Posted tagged ‘student registration charge’

Steadying Irish higher education

August 21, 2011

Over the past few days in Ireland there has been some talk about the possible education – and higher education – reforms that may now be planned by the government. This was prompted by a report in the Irish Independent giving details of a paper submitted last year by the Department of Education to the Department of Finance. The context of the paper was the continuing public funding crisis in Ireland, and therefore the search for savings.

The authors of the paper had suggested that what has previously been known as the ‘student registration charge’ (but which under the last Budget of the Fianna Fail/Greens administration was actually designated the ‘student contribution charge’) might rise to €3,000 per annum. Around the same time, as we have already noted in this blog, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, indicated the there would not be a proposal for a student loan system to fund tuition fees.

The memorandum reported by the Irish Independent probably cannot be seen as representing government policy, in that it was part of the search for a Budget savings by the last government. Nevertheless, the overall mood music now is that there is a serious funding gap, that the taxpayer cannot afford to fill it, and that student contributions may be unavoidable. While this latter point has not ben confirmed by the government, it has not been denied either.

However, important though a solution to the funding crisis is, there is more to be done. The higher education system in Ireland has been subjected to unprecedented criticism and hostility over recent months; its community is facing low morale, enormous pressures due to the consequences of the employment control framework and its impact on staffing levels, and a lack of self-confidence. This is damaging in part because higher education is the key ingredient of economic recovery, and it needs some nurturing and support.

It is important that the structural and financial changes to be introduced in the Irish higher education system proceed quickly, so that stability and sustainability can return. Doing so is ultimately in the national interest.

An Irish higher education export to Scotland?

April 9, 2011

Higher education has turned out to be one of the key issues in the Scottish election campaign that is now fully under way. Three of the four main parties have entered into pledges and commitments not to introduce tuition fees, but in consequence they are now rather struggling with the question of how the universities can be adequately funded so that they are able to compete with those in England and elsewhere. The parties accept that there is a ‘funding gap’ that needs to be bridged, but how this is to be done (or indeed how big that gap actually is) has not yet become clear.

One idea that appears to have caught the attention of the outgoing Scottish National Party (SNP) government is something taken from Ireland: the student registration charge. As readers of this blog will know, this charge has been around in Irish higher education since tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s, and its purpose originally was to provide a small student contribution to cover various non-tuition services. Over the years the charge has increased steadily, and unless the new Irish government changes things it will be €2,000 from this autumn.

The SNP, however, seems to have misunderstood the charge. Apparently they believe that it is being, or could be, charged to non-Irish EU students only. In other words, just as Scotland is proposing to make English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students pay a tuition fee not payable by Scottish students, so they would levy a registration charge payable by non-UK students from the European Union, apparently believing that such a charge, if it covers specific costs only, would not be contrary to EU law.

But of course the Irish student registration charge (now a ‘student contribution charge’) applies to all students, very much including Irish ones; and any attempt in Scotland to introduce such a charge for non-UK students only would undoubtedly violate European Union law. Charging English students is a different matter, as this does not involve discrimination against citizens of other member states and therefore falls outside the scope of EU law.

Some Scottish university principals (most recently the Principal of Dundee University) have argued that the parties are making promises on tuition fees that they cannot keep. Whether this is true or not, there are certainly signs that they are somewhat confused about university funding issues. So far Scottish universities may have been hit by funding cuts, but their position is not yet as unsustainable as that of many of their English counterparts. The current confusion and the rush to promise things without maybe fully appreciating the consequences is a worrying feature of the situation. Election campaigns often don’t help to bring some rational thought into the issues, but that is what is now urgently needed.

Student contribution to rise to €2,000: introducing tuition fees?

November 24, 2010

As part of its four-year National Recovery Plan (to which I shall return later) the government has announced that the student registration charge will be replaced by a ‘higher education student contribution’ (page 120), and the amount to be paid will rise from the current level of €1,500 to €2,000; this is a smaller increase from what had been anticipated, though still a very substantial one. And in the process we appear to have introduced tuition fees, without any major discussion of the plan.

It may be that this will be explained as an increase of the existing charge, but it isn’t that. First, the name change suggests something different; and secondly, the sum is now higher than can easily be justified by non-tuition costs.

I am, as I have said repeatedly, in favour of tuition fees, but even I am surprised at their sudden appearance. One wonders whether the Greens will support this.

More on this later.

