Posted tagged ‘tuition’

Tuition fees: facing up to reality

July 1, 2008

In this post of a couple of weeks ago I drew attention to the funding problems facing Irish universities; I pointed out that it was unlikely that we would resolve the problems unless those students who can afford to pay contribute to the cost of their university education, and that we would fall further and further behind internationally. Last year DCU entered the top 300 universities in the Times Higher world rankings for the first time. But while we may rise a few more places, our funding environment will absolutely prevent us from entering the top 50 or so. And even Trinity College Dublin, the highest ranked Irish university at 53, will not be able to advance much beyond that without the kind of income enjoyed by US and (increasingly) British universities. It is notable that not a single university in the world’s top 20 derives its income for teaching solely or even significantly from state grants.

When tuition fees were abolished in Ireland in the late 1990s (or rather, when the state took over responsibility for them in the ‘free fees’ programme), it was done for entirely laudable reasons, to do with the desire to make access to higher education affordable to the disadvantaged and to ensure that education is not seen as a commodity. But even then many commentators correctly predicted what would happen: that the taxpayer would be unable to resource a growing student population adequately and that universities, relying excessively on just one funding source, would become unable to develop and innovate at the appropriate speed. In the decade since then, the income per student in real terms has dropped dramatically, and by 2008 virtually all universities are in very serious financial crisis – while still managing, just about, to maintain quality.

In fact, even the social objectives of ‘free fees’ have not been achieved. While participation has grown, the increase in numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds owes very little to ‘free fees’, or indeed more generally to state initiatives, but almost everything to the very successful and expensive access programmes that the universities themselves have put in place and secured with private funding. In the meantime, public money that could be targeted at the disadvantaged is being spent on the education of the more affluent. The big winners have been private secondary schools, as parents who would previously have spent their money on the university education of their children have redirected it to secondary schools – the main losers being good state-funded schools.

All in all, it is arguable that the abolition of tuition fees has been one of the most notable examples of redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich. While those who have supported it have done so from noble motives, the policy itself has, if analysed closely, been morally indefensible.  In the meantime, most politicians acknowledge privately that the abolition of tuition fees was wrong, but are afraid of the wrath of middle class voters should they do anything about it.

However difficult this subject may be, it is time for a re-think. As we face harder times economically, it is time to be courageous and imaginative and to correct this mistake, honourably made but with appalling consequences. Then maybe we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.