Keeping fees straightforward and transparent

For readers who are not immediately familiar with the Irish higher education system, it may be worth saying briefly that there are no tuition fees, but there are charges known as the ‘registration charge’ or the ‘student services charge’. This was introduced shortly after tuition fees were abolished, and at first was fairly nominal in amount. The purpose was that the charge would help universities defray the cost of services other than tuition. Over the years this charge increased in amount, and on occasion the government raised the charge at the same time as lowering the recurrent grant. Most recently, in 2009, the charge was increased from €900 to €1,500. At around the same time questions were asked of the universities about how the money raised was being spent, and whether any of it was actually defraying the cost of tuition.

In yesterday’s Irish Independent there was a report suggesting that, in the light of further budget cuts to higher education now anticipated in the December Budget and Book of Estimates, there could be a further substantial rise in the student registration (or services) charge. Should this happen, then the charge will be bigger than tuition fees in some countries that have fees. But they will be less useful to the universities, who will be unable to apply them to support academic and teaching costs.

Much though I am  in favour of tuition fees for those who can afford them (as readers of this blog will know), I am strongly opposed to fudging the issue by introducing fees but calling them something else and restricting their use. The university ‘business’ that is now being placed at risk is teaching, and to demand ever higher contributions from students but stipulating that they cannot be used to support teaching is bizarre and lacks basic transparency, and moreover tempts the universities into using them in questionable ways. It would make much more sense, as a first move, to introduce fees at the level at which ministers are now apparently contemplating the registration charge. Let us at least be honest about what we are doing; the current (and possibly planned) scheme makes no sense and really encourages dishonesty regarding university funding. It should stop.

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25 Comments on “Keeping fees straightforward and transparent”

  1. Fergal Barry Says:


    1. Upfront fee for those who can afford it.
    2. Staggered payment system.
    3. Deffered payment / graduate tax.

  2. copernicus Says:

    Ferdinand, this is an excellent piece, and you have said what I wanted to say for a long time. I guess similar situation exists in Scotland. Please correct me if I am wrong as I left Scottish academia some 2 decades ago and moved to England. This is anything but tuition fee by stealth, but as you put it, it does not go to support front line teaching for example,and hence your comment “But they will be less useful to the universities, who will be unable to apply them to support academic and teaching costs.”. An upfront tuition fee is more honest and transparent in its virtue as a good slice of it goes for academic and teaching costs. But then those who willingly pay to buy cars, sky movie packages, buy subscription to a FC (most of them are not middle class) want the universities to be free from tuition fees!

  3. Niall Says:

    My credit card statement lists an item as ‘Fees’ which is for the same amount as the registration charge I paid for my son in a certain Irish university (which will remain nameless)

  4. Al Says:

    It is always a danger when Education has to navigate political considerations such as the current fee/charge issue.
    Aside from yourself, there is little leadership or resistance to the current situation. Why not??
    Is this what happened the health system many moons ago…

    • copernicus Says:

      Al: “Aside from yourself, there is little leadership or resistance to the current situation. Why not??”
      The current situation of charging a fee saying it is for something else (i.e.registration) is pure dishonesty. The reason why there is no honesty here is because the senior managers in universities are afraid of protests from politicians,unions and students. The tuition fee triggers such passion in Britain in those who are prepared to pay thousands of pounds for other things. As for the NHS in Britain,its rationing, and its non-delivery in my cases and the sheer wastage I have witnessed, I have more to say perhaps later.

    • The ‘free fees’ scenario has become the establishment position, and as in so many things it’s a very hard one to shift. Also, there are some very confusing messages out there: are fees socially progressive or regressive? Both assertions are made with equal passion.

      As for the registration charge, it’s just a convenient fudge and let’s people manage through ambiguity. However, it was never really very honest, and it’s time to face the realities.

  5. Al Says:

    In my opinion the fees issue is becoming distracting when placed against long term vision issues.
    Instituting a fees structure that is ‘fair’ will remove so many from the fees structure that it will become apparent quite soon that it isnt fit for purpose.

    What would we do then?
    Should we be thinking about that now?

  6. Those who pay to go to college don’t differentiate between a “registration charge” and “college fees” and they certainly don’t explore how the money is spent. Whatever it’s called and however it’s subsequently spent, it remains the price paid to go to college.

    Some have the money and paying out is no problem. Some can’t get the money and they don’t go to college. Some manage to beg or borrow the money and go to college. I’ve chased Ferdinand around this and other blogs trying to tie down the meaning of “those who can afford to pay fees”. The best I could get was that those who can afford private schools can afford college fees. However, the argument didn’t change to, “those who went to private schools should pay college fees.” I’ve said many times that “afford” cannot be considered in a simple binary, yes/no way. Before the abolition of fees many families who paid could ill afford to pay.

    Without compelling evidence, the notion that our universities could be funded – or even could be significantly helped – by the fees (or increased registration charges)of only those who really could afford to pay is a cruel fantasy.