That’ll be €3,000, please

November 1, 2010

According to reports in the media over the weekend, the Irish government has decided, or perhaps is about to decide, to replace the current student registration charge (discussed recently in this blog) with a new ‘student contribution‘, or else that the current charge will remain but be increased substantially. All reports appear to assume that the cost to students will double from the current €1,500 per annum to €3,000.

As these reports are now circulating widely, it would make sense to place whatever plans there may be into the open so that they can be discussed and assessed. If the plan is to increase the registration charge I am opposed to it, because such an increased charge will raise funds in excess of the costs of the items they are supposed to defray, and this will tempt or force institutions to engage in opaque accounting. If what is proposed is the establishment of tuition fees, then that is (in my opinion) a step in the right direction, but the terms and conditions will need to be properly assessed and there will need to be a framework for addressing inability to pay and resulting matters.

In the meantime, Fine Gael appears to remain committed to a ‘graduate tax’, which in my view is not a good proposition.

Now that the issue has been raised publicly, it is important that the plans, if any, are properly discussed. It is to be hoped that university representatives will be properly consulted.

Keeping fees straightforward and transparent

October 28, 2010

For readers who are not immediately familiar with the Irish higher education system, it may be worth saying briefly that there are no tuition fees, but there are charges known as the ‘registration charge’ or the ‘student services charge’. This was introduced shortly after tuition fees were abolished, and at first was fairly nominal in amount. The purpose was that the charge would help universities defray the cost of services other than tuition. Over the years this charge increased in amount, and on occasion the government raised the charge at the same time as lowering the recurrent grant. Most recently, in 2009, the charge was increased from €900 to €1,500. At around the same time questions were asked of the universities about how the money raised was being spent, and whether any of it was actually defraying the cost of tuition.

In yesterday’s Irish Independent there was a report suggesting that, in the light of further budget cuts to higher education now anticipated in the December Budget and Book of Estimates, there could be a further substantial rise in the student registration (or services) charge. Should this happen, then the charge will be bigger than tuition fees in some countries that have fees. But they will be less useful to the universities, who will be unable to apply them to support academic and teaching costs.

Much though I am  in favour of tuition fees for those who can afford them (as readers of this blog will know), I am strongly opposed to fudging the issue by introducing fees but calling them something else and restricting their use. The university ‘business’ that is now being placed at risk is teaching, and to demand ever higher contributions from students but stipulating that they cannot be used to support teaching is bizarre and lacks basic transparency, and moreover tempts the universities into using them in questionable ways. It would make much more sense, as a first move, to introduce fees at the level at which ministers are now apparently contemplating the registration charge. Let us at least be honest about what we are doing; the current (and possibly planned) scheme makes no sense and really encourages dishonesty regarding university funding. It should stop.

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.

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.

Tuition fees by the back door?

November 22, 2009

There has been a certain amount of media coverage of the claim by Trinity College Dublin Students Union that at least some of the student registration charge, which is intended to pay for student services, is being used by TCD to pay for other things through the general budget. The TCD Students Union apparently has claimed that some €310 of the total charge of €1,500 is being used by the college ‘in lieu of HEA cuts’. According to reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, TCD has denied this and has stated that the charge only covers 80-85 per cent of the total cost of relevant student services.

I cannot of course speak for Trinity College, but I can say that in DCU the actual costs of student services have always significantly exceeded the income from the student registration charge; so if it is a question of demonstrating that the charge is not greater than is warranted by the costs of the services provided, it will not be difficult to establish this conclusively. But that probably isn’t the whole issue. In part, what this little row is about is whether in the context of a system that promises ‘free fees’ (however misguided such a promise may be) it is acceptable to require students to pay what is now a fairly substantial charges for services. And as government funding is cut, it is understandable that students may be asking whether the student registration charge is being used for general funding purposes to make up for some of the now missing money.

I suppose that in the general setting of budget cuts and operational restrictions on universities, it is difficult for any of us to turn down this charge. And yet I have been and am uneasy about it. It helps us all to fudge the issue of funding and to kick real solutions ahead of us. It also needs to be said that if there is a student registration and services charge, then the rate should be determined by each institution on the basis of the audited costs of student services; there should be no bar on different charges between institutions. And definitely, the amount should not be set by government.

We need to take a whole lot of fundamental strategic decisions about the future of higher education. So let us stop fudging the various issues and address the financial problems we now face. And if there are to be tuition fees (which I, as readers will probably know support), then let us be straightforward about that and introduce them – but trying to part-introduce them by subverting an existing measure seems to me to be unacceptable.