Tuition fees and social conscience

Earlier this week the Irish Times published a letter in which the writer questioned the support of university presidents (in this case UCD President Hugh Brady) for tuition fees, and in particular voiced disapproval that they might cite social equality as a reason. Instead, the writer argued that support for fees was something typical of ‘right-wing economists, politicians and most of the other heads of the universities.’ Technically this no longer includes me, but I have a suspicion that I might have ben part of the writers rogue’s gallery of alleged rightwingers.

Without wanting to comment on the views of any individual president, it has to be said that the social equity argument for the return of fees is very powerful indeed. The majority of university students come from better off families, and therefore the greater part of the taxpayer’s investment benefits them. By contrast, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are still hugely under-represented. Querying the acceptability of this state of affairs may be all sorts of things, but it is not right wing in nature. Those who take a different view (as of course they are entitled to do) should nevertheless take the trouble to engage with the argument rather than trying to shout down those making a case for fees with silly insults. Having this debate is good, but it needs to be conducted with a little intelligence.

PS. This is probably the last post I shall ever be writing from the DCU campus, as today I shall finally be leaving the President’s house that has been my home for the past ten years. Time flies.

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6 Comments on “Tuition fees and social conscience”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    People who dismiss other’s views on ideological grounds, as that correspondent did, invariably assume that their own views are entirely uncontaminated by ideology. Its just the other guy who is ideological, yeah right.
    In this case, his views are uncontaminated by facts. Its quite clear that the abolition of fees was a right-wing policy handing over large amounts of money to the middle-classes (only) and conveying no advantage to those who were ostensibly to benefit. But this guy has head so stuck up his ideological a**e that he is too dim-witted to see it.
    Fintan O’Toole had a nice piece recently on how all-important it was to politicians to save face and hence not to admit they were wrong even if that meant an enormous cost to the citizens. He was referring of course to the present government’s management of the economy. But they are not the only set of Ireland politicians so afflicted.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    The argument is familiar: ‘free fees’ invariably benefit the ‘middle class’ (apparently, it seems, by allowing them to spend their money on private secondary education). In order to ‘engage with this argument’ (as FvP suggests), and stimulate debate (not withstanding that one or two people in universities might be on holiday 🙂 ) could it be indicated whether the logic of this argument also means that:

    – full economic fees should be brought into the parallel IoT sector
    – full economic fees should be brought into the PLC/FE sector
    – full economic fees should be applied to apprenticeships.

    In all cases these are scarce taxpayer-subsidised resources and it is likely that those who complete such courses will gain an economic benefit as a result.

    Similarly, should the full economic cost be applied to customers of:

    – the Abbey Theatre
    – flights between Galway and Dublin
    – the National Gallery

    all of which undeniably disproportionately benefit the ‘middle class, but are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

    What is the logic of specifically increasing university fees from their current level (high by EU standards) of €1500 while numerous other examples of ‘middle class welfare’ exist?

    I agree that it is desirable to debate the fees issue, but the debate also needs to be broadened. Also, insults and abuse from either side is unlikely to be productive!


    • Perry, there is a really big difference between having a student contribution and suggesting that fees should cover the full economic cost of their studies; so far the latter is not even on the very distant horizon, and as far as I know everybody presumes that the state will continue to pay some of the costs – i.e. subsidise the experience. By your analogy, I have never heard anyone suggest that people should be able to view all performances in the Abbey Theatre completely free of charge.

      • Perry Share Says:

        OK, so let’s say that the unit cost to educate a student on a social studies programme in my Department is about €5000 per annum. This covers academic salaries and class materials. Add on say another €2500 overhead per student to run the admin and the library, pay the insurance, cut the grass, heat the buildings &c. (IoTs receive no core funding for research) That is €7500 per annum. The student currently pays €1500 ‘registration fee’ – ie fee. So the student is paying a fifth of the cost of their education.

        What is the desirable annual fee for this student to pay? 0, 1500, 3000, 5000, 7500 or 10000 euro?

        How would this be determined?

        If the fee is increased to, say, €3000 per annum, how does this make for a more equal educational system, as is suggested by many proponents of fees?

        I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they are a small part of the debate that we need to have within the third level sector.

    • Al Says:

      Well made points.
      In the apprentice example, what would happen is that apprentices would ignore the off the job training and education, and seek a time served type of apprenticeship.
      While this would be irregular in terms of qualifications it would definitely happen for the muscle trades.

      This would be harder to replicate in level 7-10 programmes. If students were to seek jobs, if they were there, instead of education?

      The crude fact of the matter is Govt will get funds from wherever it thinks it can get away with it.
      Another issue I see here is the implicit assumption that the more education a person recieves the better.
      It allows Govt to claim a improved outcome, but that is not necessarily the case.

  3. James Conran Says:

    I highly recommend this post on the UK experience by Prof Nicholas Barr of the LSE:

    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=698

    Turns out there has been a dramatic increase in third level participation by the socio-economically disadvantaged since the introduction of tuition fees there.


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