Posted tagged ‘fees’

University tuition fees in an uncertain world

September 12, 2011

Almost every country with a mature system of higher education is struggling right now to work out how to fund it. The global economic crisis of the past two or three years has created major problems in public finances, and this in turn has prompted public expenditure cuts from which universities have not escaped. In that setting tuition fees have often seemed to be the only way to escape from the effects.

In Ireland, for now, the commitment to retain the so-called ‘free fees’ system remains, but the reality is that fees have been phased in by stealth and are set to grow. The ‘student registration charge’, first introduced in the late 1990s to provide some very minor student contribution to non-tuition costs, has grown over the years and now stands at €2,000. Along the way its formal title changed from ‘student registration charge’ to ‘student contribution charge’ (2010 Budget), so that the pretense that it was only funding non-tuition services was quietly dropped. And what’s next? There is at the moment a high degree of ambivalence in statements coming from the government, but it seems increasingly likely that fees will be part of the funding mix before long.

In England the British government has more or less stopped funding university teaching and has set a maximum fee that institutions are allowed to charge. It is a kind of ‘market’ according to some commentators, but if so it is one in which the government is attempting to control supply and demand and pricing, and is doing so in a less than sure-footed way. There is also a fair amount of evidence that the universities themselves have not understood their role in this at all, and have taken pricing decisions within the permitted range, or rather at the top of it, that demonstrate a lack of familiarity with business decision-making and a curious detachment from the actual educational consequences of their decisions.

In Scotland the government remains committed to the idea of the ‘democratic intellect’ (explored originally in a book in 1961 by George Elder Davie) and a distinct social and cultural approach to education, and in this spirit has committed itself to retaining free higher education for Scottish students. However, the government has allowed universities to set fees for students from the rest of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), up to a maximum of €9,000 per annum, and it is looking at ways in which a registration charge could be introduced that would not affect Scottish students. From the early announcements, Scottish universities appear to be behaving in this market much like the English ones have done, and the decisions on setting fees for rest-of-UK students are already mired in controversy (as this editorial in the Herald newspaper demonstrates).

Commentators hostile to tuition fees have described what is happening in England as ‘a market’, but in reality it is nothing of the kind; and that is part of the problem. What we are facing is a scene across the developed world in which funding has become uncertain and with it the consensus of what higher education is or should be. This allows the government and the universities in England, and indeed elsewhere, to take funding decisions that seem curiously divorced from their educational mission.

Each society needs to decide what it wants to do with higher education and how it wants to resource it. This should be the starting point, before fees are addressed. The problem with the traditional public educate model is that it neglected lower socio-economic groups while pretending to support them. But at least there was some philosophical underpinning, if not always well applied. In Ireland the funding was not made available to secure the principle of free education, even non good times. The new English model seems to represent no real view of the value and values of education. The Scottish model is much clearer in nature and purpose, but can look vulnerable in the context of public funding pressures.

None of these things will be done well unless we, as a society, are much clearer about what we want from higher education, and what we are prepared to so to support it. That clarity needs to be found, or our systems of higher education will decline, as is already happening. There is not much time to lose.


New York Times gives editorial attention to English tuition fees

December 12, 2010

An editorial in Friday’s New York Times took a closer look at the new framework of funding and tuition fees in England. While the writer condemned the violence that has taken place on the margins of student protests, the key point of the editorial was that the new framework is ‘bad public policy, both myopic and unfair’. The key reasons given for this judgement were that the new policy has stripped out too much public funding in what the paper calls ‘arbitrary spending cuts’, and that some (particularly the less well off) will find the prospect of relatively high debts on graduation too daunting and may drift away from higher education.

Interestingly, the need for a contribution by students to the cost of their teaching is no longer a major controversial issue in England, though the amount of such a contribution is; but for most the acceptance of a contribution is still predicated on the assumption that the state will pay a significant proportion. The Browne proposals, as amended and adopted this past week by the British parliament, envisage a very significant withdrawal by the state from this role of funder.

Perhaps most dangerous of all for Britain is the conclusion suggested by the New York Times:

‘Britain’s crisis-swollen budget deficits, like America’s, need to be brought down as the economy recovers. The cutting must be done wisely, protecting investments in the economic future, like education. The sacrifices must be equitably shared. By any of those terms, this new policy is an utter failure.’

