need to define the problem to discuss possible solutions. E.G. access for ideological reasons might be very different to access for Research and Development purposes, and yet the solutions might be the same, if cost or return on investment is not an issue.

    either way it is much too simplistic to refine this debate to money on its own, as there very well might be very worthwhile ideological reasons that do not make any sense in asking peole to pay for a service, when universal access provided by the state may be what is required for very different reasons. What I am thinking about here is “how long it took ordinary people to challenge the power of the church in the state. I believe that education (or lack of it) played a huge part in holding back the people that did not have any formla education”, my quotes are from my own writing BTW.

    Anyway we need an open debate about this issue, IMHO.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Being a university academic its hard not to get a bit defensive here. But I think its fair to ask you what evidence you have for your assertion and evidence [as I have to insist] is not the opinion of a random taxi driver.
      My guess is that there are certainly some academics who don’t work hard. But whats my evidence? Well I am conficent I have a good feel for whats going on with my immediate colleagues [our research output is wel documented], I would have some sense for other economics departments & perhaps some cognate departments in my university but really its only an intelligent guess. There is a problem in that if someone choses to be a slacker [by not doing research or not being diligent about their teaching] there is little that one can do about it. While one such person is one too many, I actually don’t know that many.
      I’m pretty sure we are working harder than 20 or even 10 years ago. There are more demands on our time and the incentive to produce research is higher [all to the good]. That said, teaching hours seem lower than in US universities as far as I can see.
      So open debate, terribly important, blah-di-blah, but unless it’s an informed debate, whats the point?

  8. Joanna Tuffy Says:


    I was aware of the position in Sweden and I double checked the situation before I posted above. Sweden provides free third level education for Swedish citizens and citizens of an EU/EEA state or Switzerland. What has changed is that Sweden now charges for overseas students, which we already to in Ireland.

    As I pointed out on the debate on Irish Economy in Sweden people live longer, they have less crime, better mental health and they protect their environment more so they must be doing something right.

    On the University rankings point – the primary role of universities should be to educate our children and it can do that well and never make the grade in university rankings drawn up in Shanghai (or anywhere else they draw up these university rankings. To get on to that Shanghai list, one of the criteria is how many Nobel Prize winners an institution produces. But the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics last year, Professor Charles Kao, went Woolwich Polytechnic (Greenwich University) as an undergraduate, a university you won’t find (as of yet) on the Shanghai list. In my view it is the educating of the potential Nobel Prize winner, and someone that went on to revolutionize the way we communicate with one another, that matters as opposed to the achievement on a ranking of universities.

    Give me an education system that cares most about its role in educating its undergraduates, over its placing on a list in Shanghai any day (and of course I am not suggesting anything about DCU here, it has an excellent record in educating its students, its just that fees will make it harder for some of those students to go to college, if they are reintroduced).

    • Joanna, we probably won’t agree on the issue (though maybe I’ll invite you to a debate on it in DCU if you’re game), but I do need to pull you up on the rankings. They matter. They determine the quality of staff you can attract, and indeed they matter increasingly to students (who let them influence their choices). Furthermore, a significant part of the better rankings are based on the quality of education students get.

      We may not like league tables, but ignoring them is unwise.

  9. Joanna Tuffy Says:

    I am not ignoring league tables but I wouldn’t get hung up on them. Am I right in saying that one ranking could place third level institutions than different than others. In other words the Shanghai rankings does not look exactly the same as the Times Higher Education one?

    Do you think that the Irish higher education institutions that don’t make the Shanghai list attract a lower quality of staff and provide a lessor quality of education to their students?

    Does a matter of degree matter in terms of the quality of the lecturer or the student? A high quantity of good graduates is better than a small quantity of extremely good graduates I would have thought, in particular when it is the common good that is at stake (and of course the two are not mutually exclusive). And am I wrong in suggesting that the brightest of lecturers are not necessary the best teachers of third level undergraduates?

    Good letter today by Professor Gerry McNamara, of DCU Education Department, in the Irish Times today, by the way, in which Professor McNamara warns against the reintroduction of fees.Glad to see that very important feature of a university, diversity of opinion.

    I would of course be game to take part in a debate if you invite me, on fees mind you, as I admit I am winging it a bit on the college rankings issue.

  10. John Says:

    I think Joanna Tuffy makes good points.

    I lecture at an IoT and teach students from a broad range of backgrounds and starting abilities.

