The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) is sometimes described as Ireland’s largest higher education institution; whether this description fits depends a little on how you count the students, but it is certainly big by Irish standards. Over the decades DIT has been assembled by merging a variety of different institutions and colleges around Dublin, some of them coming to the mix with a very specific mission and portfolio. It has its own degree awarding powers (having previously taken its degrees from Trinity College Dublin, or to be precise, from the University of Dublin), and for some time it has been seeking university status. But it also has a number of students studying for sub-degree qualifications. As it is spread around Dublin with a large number of different locations, it has probably been difficult to create a collegiate ethos – but that is about to change, perhaps, with the government’s announced plans to locate all the elements of DIT in one location in Grangegorman, North Dublin.
Since 2003 the President of DIT has been Professor Brian Norton. Though a respected leader and a strong consensus builder, he has not always been in the media spotlight. However, the Sunday Business Post ran an interview with him last weekend, and in this he revealed his opposition to, or at any rate his scepticism about, the reintroduction of tuition fees. He argued that if fees returned the revenues from them would simply be clawed back in their entirety by the government. But more generally he summarised his position as follows:
‘Focusing on the fees is a very odd place to start the discussion. There needs to be a policy debate about how higher education is funded, not about whether or not fees are charged. In a complex system of higher education, you can’t just change one thing without looking at the overall impact.’
The argument that fees will not help the institutions because the government will just reduce its contribution accordingly may possibly turn out to be right, though probably only partly so – the more likely scenario lies somewhere in between, with the government reducing its contribution but not to the full extent of the fees paid. But even if the DIT president were right, it would not make it a bad proposition, as it would give the institutions much greater direct control over funding and make them much less vulnerable to sudden government cuts. But his wider argument is a very curious one, as he suggests that the discussion about fees has been taking place in the absence of a debate about higher education funding. This is plainly absurd, as there have been detailed analyses of funding, not least in the OECD report on Irish higher education; and it is because these investigations have seen no other realistic options that the return of tuition fees has been recommended. In any case, those advocationg tuition fees (including this writer) have always placed the call in that wider context.
I guess that all this is partly to be seen in the context of the maybe slightly different perspective on all this in the institute of technology sector, where there may be fears that fees could have a problematic impact on student recruitment. That should be taken seriously in the debate, as the success of the IOT sector is important for Irish higher education. But it is not perhaps helpful to suggest that support for the reintroduction of tuition fees has not been placed into the context of higher education funding – it has never been handled in any other way. Nobody (myself included) wants fees just for their own sake. Rather, the argument is that higher education is being starved of funding, and that too much of the money that is being paid into the system is being spent on subsidising students from wealthier backgrounds, to the detriment of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is the context of the discussion.