Fear of fees

There was an interesting opinion piece in yesterday’s Sunday Tribune, in which the writer, Shane Coleman, considered that some of our current national difficulties stem from the fact that we focus on trivial things or things that we can do nothing about, fearing to address those that really matter and which could and should be tackled. He raised third level fees as one of these:

‘An expert group has recently found that the current funding of universities and colleges is unsustainable and the system needs €500 million next year. It’s patently obvious that the funding crisis can be addressed only by the reintroduction of fees and an end to the current system in which middle-class college students are subsidised by working-class taxpayers. But no political party will go there. It’s hard to blame them. They won’t be thanked for putting forward the hard realities. In the current climate – or perhaps in any climate – any party even sticking their toe in such waters will be gobbled up in a wave of anger and hysteria. Unless and until that changes, we could be facing into many more winters of discontent.’

Of course I am well aware that many readers, and many others in the wider public, will not agree with the view that tuition fees need to be part of the solution to our higher education problems. But in political circles, behind closed doors and off the record, it is a matter of near-unanimity that Ireland cannot address the future of third level education without student contributions; even some Labour politicians will privately agree with this proposition. But most of the same politicians are convinced that middle class voters will punish them if they even mention this; there is, as  I have discovered, a widespread view amongst politicians that working class voters will accept tuition fees without any argument (on the assumption that there is a reasonable grants framework), while middle class voters will not. And it is this, not any issue of principle, that is stopping political action, and is allowing the Greens to adopt a posturing position in the matter. As a country, we cannot afford this. Our education system is at stake.

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22 Comments on “Fear of fees”

  1. Pidge Says:

    This sort of thing shows a profound disrespect for people with whom you disagree. They can’t hold different views, they have be “posturing”, “afraid” or catering to a certain vote.

    Did you ever consider that people with views other than your own on this matter could be sincere? This is at least the third time you’ve stated (as if fact) that the Greens are only doing this to shore up some sort of middle-class vote. The Greens are a lot of things – some good, some bad – but I don’t think that an accusation of principle-free populism is a reasonable one to make.


    • Pidge, I have often emphasised that many people hold a different view on this issue for wholly honourable reasons. Indeed, for some time I would have held a different view myself. And for example, while I think the Labour Party’s position on this is wrong, I think it is one I respect.

      My problem here is with people who will tell me privately that they hold a particular view – i.e. one in support of fees – but that they would be unwilling to express it publicly for fear of offending well off voters. Surely you cannot support such a position yourself?

      As for the Greens, I suppose I should consider what you say, as I must confess I haven’t heard their private position and shouldn’t make a judgement. I would however add that I don’t accept they should hold a veto in the matter, no matter what the reasons for their position might be (which was my previous point).

  2. Al Says:

    I think that it also has to be pointed out that if/when fees come in, their impact on the funding will most likely be alot less significant a revenue stream than proponents claim…


    • Al, you probably mean that the net effect may be limited – they *will* be a significant funding stream if they amount to anything at all. Whether the net effect will be significant will depend of course on how the government deals with the public funding aspects. But even if the government withdrew public funding altogether, it would still be a safer revenue model than what we have now, which is perhaps the worst of all possible worlds.

      • Al Says:

        Thats assuming a constant demand for an educational model, which may not be the case.

        Is it possible that it may be in someones interest to not attend full time third level education.

        Changes are a coming though…
        And not just in academia.

        A friend was telling me a story of when he was an apprentice many moons ago, been visited by Korean engineers who was amazed that apprentices got paid and didnt have to pay for their education and training..

  3. Colman Says:

    Well, doh!, as a famous philosopher once said.

    I have always claimed that there were two reasons for the introduction of free fees: to increase the control the Department of Education had over third level and to buy off a small number of middle class voters who benefited financially. At the time, if you were moderately rich you could covenant enough money to your kids to more than pay the fees from the tax breaks, if you were poor the grants would pay the fees and only those in the middle actually ended up out-of-pocket.

    Both of these reasons still hold, from the point of the view of the Department and the politicians. Therefore, no fees.

    • Vincent Says:

      Yes, I read someplace that there is a 20% Tax Deduction if you send your kid to one of the private so called universaties.

  4. Niall Says:

    Free secondary education was introduced in the 1960s. It would seem to have opened up opportunities to many and to have been a significant factor in economic growth.

    All the same points could be made (disproportionate benefit to the middle class (however they are defined), cost to the taxpayers etc) but they never are…

    • Al Says:

      Good point
      But one could counter that where we could be heading is to an export based economy where what we export are graduates who cost the public purse 1,2, and 3 level fees and have given no return to the state.

      If we measured what it cost to provide all that education and worked out a value of the exports…
      ~Hmmm


    • Actually, Niall – no, there are several fundamental differences between secondary and tertiary education, and moreover there are very good reasons for wanting state-funded education to dominate at second level.

      There is a social imperative to have the entire population educated at second level, and moreover because the spread of private secondary education is almost entirely in separate, well endowed private schools, allowing that to prosper creates an educational apartheid (as you can see in the UK). Ironically, ‘free fees’ have in Ireland given a huge boost to private secondary education.

      Almost all high quality third level education is in either state-funded or not-for-profit universities or colleges, and the imperative there is to ensure that state funds are spent on those who most need them, and not spent on shoring up the privileges of wealth. The extraordinary thing in Ireland is that we use socially progressive arguments about fairness and access to cover up a system that largely benefits the wealthy. It’s an amazing sleight of hand, and it never ceases to astonish me how many well intentioned people sign up for it.

