Posted tagged ‘Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science’

Paying for student services

January 29, 2010

Yesterday (Thursday, January 28) all seven Irish university presidents, the CEO of the Irish Universities Association and the CEO of the Higher Education Authority all appeared before the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science. The topic? We were being asked about whether we were spending the student services charge (or student registration charge, now standing at €1,500) appropriately. There was some fairly robust questioning, prompted in part by the suggestion made in a letter from all seven student union presidents that financial information on this had not been consistent and that money was possibly being spent inappropriately on things other than student services.

A fair amount of time was taken by committee members trying to ascertain whether the categories of services for which the charge could be used had been added to by the universities without proper decisions being taken. In reality of course in each university the revenues from the charge are taken together with all other revenues, including fees paid by the state, fees paid by international students, the recurrent grant paid by the state, and all other income; and from that total sum a budget is constructed. Items supported by the charge are not budgeted separately. However, all the universities have ensured that the total revenues from the charge have not exceeded the cost of the services for which it can be used.

At the hearing, the presidents agreed that the student services charge is a ‘fee’. albeit not a ‘tuition fee’. It amounts to a part of the universities’ overall income and helps to pay for core services and activities. It was introduced first in 1996 at the time of the abolition of tuition fees, and probably represented an after-thought by the then government based on the fear that the abolition of fees might create excessive financial pressures for the universities unless there was at least a minor student contribution, which was then described as a contribution to specific student services unrelated to tuition. But once this had been introduced, it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a blurring of the distinction between it and tuition fees in the years ahead. The student services charge always contained within the seeds of the confusion we are now facing.

The position we are in is wholly unsatisfactory and cannot last for long. We have no tuition fees, but we have a student charge that looks like a fee and, in reality, is a fee. As the government reduces its contribution to the universities and raises the student services charge, the inevitability is that it takes on all the characteristics of a full fee, and in this case a fee in which the students are replacing previous government funding rather than adding value to it. It is easy to understand student representatives who assert that this is a subterfuge. All I can say is that we are being quite open in agreeing that this is a fee, while however continuing to emphasise that it is not higher than the cost of services.

But it would be far preferable to have a proper tuition fee, because then we will be honest about what we are doing and how we are funding higher education, and moreover we can then make available supports (such as loans) that will make the fee more affordable. The current framework is not, in my view, a subterfuge (in that nobody is pretending to do one thing while actually doing another), but it is not fully honest either, because it amounts to the reintroduction of fees by stealth. If we want to fund higher education in part by fees or other student contributions (and I for one do), then let’s say that and do it properly.

The right Department?

May 10, 2009

The following exchange took place last week, on May 7, between the Labour Party spokesperson on education and science and the Minister at a meeting of the (Irish Parliament) Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science:

Deputy Ruairí Quinn:    Other countries have separated the third level sector from the school sector because of the relationship between enterprise and employment and research and development. Many in the education sector to whom I have spoken in the past year regard Marlboro Street as the Department for schools, primary and secondary, and the VEC. They believe there is a disconnect and inequality in the relationship because of the role of the HEA. Is there merit in integrating the three in order to have a proper working Department of Education and Science, or should there be a complete separation to take the HEA out of the remit of the Department of Education and Science and move it to that of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as happened, for example, with Science Foundation Ireland? There seems to be a schizophrenic relationship between the Department of Education and Science and the third level sector, as evidenced by the Minister’s manifest distrust of the value for money that the university sector provides.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe:    My experience is that the Department of Education and Science is all-embracing. It is important to have a continuum in education from primary through secondary into third level. The three should be integrated. I see good integration throughout the sector. I am quite satisfied that the Department is all-embracing in respect of the third level sector. It is important that the education sector was put in place and I am satisfied that it carries out its remit effectively.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn:    Other countries have separated the third level sector from the school sector because of the relationship between enterprise and employment and research and development. Many in the education sector to whom I have spoken in the past year regard Marlboro Street as the Department for schools, primary and secondary, and the VEC. They believe there is a disconnect and inequality in the relationship because of the role of the HEA. Is there merit in integrating the three in order to have a proper working Department of Education and Science, or should there be a complete separation to take the HEA out of the remit of the Department of Education and Science and move it to that of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as happened, for example, with Science Foundation Ireland? There seems to be a schizophrenic relationship between the Department of Education and Science and the third level sector, as evidenced by the Minister’s manifest distrust of the value for money that the university sector provides.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe:    My experience is that the Department of Education and Science is all-embracing. It is important to have a continuum in education from primary through secondary into third level. The three should be integrated. I see good integration throughout the sector. I am quite satisfied that the Department is all-embracing in respect of the third level sector. It is important that the education sector was put in place and I am satisfied that it carries out its remit effectively.

This is an issue I have raised also in this blog in a post last July. The Minister’s view expressed above that there is (or should be) a ‘continuum in education’ is not without logic, but in practice the operation of higher education is totally different from that of primary and secondary education. Universities do have education as a part of their core mission, but they are also bodies that address cultural and economic regeneration, enterprise creation, development of intellectual property, and so forth. In practice even well-meaning government officials charged with overseeing primary and secondary education tend to apply the same basic assumptions to the third level sector. This is not a criticism of either politicians or civil servants, it is simply an inevitability.

The Minister has expressed his view, but it would be helpful if this issue were to be subjected to a more wide-ranging analysis, including a consideration of the experience of placing higher education under different government oversight in the countries where that has been attempted.