    I like to think in terms of ‘value added’ – how much we can help students improve themselves in their chosen subject and tap into potential that they often didn’t realize they had. It’s very satisfying for both lecturer and student to see this happening.

    Student fees may reduce access to higher education to these high-value-added students, who are often from working and middle-class backgrounds, know how to work, and ultimately, I am sure, make a disproportionately significant contribution to “the common good”.

  11. Kevin I am not quite sure what way to respond to your request for my evidence. However I will say that I said it is my perception and as everyone knows, my perception is my reality, until somebody changes my perception, (which is quite likely would happen in an open debate). My opinion on the other hand (if justifying my opinion is what you really want an answer to) is informed by my experience as a volunteer community development worker with over 30 years experience at the lowest and the very highest levels. For the record I was appointed by the then City Manager, as the first volunteer director of Ballymun regeneration limited, while I volunteered my time and everybody else was paid handsomely for their participation as directors. That board was made up of the city architect, engineer, the then DCU president Danny O’Hare, and various other academics and public and civil servants, as a result of my volunteer community work.

    I am also the parent of 2 children reared in ballymun that have attended 3rd level, and my experience in getting 2 ballymunners to college is more informing my opinion than any other experience. Some of that was good and some was bad, as is lifes general experiences.

    I am a member of the Labour party, however my opinions are mine and in this case they are not being influenced by the party whip.

    I have no formal education other than that which I had to pay for privately from my own resources, which in reality is industry related. I also have a PhD in common sense IMHO.

    What I mean by an open debate is one of informed debate certainly, but also one of honesty, i.e. if some people want no fees as a vote getting exercise, if it is purely for ideological reasons, if it is to protect the working conditions of academics, if as in my case I just want 3rd level education available to all citizens without any money really being a consideration (real free education for all), do we want more money for people from poor backgrounds, do we think it is immoral for people from wealthy backgrounds to access free 3rd level, are colleges running at a financial deficit, whatever the agenda is should be put on the table and then we can identify the problem we are trying to solve and then come up with a solution, which I have no doubt is achievable without inflicting Dickensian working conditions on the service providers i.e. the staff of all education institutes.

    One item concerns me is your comment about me being a “random taxi driver”. You seem to be implying a) a hidden agenda, or b) that random taxi drivers opinions are not valid in a debate about 3rd level fees. Either way I do not think that is appropriate thinking for anybody. If I misunderstand you I apologise in advance.

    My experience in debating things in writing over the internet has been that it is almost impossible to convey an accurate message in writing on blogs and forums, i.e. I believe body language etc can help to convey a lot of context etc, hence my call for an open debate.

    • John Says:

      John, I hold the opposite wiew on ‘writing over the internet’. I think it gives you time to read and re-read your correspondent’s viewpoint, it gives you time to test and refine your own viewpoint, and it’s very egalitarian in that it brings everyone down (or up) to the same level, regardless of status, clothing, charisma, beauty, tone, volume, gesture and so on, which, while they can have no bearing on the actual strength of an argument, may exert undue influence on its perception. Finallly, where else could I debate openly with a politician and a university president and smoke a cigar – indoors?

  12. Sally Says:

    Yes, there’s a lot to be said in favour of the written dialogue over the traditional monologue or live debate. But I fear we’ve already strayed too far off-topic.

  13. John I did not mean to imply that the written word via the internet is not good, it very definitely is. But see what happens, before you know where you are your off topic. And yes it is a great equaliser to allow debates between people that would not normally debate with each other.

    I wish other college presidents would have the guts to follow ferdinands lead.

    My original post was to encourage an open debate about the fee,s issue, as it occurs periodically, and has never really been dealt with, and I think such an important issue for the future needs to be nailed down for as long as possible.

    • John Says:

      “I wish other college presidents would have the guts to follow ferdinands lead.”

      And perhaps politicians, big capitalists etc. i.e. the people who actually run things.

    • John, thanks for your kind words about the blog. My purpose in maintaining it has been to provide more information and generate debate, and in a modest way it has worked.

      I don’t think you are right about under-worked academics, but as it’s a commonly held view amongst the general public it is right to debate it.

      Kevin’s reference to taxi drivers is a little dig at Niamh Bhreannach’s little anecdote. But he is right – we must form our judgements based on evidence rather than gut feelings. And again, that’s where I have been hoping to use the bloog to provide more information.

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