Tuition fees: a DIT perspective

The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) is sometimes described as Ireland’s largest higher education institution; whether this description fits depends a little on how you count the students, but it is certainly big by Irish standards. Over the decades DIT has been assembled by merging a variety of different institutions and colleges around Dublin, some of them coming to the mix with a very specific mission and portfolio. It has its own degree awarding powers (having previously taken its degrees from Trinity College Dublin, or to be precise, from the University of Dublin), and for some time it has been seeking university status. But it also has a number of students studying for sub-degree qualifications. As it is spread around Dublin with a large number of different locations, it has probably been difficult to create a collegiate ethos – but that is about to change, perhaps, with the government’s announced plans to locate all the elements of DIT in one location in Grangegorman, North Dublin.

Since 2003 the President of DIT has been Professor Brian Norton. Though a respected leader and a strong consensus builder, he has not always been in the media spotlight. However, the Sunday Business Post ran an interview with him last weekend, and in this he revealed his opposition to, or at any rate his scepticism about, the reintroduction of tuition fees. He argued that if fees returned the revenues from them would simply be clawed back in their entirety by the government. But more generally he summarised his position as follows:

‘Focusing on the fees is a very odd place to start the discussion. There needs to be a policy debate about how higher education is funded, not about whether or not fees are charged. In a complex system of higher education, you can’t just change one thing without looking at the overall impact.’

The argument that fees will not help the institutions because the government will just reduce its contribution accordingly may possibly turn out to be right, though probably only partly so – the more likely scenario lies somewhere in between, with the government reducing its contribution but not to the full extent of the fees paid. But even if the DIT president were right, it would not make it a bad proposition, as it would give the institutions much greater direct control over funding and make them much less vulnerable to sudden government cuts. But his wider argument is a very curious one, as he suggests that the discussion about fees has been taking place in the absence of  a debate about higher education funding. This is plainly absurd, as there have been detailed analyses of funding, not least in the OECD report on Irish higher education; and it is because these investigations have seen no other realistic options that the return of tuition fees has been recommended. In any case, those advocationg tuition fees (including this writer) have always placed the call in that wider context.

I guess that all this is partly to be seen in the context of the maybe slightly different perspective on all this in the institute of technology sector, where there may be fears that fees could have a problematic impact on student recruitment. That should be taken seriously in the debate, as the success of the IOT sector is important for Irish higher education. But it is not perhaps helpful to suggest that support for the reintroduction of tuition fees has not been placed into the context of higher education funding – it has never been handled in any other way. Nobody (myself included) wants fees just for their own sake. Rather, the argument is that higher education is being starved of funding, and that too much of the money that is being paid into the system is being spent on subsidising students from wealthier backgrounds, to the detriment of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is the context of the discussion.

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18 Comments on “Tuition fees: a DIT perspective”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    There is probably a difference ebtween the public debate and that which is occuring amomgts poliy makers. The public “debate”, for what it is worth, is focused too much on fees because it makes good headlines, evokes visceral reactions and above all, is constructed by some along simple “good vs. evil” lines. Since education is good, fees are bad, the argument goes.
    The real issues are complicated and to many people probably quite boring. The media respond to this: in a sense one can hardly blame them.
    I read an article recently about the outgoing director of the Cancer Services Professor Tom Keane in which he bemoaned the superficial coverage of health issues: “sounds familiar” I thought.

    • Perry Share Says:

      It is surely the responsibility of those in education to contribute more fully to the debate, so the input of people like Brian Norton is to be valued. As for the complexity, a key process for educators is to render the inexplicable, explicable. If we can’t do it, its a bit much to expect policy-makers (who perhaps have the opposite task?) to do it!

      • Perry, I agree that a contribution to the discussion from Brian Norton is to be valued. It’s just that this particular contribution is a very curious one, as it suggests there hasn’t been a debate around funding. On the contrary, that’s what the whole discussion has been about…

        • Perry Share Says:

          Having new read the interview, it appears to me that Brian Norton is saying that there has not yet been a holistic debate about HE funding in Ireland – but that the discussion has been reduced to one of whether or not to increase fees. I think this is a fair comment.