The British government will need to work very hard to ensure that its new policy is not seen internationally largely as a plan to disinvest in higher education. Economic growth and new investment may depend on it.

Principles of higher education finance: the Browne review

October 13, 2010

Perhaps one of the things that is different about the report (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (the Browne review) in England is that it has set out a series of principles which, the group recommends should inform decisions on funding. I say this because often when I have raised questions in this blog on student fees I have had the response that I should specify how high the fee would be and what the precise financial implications would be. I understand that no actual proposal could be implemented that does not contain such details, but they are very much secondary when set against the principles of higher education funding. So, whatever about the merits of Lord Browne’s proposals in detail, his group got the general approach to this right, to a greater extent than I have seen in any other such review.

So what principles does Lord Browne out forward? There are six in all, on pages 4-5 of the report:

1. ‘More investment should be available for higher education’. To those of us working in higher education, in whatever jurisdiction, this seems obvious enough, but it is hugely important that this should have been stated clearly in the report, as there are still influential people who believe that higher education can absorb further reductions in funding. One might add, for Ireland, that Irish universities already receive far less funding per student than British ones, even before any changes resulting from Browne may have kicked in.

2. ‘Student choice should be increased’. As a principle this also seems to be absolutely right, though there is merit in assessing what the implications might be, and how sustainable and stable the overall system would be in the wake of any changes.

3. ‘Everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education’. This, I believe, must be our absolute commitment, that nobody who has the ability and the qualifications to enter higher education should be turned away from it or discouraged from pursuing it, for any reason.

4. ‘No one should have to pay until they start to work’. This principle is new, in that it suggests that students should not pay anything for their tuition while they are doing their programme of study.

5. ‘When payments are made they should be affordable’. Here Browne recommends (with details) how payments should be calculated and levied, and how the amounts should be kept to an affordable level based on the graduate’s current income. It is a good principle, but with potential complications, as it raises the issue of what happens to those debts that will have to be written off, and how this will be handled in the system.

6. ‘Part time students should be treated the same as full-time students for the costs of learning’. This is a principle that we have, in Ireland, manifestly failed to apply, notwithstanding our apparent public commitment to lifelong learning.

Given some of the discussions we have had in Ireland, it is interesting that the group considered and dismissed the viability of a ‘graduate tax’ as the best way of funding higher education. I have never been persuaded by the concept of the graduate tax, so I welcome this particular conclusion.

What happens now will depend initially on the political process, and this will depend in particular on how the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party handle the matter. Both of them will almost certainly have difficult internal debates.

The message from the third level: this can’t go on

August 20, 2010

I am going to say some critical things about the government in a moment, but I want to temper that and put it in context first. The story of higher education in Ireland over the past 15 years or so is not an altogether bad one. Universities today are much better placed to succeed in a global setting than they would have been then. Research funding in particular has transformed our prospects and has been largely responsible for the rise of Irish universities in global rankings. Higher education institutions now reflect to a much greater extent than they used to the composition of this country’s population. Many of the decisions taken by governments over the past decade or two have been genuinely excellent.

The one decision which was, in my opinion, an outright catastrophe was the decision to abolish tuition fees, and nearly all of our current problems stem in one way or another from that. I should stress that I believe this decision was taken for entirely laudable reasons; but it was dramatically wrong. The two main results of the decision were (a) that as the exchequer simply could not carry the burden of funding all tuition costs, funding per student declined substantially in real terms, to the point that it is now not much over half of what it was in 1995; and (b) that this ushered in a period of significant neglect of disadvantaged students, as scarce money was handed out to wealthier families. In addition, the mistake became almost impossible to remedy for political reasons: if you give the middle classes a present, don’t attempt to take it back unless you are prepared to live with their anger at the polls.

The position we are in now is that higher education is seriously under-funded. Irish universities and colleges are being asked to accept major funding reductions, but at the same time are being asked to take in more students and be beacons in Ireland’s drive to be a successful knowledge economy and society. The suggestion we are being asked to accept is that the institutions are not actually under-funded at all, that there are inefficiencies that must still be eliminated, and that there are weaknesses in financial management and control.

