Posted tagged ‘free fees’

The cost of education

August 7, 2010

For those wondering how much it costs to put a child through the Irish education system, Bank of Ireland life have done some research and provided us with the answer: €67,149. Of course the company is being self-interested in publishing this information, as the key message it is wrapping around the data is that parents need to save money early on, preferably just after the child’s birth.

The overall figure of €67,149 is the total sum across all levels of education.  According to the bank, third level is by far the most expensive: primary education costs €12,326, and secondary costs €12,981; but sending a child to university or college costs €41,842. And if you were wondering, no fees at any level have been factored into these figures, other than the student services charge at third level.

It may need to be said in passing that the bank does not raise our levels of confidence in financial institutions by finding it difficult, apparently, to add up these sums: while the total is €67,000 or so, the bank’s statement announcing the research puts it at €70,000. Oh well.

What is clear from the information, however, is that education is expensive, and that even in a system that presents education as ‘free’, the cost is very substantial. It is easy to see that for families without significant resources education presents a very significant burden, and moreover that to allow a child to continue into third level may be just too much. In that setting, ‘free fees’ provide very little assistance, but the cost of offering this benefit to relatively wealthy families reduces the capacity of the state to give necessary additional support to the disadvantaged.

There are two key public policy objectives for education: to ensure that it is of the highest possible quality. and to ensure that all can avail of it. We are increasingly failing under both headings.

The impact of ‘free fees’

May 24, 2010

Regular readers of this blog know that I am most sceptical about the benefits claimed for the abolition of tuition fees in Ireland in the 1990s. A regular contributor to this blog, Kevin Denny of the Geary Institute in UCD, has now published a paper in which he analyses the impact of free fees. Whatever your views might be, it’s a very well argued piece and worth reading.

His main conclusion is that ‘free fees’ did not improve participation in higher education for those from a poorer background. Apart from explaining why this is so, he also looks at some of the issues arising from the Leaving Certificate and the impact these have on both disadvantage and gender.

A summary can be found here, and the full paper here.

In the end the evidence is overwhelming that free fees have not helped the disadvantaged enter higher education. They have however ensured a near-100 per cent participation by the wealthy. Middle income groups have benefited, but there are much more cost effective ways of achieving the same result.

The commitment by some Irish politicians to maintain free fees, in the context of a much greater understanding of the limitations of the scheme, is now much more about avoiding middle class anger at the polls than about doing something progressive. It’s a position that has to be brought to an end.

Higher education and class

August 26, 2009

In a quick follow-up to the post on this blog of last night, the Higher Education Authority has released figures that show the extent to which in Ireland the children of so-called ‘higher professionals’ (mainly doctors and lawyers) are hugely over-represented in the student body in degree programmes that lead to professional qualification. ‘Higher professionals’ make up 3 per cent of the population, but their children account for 33 per cent of medical students and 23 per cent of law students.

Leaving aside for a moment the discussion about professions and training for professional qualifications, what this shows us is that higher education continues to entrench class divides rather than overcome them. This is remarkable after  more than a decade of ‘free fees’, and underscores the point made previously that the abolition of fees may actually have harmed equality rather than enhanced it, as the state was unable to provide proper resources and support for disadvantaged students in part because it was spending too much money on free fees for the middle classes.

But whether I am right or wrong in my analysis, it is unacceptable that the system of higher education should be reinforcing privilege and wealth. A tertiary sector that is not manifestly offering opportunities regardless of class and background is not doing its job in a modern society.  This should be a priority concern for us all as we look again at our strategy for higher education.

The Labour view

March 21, 2009

As the discussion of tuition fees hots up, and in anticipation of the proposals which we understand the Minister for Education and Science is to put to the cabinet, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on education, Ruairi Quinn TD, was reported as saying the following:

‘I have no doubt that there is a funding crisis at third level, but slapping fees on families is not the way to address it. The resources for our education system, from junior infants to graduate school, should be sourced from the exchequer and should be funded by general taxation.’

That of course is where we are right now. The current position, introduced at the initiative of the Labour Party when it was last in a coalition government, is that in Ireland we have ‘free fees’ which means that the state pays tuition fees on behalf of all Irish and EU students. The fee levels are set in theory by the universities, but in practice by a government unilateral decision each year (these days generally not even preceded by notional consultation), and the recurrent grant (which makes up the rest of the funding package) is also unilaterally determined. University studies are free at the point of use (unless you are studying part-time), and are paid for by taxpayers.

This universal benefit approach to higher education has a lot to commend it in terms of general theory. It presents education at all levels as a social benefit which should be provided as a right (to those appropriately qualified), and it means that all those wanting to proceed to higher education can do so on the same financial basis. 

