No tuition fees for the wealthy: the highest priority?

Regular contributor Kevin Denny has managed, with his recent paper, to reignite the higher education tuition fees debate, both in this blog and elsewhere. Yesterday the Irish Times newspaper published a letter from my DCU colleague Gerry McNamara (a hugely respected educationalist) in which he argued that ‘free fees’ have widened access, and that the absence of a significant impact on participation by the disadvantaged had other grounds and that an increase there ‘was never realistic in the short term.’

Leaving aside for a moment his other points (which merit discussion), this one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What DCU has found (as have other universities) is that people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be encouraged to enter higher education, but doing so is expensive and requires working with schools from an early stage and providing significant supports once the students enter the university. In our case we have raised substantial private money to do this, in the absence of adequate support from the state. We could do much more, but we would need the resources.

And why don’t we get the resources? Because too much money is being spent on those who don’t need it. To put that into perspective a little, according to the HEA in 2008-09, in the university sector, some 22,000 students came from ’employer and manager’ and ‘higher professional’ backgrounds. Assuming for a moment that all other students would have needed free fees or other supports, this still means that the taxpayer provided approximately €100 million in fees for these privileged groups. If they (and only they) had been asked to pay fees, and even if the state had clawed back half of the money, that would still have left very substantial resources that could have been used to off-set budget cuts and also provide targeted support for access students. That we did not as a country do this is unjustifiable, and unethical. We need to think again.

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22 Comments on “No tuition fees for the wealthy: the highest priority?”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    One approach could be to regard “free” fees and associated support grants as a taxable benefit. Those students with other taxable income would then take a tax hit at year end, those without would be likely under the income threshold anyway. The universities would then receive a higher fee scale to reflect the net tax take but in return would have to abolish all charges except for repeats and similar avoidable costs.


    • wendymr Says:

      If you’re only talking about students here, rather than their parents, then this would affect poorer students who need to take part-time jobs to support themselves while at university, while their counterparts from well-off families – who don’t need to get that job in McDonald’s so they can afford to eat – pay nothing.

    • I can’t see this would work, unless (as Wendy says) the benefit accrues to the parents. But I can’t see that being possible, it would be open to legal challenge.

  2. Victor Says:

    How about a means test and scholarships

    If you come from a wealthy family and you qualify then you pay–equivalent to US fees

    If you come from a poor family and you qualify then the tax payers pay

    That way we have a meritocracy and build human capital

    If you get a full scholarship and support then you have to stay in Ireland for a period of time to contribute to the economy

    • That’s pretty much what I have in mind, Victor – though I suspect we wouldn’t be looking at fees at quite the US level! I might add a third category of students who would be seen as being funded by a loans, depending on their circumstances.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Except of course that the view here on people that need free fees is exactly the same as the one the Unionist had for those that did not pay Rates.
    Or lets put it another way, the fixation by all political parties on the Taxpayer as distinct from the Citizen indicates to me that if you get your way and those that can afford pay, that the moneys will devolve to the underrepresented is a pipedream.
    The one and only hope for the Ghettoised is the Universities themselves.

  4. peter Says:

    What about all those sick people who clog up the hospital wards? Why should healthy people have to pay for them in our taxes and health insurance?

    What about those rich kids that get to go to primary school for nothing? Surely their parents could provide private tutors or send them to boarding school?

    What about those people who claim dole? Why should those in employment be forced to pay to feed the children of the poor?

    Slippery slope?

    • Peter, higher education is different, and is a hugely expensive service to maintain, and has tended traditionally to reinforce privilege. I’d say it’s more comparable with saying that membership of Portmarnock Gold Club should be free, but clubs, dinners, etc etc remain payable. The wealthy still dominate, and now they have one expense serviced by the taxpayer.

      • Vincent Says:

        Sorry Ferdinand, they always had their education serviced by the taxpayer. The only real difference after 1995 was that they were not gaining hugely out of the transaction also. As to the those who got a bit of good out of the transaction. Well, the mid level civil service that had more than one kid, for where the Professions, the Trades and the Farmers had the tax code helping them to make profit.
        The Teacher, Guard or Nurse with four kids were ****** for they were the only group actively passing CASH to the Colleges.