The universities in turn are making a case for a very different approach to funding, but are not necessarily making it effectively. There are few signs that politicians are changing their minds a a result, or that the universities have been able to strike a chord with the public. As a result, nobody bats an eyelid at the idea that funding can be reduced more while student numbers increase substantially, and while the government commits itself not to allow the one measure which could actually produce some improvement.

This really cannot go on. Unless there is a change of policy, I cannot see how the universities and colleges can responsibly add to their student numbers. It seems to me to be logical that numbers should now be capped at present levels, or even lowered, until a better funding arrangement can be agreed. To do anything else would be irresponsible, as the pressure of any additional numbers of largely unfunded students could have a serious negative impact on quality. In any case, I feel that we need to develop much greater clarity around the appropriate higher education participation targets and how these targets fit with a wider vision for Irish society.

I am pleased to see that the Hunt report is grasping this nettle. But as a country we do not have an excellent record of implementing such reports, and we don’t seem to be able to understand or accept that there really is a crisis here, and that its impact will not just affect university staff, but everyone who wants an Irish higher education institution to deliver a quality education for them or their families.

Niamh Bhreathnach, taxi drivers and tuition fees

May 25, 2010

As we continue to struggle with questions of university funding, there is a fascinating little debate in today’s Irish Independent between Niamh Bhreathnach and Colm Harmon. Ms Bhreathnach was Minister for Education in Ireland when tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s, while Professor Harmon is the Director of the Geary Institute in UCD. Colm Harmon makes the extremely important point that it is not the absence of higher education fees that generates educational equality, but proper investment in combatting disadvantage at much earlier stages.

But for today I want to focus a little on what Niamh Bhreathnach writes. The article is really a plea to be recognised for her personal contribution to higher education, and she makes her point by quoting a taxi driver who told her that she was personally responsible for the successful university education of his four children. Indeed we are told that he expressed ‘muted thanks’ and then drove off ‘shyly’ (however one does that), and I think as readers we are supposed to contemplate the scene with a lump in our throats and a sense of deep admiration for a social project well done.

I don’t, as it happens, doubt that Ms Bhreathnach meant well when the government of which she was a member abolished fees, though I might add that I have personally heard from five cabinet members of the time who now believe it was all a mistake. It is also understandable that she should be anxious that her legacy should be recognised and celebrated. And I accept that the situation that existed prior to the introduction of ‘free fees’ was not satisfactory, including the distortions created by tax relief to which she refers. But none of that can overcome the fact that the abolition of fees turned into a disaster for the universities, who ended up having over time to absorb the money that had previously been paid by students, and that it did nothing whatsoever for the poorer sections of society, who have largely remained outside higher education.

Niamh Bhreathnach’s taxi driver could have had his children supported through university in a much more targeted way. It is silly to suggest that the price we have to pay for supporting middle income and poorer people in higher education is that we must also throw a lot of money at the wealthy. And experience has shown that the latter expenditure meant that we didn’t have enough money to direct at the disadvantaged. It is nice that she had her sentimental moment with the taxi driver, but at this stage it makes more sense to recognise the flaws of the ‘free fees’ framework and to move to something that is both socially more productive and of benefit to the financial needs of universities.

Will we have fees, or do we already have them?

May 7, 2010

There were more discussions earlier this week at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science about tuition fees and the student service charge, as reported in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan appeared before the Committee and gave ambivalent answers on whether there might be fees in the future, and was also subjected to some questioning about the future of the student service charge; she did not rule out that this charge might be increased again.

We have been told to expect that the higher education strategic review chaired by Colin Hunt is addressing the fees issue, but we have no real way of knowing what effect, if any, the group’s recommendations may have. The position we may be reaching by stealth is that fees are gradually emerging in the form of service charges. Furthermore, the example of UCC’s conferring charge perhaps suggests that universities could attempt to arrange individual deals with students about how specific charges might be introduced to off-set falling state revenues, though admittedly any such arrangements would have to proceed more smoothly than appears to have been possible in Cork.

The financial position of the Irish universities is now desperate; and there are few signs that this has either been understood by the politicians or that they are prepared to tackle the issue.

Tuition fees on or off the table?

