Posted tagged ‘middle income earners’

Tuition fees and middle income earners

May 29, 2009

Harvard University got mentioned here yesterday, and today I shall do so again – but in a different context. It’s to do with tuition fees. But before I do so, let me go back first to remind us where we are in relation to one particular anticipated development in Ireland.

As readers will be aware, the Irish government is considering the reintroduction of higher education tuition fees. The Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, indicated in the summer of 2008 that he wanted to examine the fees issue, and since then he has made a number of¬†further¬†comments, clearly indicating that he favours the reintroduction of fees for those who can afford them, but promising also to make then family-friendly in the light of tax increases and other burdens imposed by the current recession.

It is not necessary to rehearse again all the arguments concerning fees, which I have covered a few times before. It may be worth pointing out however that while ‘free fees’ have done little or nothing to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they did allow people from what are often referred to as ‘middle income’ groups to go to university without either placing an excessive financial burden on their families or amassing unacceptable levels of debt. To that extent, there is a genuine issue to be addressed, if fees are to be reintroduced, of how this can be achieved without creating unmanageable obstacles for middle income earners.

And this is where my reference to Harvard comes in. Harvard charges some of the highest fees for a university education that can be found anywhere in the world, but it is very conscious of the need to maintain access to its programmes for all people with the necessary intellectual qualifications, regardless of their means. Two years ago it introduced what it described as a ‘middle income initiative’, targeted at all families with incomes below $180,000, but with the undertaking in particular that those with incomes below $60,000 would not be asked to contribute towards the fees at all.

It seems clear to me that, in establishing a framework for fees, we must also pay attention to the need to attract and support those from low income groups, and to ensure that there are no excessive obstacles for students from middle income groups. This can best be achieved by maintaining the state’s block grant to the institutions, while also placing an obligation on universities to ensure that all students are given access and that financial arrangements are made to ensure this is feasible. There will, I think, still need to be a combination of fees, loans and grants (or scholarships), but I believe it will be possible to provide a higher education system that is both effectively funded and equitable.

It is time, I think, for the debate on all this to be moved into the public arena. Right now we still don’t have any idea what the Minister is proposing, or when he is proposing it. This has prevented an intelligent discussion, and that phase needs to be brought to an end.