Dealing with debt
As the global debate continues about how to resource higher education, there are some strong voices suggesting that the only way to generate sufficient cash to pay for educational excellence without discouraging the less affluent from entering universities is through tuition fees funded through student loans. Under such systems students pay nothing on commencing their studies, but rather take on a loan, with the sum of the loan representing some or all of the cost of their courses. That loan is later repaid by instalments when the student, now a graduate, is in employment or economically active and earning more than a specified income.
This system, it is suggested, is superior to ‘free’ higher education (i.e. studies funded entirely by the taxpayer) because it secures more resources for universities than the taxpayer could afford to provide, and to a tuition fee-based model because the student pays nothing up front or during the course of their studies and so is not excluded by lack of means. It is used in Australia (where the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS – was introduced in 1989) and more recently in England (and not, as is sometimes suggested, in the United Kingdom as a whole).
The introduction of a similar scheme in Ireland has been proposed by some for a while. The Irish Universities Association began to argue for the ‘introduction of a system of income contingent loans and top up fees’ by 2009. More recently the new President of University College Dublin Professor Andrew Deeks, in an interview with the Irish Times, said:
‘My personal view is that the contribution system that has worked in Australia for the past 20 years now provides a good model. It is a deferred payment of a debt, which is accumulated module by module as students progress through the course.’
There is little doubt that the Irish system of higher education is now seriously under-funded. It is also easy to see the attraction of a resourcing framework that does not create a financial entry hurdle for students. Whether the Australian model is as good as is suggested could however be open to argument. One of its significant features is the by now very high level of unpaid debt. It is estimated in Australia that over A$30 billion in student debt is outstanding, of which up to A$7 billion will never be recovered (nearly £4 billion). Now one of the live issues in Australian politics is the question of whether student debts owed by people now deceased can be recovered from their estates. Other studies have suggested that the prospect of high indebtedness is also discouraging some poorer students from entering higher education.
Nobody has yet found the silver bullet for funding higher education, and all debate and exploration should be welcomed. As countries in the developed world identify the need to promote universities that are resourced to host world class discovery, attract very high value industry investment and provide graduates with top skills, it is clear that the funding burden is not an easy one for the taxpayer to carry. Equally it remains of vital importance that appropriately able people from all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraged to pursue a university degree. However, whether a loan system is the answer is, in my view at least, somewhat doubtful.