          If there has been an extensive debate on higher education funding (rather than consultants’ reports) I would be happy to read about it if someone can point me in that direction (acknowledging that much of the debate to date has taken place on this blog).

          • Perry, I don’t even know how to begin to reply to your comment! The last decade has been choc-a-bloc full of debates on HE funding. Yes, there have been reports, but these have been extensively debated all over the place. In fact, fees, were not initially mentioned in these debates at all, and only became a feature when it became clear that public funding would not be allowed to meet the needs of higher education. Most university presidents only swung in behind fees about four years ago – before that a majority (not me, mind you) were opposed.

            But there is also the question as to what exactly Brian Norton (or anyone else) wants to see debated. Higher education will either get properly funded by the exchequer, or there will have to be student contributions. There really is no other easy fix. Once you have established (as I believe has been done comprehensively) that current levels of funding are inadequate, there is very little else to debate.

  2. Al Says:

    I don’t think that is a fair characterisation of the interview, however my copy of it is wrapping food waste at this stage.
    Asides from fees other issues:
    Wages comparatively to international examples, but having a 2008 mortgage it is a no go area for me.
    Qualification type: are they the right fit for learners be they full time, part time, working etc, in terms of cost.
    Capital expenditure, when so many buildings are nama’ed.

  3. Ferdinand,
    You say that “too much of the money that is being paid into the system is being spent on subsidising students from wealthier backgrounds, to the detriment of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

    Now at this stage you must be considering taking out a contract on me but it is important that I ask THAT question again? What do you mean by “wealthier backgrounds”?

    To bring in significant money from fees will mean charging the great majority of students.

    EVERYONE thinks that the rich should pay more. Very, very few accept that they are rich even if they are in the top decile. As I’ve said before, I know people on 100k+ salaries who like to refer to themselves as “middle income” and who think that students from “wealthier backgrounds” should pay fees. (I accept that you are concerned about real middle income earners and that you propose a scale of fees but this too would reduce the take.)

    • Al Says:

      Some good points.
      I think debt also needs to be factored in.
      couple on 120 k with 400k mortgage isn’t necessarily more affluent than couple on 40 k with no mortgage.

      • Vincent Says:

        Of course they are. What about the person living on 40k living in council accommodation. But all assets should be taken into account. Otherwise you will get the idiotic situation where farmers would hold off buying equipment so their books show a loss for those years, like it was before. In the past the ONLY people that paid anything were the PAYE people.

    • James Conran Says:

      Why not avoid the whole thorny debate about who can and cannot afford to pay (obviously even people on the same income will have different situations) and agree that nearly all students are virtually penniless – as opposed to their parents. Why, indeed, should we assume that everyone’s parents are equally willing, let alone able, to pay for their adult children’s further education?

      But while the vast majority of students have almost no assets or income when they enter third level education, their earning prospects are greatly enhanced when they graduate, compared to those who do not. So the solution is impose fees on all students, but set up a Student Loan Company offering 100% finance, with repayments to begin only when the graduate has found a job (and payments linked to income). So third level education would remain “fee at the point of use” (or at least as much as it is now).

  4. James Conran Says:

    On the “fees won’t go to third level funding” point made by Brian Morton, I basically agree with Ferdinand on this. And even if the government did reduce its exchequer funding by the exact amount of revenue raised by fees I think this would still be a positive move (since the fee revenue would be a more secure source of funding than the exchequer funding is and because in the context of the fiscal crisis fees are far from the worst way improving/maintaining the public finances – every user charge introduced is a tax or spending cut avoided).

    But more importantly I think the fees debate should be part of a broader debate not just about funding third level education, but about the autonomy of our universities and third level institutions. It seems ridiculous that universities should be covered by, for example the embargo on public service recruitment, and that decisions to promote academics should need to be run by the Department of Finance or Education.

  5. […] The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) is sometimes described as Ireland's largest higher education institution; whether this description fits depends a little on how you count the students, but it is certainly big by Irish standards. Over the decades DIT has been assembled by merging a variety of different institutions and colleges around Dublin, some of them coming to the mix with a very specific mission and portfolio. It has its own degree a … Read More […]

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