Posted tagged ‘student service charge’

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.

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.