      • Vincent Says:

        It’s because there is that picture of the Garda, Nurse or average Teacher in a one income family with four kids stepped a year apart. That is who they see as the average Irish Citizen. You will note that all are of the civil servise. And almost everyone is related to one or the other of them.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I would be interested to know if there is any specific research data (as opposed to anecdotal information) that the money ‘saved’ on ‘free fees’ is actually redirected into paying for private second level education. The claim is made so often that I presume that there are solid facts to back it up? As we all know, correlation does not equal causality.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I think it’s worth considering (as part of the wider discussion) the story in the Irish Times a couple of days ago that many of the more expensive fee-paying secondary schools in the country are putting their fees up by 5% this year: and it was made clear in the story that they have seen no fall-off in demand during the recession.

    Many of those schools now charge 4-6000 euro per year, for which the pupils receive an education most of us couldn’t have dreamt of, resulting in many of the highest Leaving Cert scores in the country. These then guarantee them places of their choice at universities, for which they pay no fees at all.

    If we’re going to grasp the difficult issues in education in this country, then we need to grasp ALL of them, which must begin with the inequities in the education system from the age of 5. All the universities are seeing is the end result of these inequities, and with or without fees, those inequities are all but copper-fastened by the time students reach the age of 18.

    • Al Says:

      I dont think it is fair to the students or parents who pay to say:

      ” These then guarantee them places of their choice at universities, for which they pay no fees at all. ”

      These students, beside having the resources available to fund this, also do heavy work, or are heavily worked to reach that achievement.

      They still have to do the leaving cert and there is no guarantee there.

      This is more preferable to some process where “Ah, His father is a bishop, he deserves a place in medicine, let him through.”

      • Jilly Says:

        Well no-one’s advocating the ‘his father is a bishop, let him through’ approach, Al. And I’m not suggesting that the students at expensive private schools don’t work hard. But I am suggesting that they receive enormous advantages over those in most of the State system, advantages which directly improve their chances of getting high Leaving Cert points and therefore the place of their choice in college. And they get these advantages entirely on the basis of their parents’ ability to pay those school fees. Our education system (from 5 onwards) is very, very far from being meritocratic.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    It is true that Donagh O Malley’s reform opened up secondary school big time though it was trending up anyway. In a paper with Colm Harmon we showed that for those at the lowest SES it was worth about 3 years extra education, less if you were a bit higher up & made no difference at the top since you going to go anyway. School fees would have been the equivalent of a few weeks wages for manual workers. So the benefits were disproportionate to the working class the precise reverse of the university fee abolition.
    So there is no similarity with university tuition costs because low income people didn’t pay them in general. So its not a barrier: getting a crap Leaving Cert is the (proximate) barrier. This is what the evidence shows.
    The Higher Ed’ grant system wasn’t & isn’t perfect but it probably did a reasonably good job & could be reformed to iron out anomalies. The argument was made that “well we all know well-off self-employed people who are able to get their kids’ fees paid through the grant, so lets abolish fees to stop that”. But hard cases make bad law so its a pretty feeble argument. Fixing the problem was the most obvious thing to do.

    Tax covenanting was abolished at the same time as fees, by the way, for which I congratulate the Minister since it was a very regressive system.

    • Vincent Says:

      Ah yes Kevin, but getting a crap Leaving was made certain by methods of social engineering instinctive in most teaching institutions at that time. And they made certain that it was nigh on impossible to enter the UK institutions also. For those that got to Inter or a pass leaving were not going to gain one whit. They were still designed and designated as shovel drivers, not Engineers or Architects. Such a contrast with what was going on in the North.


  7. Ferdinand quotes Shane Coleman, “It’s patently obvious that the funding crisis can be addressed only by the reintroduction of fees and an end to the current system in which middle-class college students are subsidised by working-class taxpayers.” This encourages the daft belief that the reintroduction of fees offers a painless, “the-rich-will-pay” solution.

    Here is the pro-fees position stated honestly: The funding crisis can be addressed only by the reintroduction of fees. In order to bring in the level of funding required almost everyone will have to pay fees including those who, while they are above poverty level, can ill afford these charges. Very few people earn six-figure salaries and it is recognised that fees will be a heavy burden on families with more modest incomes.


    • With respect, Colum, that’s a slanted rather than honest summary. You are making a number of assumptions, some of which run counter to any model of fees being contemplated. Nobody I have ever heard on the matter assumes that ‘almost everyone would have to pay fees’. I suspect the figure will be somewhat under half of the student population.


      • No, Ferdinand, it’s honest. If it’s incorrect, I’d be happy to be corrected. My point is that the pro-fees argument relies heavily on the notion that the rich will pay and all will be fine.

        I know the kind of family that most benefitted from “free fees”. They were those who really did struggle to pay them. They can’t be dismissed as well-off or middle class.

        How about the following?
        The funding crisis can be addressed only by the reintroduction of fees. In order to bring in the level of funding required it is suspected that perhaps half of our students will have to pay fees. Included will be those whose families, while they are above poverty level, are well below the six-figure salaries that might be described as rich. These people will likely find the money but they can ill afford to pay.

      • Perry Share Says:

        interesting – how is this proportion calculated? Presumably you have some idea as to the income level to which the proposed fees are to be applied?


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