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.