Posted tagged ‘student services charge’

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.