    It has nothing to do with this particular thread but here’s something that might interest contributors to this blog:

    • Colum, the question you have asked me is not a good question, and to the extent that it can be answered I have done so several times. Affordability is not a unique problem that applies solely to university fees. It equally applies in much the same way to income tax, to VAT, to bin charges, to electricity and energy bills; and it applies also to the things we voluntarily take on, such as drink, cigarettes, a more expensive rather than a cheaper car, and so on. Fees are just one potential ingredient in this cocktail of affordability, and you cannot actually separate them out when asking about what can be afforded.

      In part it is a question of how we prioritise our spending. In some cases (only some, of course), we can ‘afford’ to pay much more annually for alcohol than we might be asked to pay for education.

      The ultimate test of all this is simple enough: that a person who has the talent and aptitude and necessary prior qualifications must be able to go to third level. That’s the objective. And any system we have must guarantee that. It doesn’t have to guarantee that even the rich get it for free.

      • Ferdinand,
        This is a consistent theme in your posts on the issue: “If they can afford X, they can afford fees.”

        The argument for the reintroduction of fees is not the only argument that suggests a fanciful, painless recourse to making the rich pay. The problem is that as soon as one applies any meaning to “rich” or “well off” the argument itself becomes meaningful.

        Let’s say we are talking about family income. (It’s not a concept that I like but that’s for another day.)

        How about the following?
        poor 100k.

        Now, under the scheme you have in mind, who pays?
        Make up your own scales if mine don’t suit but tell us who pays?

        • Honestly, Colum – I have absolutely no idea what you are asking…. I know I’m probably being dense, but I don’t understand the question! As for who pays, those who can afford it pay for themselves and an added subsidy, those who cannot afford it have theirs paid for them, and the state continues to make a subvention. Affordability can either be set at an income threshold, or may vary depending on circumstances, or for some may depend on graduate income.

        • My scales weren’t posted above because I used symbols for “less than” and “greater than”. The post should have ended:

          How about the following?
          poor = less than 20k
          struggling = 20 -40k
          modest = 40 – 60k
          well-off = 60 – 80k
          very well-off = 80 – 100k
          rich = greater than 100k.

          Now, under the scheme you have in mind, who pays?
          Make up your own scales if mine don’t suit but tell us who pays?

  7. copernicus Says:

    In England, the affordability is not an issue as no upfront fee is charged. The only issue is the student’s academic ability and entry qualifications.
    I have argued with poeple who have said they cannot afford university fee of £3290 to their sons/daughters, but who do not blink spending money on yearly holidays abroad, eating out fairly regularly, taking out a hefty pack of Sky Sport portfolios besides paying subscriptions to Chelsea FC or Arsenal FC, et.. etc.., Yes the prority always!

    Very often this affordability is combined with the notion of widening participation and verbal attacks on rich ( I am a retired academic, not rich in any manner of speaking), and when it is examined I have often found that the real issue with these attackers is they do object to high entry standards of universities and particularly Russell Group universities, and accuse them as the place where rich send their children. Unfortunately their delusion prevents them from examining the facts. As I said in another thread, I have seen in UCL and Imperial that there are more students coming from poor families and comprehensive schools , than any time before and almost all of them are on bursaries.
    I do not come from rich family, I opted to become an academic and sent my son to local comprehensive schools which were classified as bad. I was also a parent governor in these schools and later became a governor of 2 secondary schools. In my experience, the parents can make the difference in terms of motivating their children and caring about their studies more than the affordability.

  8. copernicus Says:

    I do not think, you read my post completely. I do not have my own blog as a quite like what Ferdinand articulates.

    • colummccaffery Says:

      I did read you completely. I was referring to a group of arguments which seem to offer easy, painless, the-rich-will-pay solutions. The arguments enjoy an initial plausibility because “rich” has become meaningless. Ferdinand’s fees argument is a good example.

      • A good example of what? While I enjoy these exchanges, Colum, I have to say that your argument on this topic is rather circular…

        • Perry Share Says:

          I was away from the web for a few days (bliss!) so may have missed this – but has anyone put up a specific fees proposal with figures that we can discuss yet? Myself and Colum have been looking for one, but so far in vain . . .🙂

        • Yours is an argument of the the-rich-will-pay type. There’s a lot of it about these days. The reintroduction of fees will cause hardship. You obscure this by steadfastly refusing to say who will pay. I invited you to link payment to my set of pay bands or to a set of your own.

  9. Shucks, Perry, I have done this till I’m blue in the face, it’s just you don’t accept it!

    While you were away I asked you what your alternative is to fees – with the caveat that I won’t buy higher taxes, because no government will promise to do that, and if they did there is no guarantee they would actually fund HE, and every likelihood they’ll be diverted to something else (which is what has always happened in the past). Under our system, you cannot ringfence general taxation.

    So if not fees, and not new taxation, and there is reducing government investment, then what? I have never seen a persuasive answer to this!

    • Ferdinand, you’ve done nothing of the kind. The closest you’ve come is to say that those who go to private secondary schools can afford university fees.

      Now you are changing the subject by asking about the alternative to fees. There may be no acceptable ao viable alternative to fees but necessary to reaching such a decision is a consideration of the reality of fees reintroduction and that means a clear proposal, stating who will pay.

  10. […] has decided, or may about to decide, to replace the current student registration charge (discussed recently in this blog) with a new ‘student contribution‘, or else that the current charge will […]

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