February 24, 2010

As we all know, the Irish government parties – Fianna Fail and the Green Party – reached an agreement last October in their revised programme for government to exclude the possibility of reintroducing tuition fees. But if this was an attempt to kill off the idea, it was an ineffective one. First, there has been all that fuss about whether we have fees anyway in the form of the student service charge. But now we also gather, courtesy of a report in the Sunday Times, that the steering group overseeing the strategic review of higher education is to recommend that a student contribution should form part of the higher education funding model.

Assuming this is accurate, how will it be received? It is hard to see how the government can get out of the corner it has allowed itself to be boxed into in relation to fees. So if Fianna Fail in particular feel that they might want to run with this proposal, presumably they could only do so in a new government; but would they find it easy to go into an election with a commitment to consider fees, which would probably be unpopular with some key voters?

To make the case for tuition fees easier, the universities themselves need to become better communicators about this. It seems to me that the following issues need to be faced in public debate:

• better information on how universities spend their money and use their resources;
• the consequences of the decline in higher education public funding;
• the relationship between tuition fees and the objective of widening participation;
• the financial pressures on various sections of society that would flow from fees;
• the potential for targeted support for groups needing help from fee income;
• a commitment to admit students on ability only, and that nobody would have to forgo a university education on financial grounds.

I may of course have missed other important issues connected with tuition fees – comments on this would be welcome. Starting tomorrow, for the next few days, I intend to address each of these issues separately, in order to present a view of what issues and dangers we face and whether and how these would be addressed by tuition fees.

Accounting for the registration charge

December 17, 2009

Some readers of this blog may have come across recent media reports indicating that the TCD Students Union has complained about the way the student registration charge is being spent in that college. In summary, the Students Union has indicated that some of the charge – which is supposed to pay for services such as registration, counselling, examinations, library costs and related items – was being redirected to cover general college costs. It may be worthwhile referring to the proceedings of the Joint Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Committee on Education and Science, where this issue was first raised. On November 19, Brian Hayes TD (Fine Gael Spokesperson on Education), said the following at the meeting of the Committee:

‘This serious issue has come to my attention. We have evidence for the first time that a substantial amount of the student registration charge of €1,500, which was introduced by the Government last year, is not being used for student services at all. I wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General earlier today to ask him initiate an immediate investigation of the seven universities and 15 institutes of technology and to determine the total sum of the €1,500 that is being charged that is not going to student services. I understand the institutes and universities concerned have a legal responsibility to charge for only that portion which relates to student services. We have evidence from Trinity College Dublin – I refer to the abridged accounts that are before the committee – to show that a substantial amount of the student charge is used for the core maintenance of that university. This once more highlights the suggestion I made last year that the Government has introduced fees by the back door. I regret that none of the Fianna Fáil members of the committee is present here today. The Chairman is the only member of the committee from the Government side who is in attendance. I would have thought he has a responsibility to ensure that the Minister for Education and Science takes this matter seriously. We have direct evidence that students are being fleeced with a charge that is not directly related to student services.’

This was subsequently followed up on December 2. On that occasion Gary Redmond, the President of the UCD Students Union (who was part of a Union of Students in Ireland delegation invited to appear before the committee that day), said the following:

‘I do not know if the committee is aware that every student pays a registration fee of €1,500. In addition to this, most ITs and universities impose a student levy. Due to the fact that there is no money to fund student services correctly, students have, in cases where it is necessary to build a gym, a pool hall or a common room, voted in referenda to put in place a levy that is additional to their €1,500 registration fee. UCD students pay a total of €1,650, while their counterparts in NUI Galway, UCC and elsewhere pay over €1,700.

Following the release of the accounts, the president of Trinity College Dublin’s students union, Cónán Ó Broin, and I were invited by the chief executive of the HEA to attend a meeting on Monday last. The registration fee is supposed to be governed by a framework of good practice, which was established in 1998. This framework is supposed to set out how the students’ services charge is distributed. The students’ service charge is a colloquial name for this charge. It was established when the free fees scheme was introduced in order to offset the cost of student services, registration and examinations. That was the intention behind the fee when it was originally established. To assist with how this money would be spent, the HEA set up a framework for good practice in 1998. The HEA has periodically written to the universities to ensure that this framework is still in place. The latter have assured the HEA that it remains in place. The universities issue the same reply when contacted because they do not want to review, on a yearly basis, how this money is spent. Under the framework for good practice, there is supposed to be a group, weighted in favour of students, in place to recommend to a university how the money is spent on student services. This has not happened across the country for a number of years.