  5. The kind of data that indicates the complexity of poverty is not new. I recall a study by a friend of mine sometime in the 70s which placed the vocabularies of 4 and 5 year old poor Dublin children at a small fraction of better off children. These kids are so far behind that if they are to make university, enormous, continuous and vigorous intervention will be required. It is simply not plausible for opponents of “free fees” to claim that recent data which shows that “free fees” did not determine a rush of poor people to university is news. NO thinking person ever thought that this would be the outcome.

    A second dodgy part of the anti-free fees argument is the emphasis on the benefits to the rich. Sometimes this is expressed as a claim that there has been an advantage for the middle class. Sometimes the evasion has used the term “those who can afford to pay”.

    You seem to be arguing that students from families in the categories, ‘employer and manager’ and ‘higher professional’should pay fees. (These are the same categories I found when you told me that I’d be surprised how many students came from families with an income in excess of 100k.)This is an interesting shift in the argument in that it maintains free fees for 75% of students, gives up on financing universities from fee income and begins to define a threshold for “rich”.

    • Colum, you wrote: ‘It is simply not plausible for opponents of “free fees” to claim that recent data which shows that “free fees” did not determine a rush of poor people to university is news. NO thinking person ever thought that this would be the outcome.’

      Well, in that case many of those backing free fees in the Dail in 1995 were not ‘thinking persons’, because that was the most widely used argument. And if that wasn’t the argument for free fees, what was? (I’m not saying what could/should have been, but what *was*?)

      I’m not actually suggesting that 75 per cent should be on free fees. But I was demonstrating that even if that was all we got, it would make a very substantial financial difference, allowing much better funding of access programmes *as well as* better university funding.

  6. cormac Says:

    I thought Gerry’s point was that free fees were a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion to widen access for the disadvantaged….which I think is Ferdinand’s point too.
    But if university funding is a zero sum game, then the extra funding required to widen access will indeed have to come from those who can afford to pay!

  7. If that were the argument, I would simply agree. The problem is that if the reintroduction of fees is to bring in significant sums the majority of students will have to pay them. This tends to be obscured by terminology like, “middle class”. I’ve been arguing for years that those who benefited most from free fees were those who struggled hard to pay them but could certainly not be described as able to afford them. (If this interests you, my original piece can be found here

    If misuse of “middle class” interests you,

    • Colum, you wrote: ‘The problem is that if the reintroduction of fees is to bring in significant sums the majority of students will have to pay them.’

      That’s simply not true. The gap between disaster and sustainability of sorts for a university right now lies at around €3-4 million per annum. Fees paid by a minority of students would provide that.

  8. kevin denny Says:

    I not sure I can add much more but to clarify, Gerry McNamara asserted that the abolition of fees widened access. Its not good enough for professors, no matter how distinguished, to come out with ex cathedra statements. He offered no evidence as there is none. He ignored the very clear evidence to the contrary, by me and others, because…well you’d have to ask him that.

  9. John Says:

    Couldn’t we simplify all this by making higher education free to all and do our ‘social engineering’ elsewhere, for example through income tax?

  10. John,
    Indeed we could! Moreover, Batt (as minister) in picking 100k as threshold for “can afford to pay fees” implicitly argued that a family on that income had thousands to spare.

    If anyone in the Dáil or elsewhere argued in the 90s that free fees would bring anything more than a handful of the poor to university, then he/she could not be regarded as a thinking person. Perhaps I’m being too hard there and should say that they know little about the complexity of deprivation. The kids who go to university are the ones who are told from a very young age that there are three schools …

    The biggest reason for “free fees”, as I’ve been saying over and over again, was the enormous burden that it lifted off families who struggled to pay them and these families are the reason why “free fees” should continue. It is very wrong to describe such people as middle class in the same way as those on 100k+ often describe themselves as middle class. The former are just about making ends meet, the latter are rich.

    When I said that having the rich pay would not bring in significant amounts of money, I should have said “relatively significant” but I was arguing against the reintroduction of fees. If your argument now is that the extra E3-4m which universities need for some sort of sustainability should come from fees paid by students whose families earn over 100k, then ok, let’s discuss that. However, you also said that that you weren’t arguing for free fees for 75% of students.

  11. iainmacl Says:

    just posted on Facebook page of Scotland’s Minister for Education:, Mike Russell

    “Michael Russell ……

    Is going to London tomorrow for a number of meetings after a good day in the Parliament – particularly the debate this afternoon in which the SNP and The Lib Dems successfully supported free education , rejected student top up fees and voted down Labour and the Tories joint call for yet another “review” of higher education funding , designed only to get student fees by the back door.”

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