The major, and ultimately fatal, drawback of this is that the taxpayer quite simply and visibly cannot afford it. With participation levels exceeding 50 per cent, and indeed with a target of over 70 per cent, the cost of higher education has reached levels that have created serious affordability problems. The result is that the amount of taxpayer support per student has had to decline in real terms, to the point where it no longer covers the cost of a reasonable quality education. This has left universities and other providers in the quagmire between financial deficits and quality problems, and a situation where some institutions have become technically insolvent.

If we take the Labour Party’s position on all this at face value, what they are suggesting is that taxes need to increase to fund higher education. However, Ruairi Quinn is a former Minister for Finance (with a record of distinguised competence and vision in that role), and he knows well enough that any increased taxation cannot be ringfenced for higher education (or anything else). The result is that it is a running certainty that at any moment of economic stress the funds raised will be diverted to other causes, as is happening right now. The truth is that the taxpayer has a demonstrable record of unreliability as a funder of higher education, raising levels of support in good times while expecting even higher levels of throughput, and then dramatically cutting them in bad times. There is no real reason to believe that this would be any different if taxes were raised. Indeed, it is most unlikely that any government could declare that it was raising taxes to fund universities, as this would be electorally just as unpopular as introducing fees, even more so possibly as it would hit all earners, even those without any family members in higher education. So we would probably end up with a tax increase not declared to be for any particular purpose, leading to the situation where university leaders could not even make a public claim for ‘their’ money.

I understand the position of the Labour Party as a matter of principle. But it is a policy that has not worked in the past, and won’t work in the future. And just so as to deal with the possible claim that a different government would be more consistent and financially supportive, I would have to point out that the 1980s coalition government of which the Labour Party was a member cut funding for higher education just as brutally as other governments have done.

Universities need to escape from the current situation in which they cannot plan financially and cannot secure quality. It is a position which places the whole future of this country at risk, even if those who advocate the ‘free fees’ scheme do so for honourable reasons.

Fees – the debate continues

August 13, 2008

A day or two since Batt O’Keeffe TD, Minister for Education and Science, put third level fees ‘back on the agenda’, it is not entirely easy to see what the ‘agenda’ may be. According to the latest report in the Irish Times, the Minister may now even be suggesting that fees would be for millionaires only.

There are some worrying implications in such statements. First, there is no point having a framework for fees at all if we are only envisaging a very small number of people who would be asked to pay them. The cost and complications of such an infrastructure would be horrendous, and the game would not be worth the candle. Secondly, there is just a hint in all this that what the Minister may have in mind is a system under which fees are used to off-set the government’s contribution to the sector, rather than to add resources. Any hint that fees will be clawed back would make the whole idea useless in addressing the funding needs of the sector.

A sensible way of looking at fees is to identify three groups of people: (i) those who can afford to pay fees, either because of family incomes or through appropriate loan systems; (ii) those who cannot realistically afford to pay fees; and (iii) those who cannot afford to pay and who may also need additional financial support. There also needs to be an understanding that the purpose of introducing fees is to secure additional valuable resources for the third level sector.

It is to be hoped that the terms of the discussion will be set out shortly in a succinct manner.

Tuition fees and funding

August 12, 2008

After the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, that third level fees were ‘back on the agenda’, there has been a mixed reaction from politicians, as was to be expected. The reaction has been largely negative from the Opposition, and sceptical from some other government sources.

Nevertheless, it is good that we are to have a debate, and it is to be hoped that politicians will not be driven too much in this debate by a fear of how middle class voters may react. Maybe one way of starting such a debate with at least some point of consensus would be to agree that everyone wants to increase participation in third level education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to secure a world class higher education sector in Ireland, able to compete effectively in both teaching and research.

Whatever may happen in this debate, any benefits that may flow from it will not be felt for a year or two. But in the meantime we have a more immediate problem, and the stated intention by government to impose dramatic cuts on the sector, accompanied by greater bureaucratic controls, will if implemented cause severe damage, not just to universities but to Ireland’s economic infrastructure. To allow us to avoid a recession and to resume significant growth requires a successful higher education sector.

I would want to express my admiration for the Minister for having the courage to raise an issue which, as a country, we really do need to address. In passing, I might also pay tribute to Noel Dempsey, who raised this also when Minister earlier in the decade, and to Sean Flynn, Education Editor of the Irish Times, for his work in stimulating the debate. But we also have immediate needs, and we need to avoid a situation where Irish universities are crippled by financial burden just at a time when we need to support the country in its need to create a strong knowledge society and economy.

There are interesting times ahead.