The HEA has agreed to write to the universities and ITs and request them to provide information from their accounts with regard to how moneys for student services are spent. It also agreed to ask them to review the framework for good practice, which is simply not working right across the board. That is the current position following our meeting with the chief executive of the HEA, Mr. Tom Boland, on Monday last. We have been invited to meet him again in the new year when the information to which I refer has been provided. I am aware that my colleagues throughout the country have experienced tremendous difficulties in trying to obtain this information from various institutes and universities. It has not been easy to discover how money relating to the student services charge is being spent.’

I should stress right away that there is no problem getting the relevant information from DCU. We have consistently accounted for our use of the student registration charge, and notwithstanding some of the comments above, the money raised from the charge has never come close to covering the items for which it is supposed to be spent. I understand also that the position in Trinity College is no different, but that it has chosen to account for the charge differently, for whatever reasons; but the actual costs of services have consistently exceeded the sums raised from the charge.

None of this detracts from the fact that we do have a strange system under which fees were abolished but then partly reinstated, even if only for a particular purpose. In addition, the process that was to be applied to the setting of the charge has never – or at least not recently- been followed. And in one year it is clear that the government clawed back some of the charge, thereby making it impossible to spend that part on student services (it simply went into general taxation).

While I do not accept the complaints made by the USI and the Students Union officers from TCD and UCD, I do agree that the current situation is not satisfactory. As is known, I support the reintroduction of fees. I do not however support the idea of fudging what is or isn’t a fee, or the idea that the student registration charge should be set to reflect general university financial needs or indeed the financial needs of the government. The current situation is not satisfactory.

This year’s students, next year’s fees?

August 22, 2009

As readers of this blog will know, I believe that a well thought out framework for higher education tuition fees is something we actually need to introduce, and I applaud the courage and determination of the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, in moving this along. However, I am still disturbed that while there must by now be a detailed proposal that has been the subject of discussions amongst Ministers, the universities have not seen anything and are not being consulted about it.

In addition, the Irish Times reported during the past week (correctly) that universities and colleges are being told to alert this year’s incoming first year students that, next year, they may become liable for fees. I believe that it is important to maintain a principle of no retroactivity, and a new framework should only affect those who knew about it when they applied for a third level course. In fact, when this year’s new intake were filling in their CAO forms there were statements assuring them that when fees were introduced they would not apply to existing students.

I think that the new framework, whatever form it takes (and in the end, I hope it will be discussed with universities before it is finalised), should be introduced in such a way as to minimise alarm and discontent. I don’t think that the statement we are being asked to pass on to new students, and the steps that it implies may be taken, are a good idea.

The very, very, very slow progress of the fees proposal

July 1, 2009

Another bit of news today regarding the likelihood of a plan by the government to reintroduce fees. In a nutshell, today’s news is that nothing will happen just yet. The Minister for Education and Science will, it appears, put a draft proposal on fees to cabinet colleagues this month, but won’t put a formal proposal to the cabinet until September. Assuming that this proposal is for the reintroduction of fees, and assuming further that the government adopts it, we don’t know what the timeline will then be for the implementation of the decision; except that, obviously, nobody will be paying fees for another year at least.

The Minister also indicated to RTE that ‘people would be pleasantly surprised that the system he would be proposing – if adopted – will not be as financially difficult as perceived.’ It is hard to know what to make of that, exactly. And here is one of the problems. While members of the cabinet may be about to have details of what could be proposed, nobody else has any real information, and therefore nobody can subject the proposal to analysis or present any informed views or feedback.

It is, I think, time to involve the third level community in this whole project. It is important that any proposal is considered in terms of its practicality, and those best placed to offer views on that are those who work in the institutions. It is very hard to have an informed debate when nobody has really been informed, and it would help the atmospherics of the whole thing if this gap were to be filled. I hope that the Minister will take that opportunity.