Cherishing all the children of the nation equally
Deaglán de Bréadún
The row between the teachers’ unions and Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe has overshadowed the issue of third-level college fees. These were removed by the Rainbow Coalition in 1996 when Labour’s Niamh Bhreathnach had that portfolio. Six years ago now I wrote an opinion piece for The Irish Times giving my personal views on the importance of retaining the free-fees policy. With the state of the international and domestic economies the likelihood is that the good days are over. Students and/or their parents will have to stump up in future.
Already, college registration fees have been increased by two-thirds from €900 to €1500. And that’s only the minimum, there is usually an extra sum of money factored in for one reason or another.
What will replace free fees remains to be seen. There has been talk of an Australian-type structure whereby students get a loan from the State and pay it back when they get a job after graduation.
Fine Gael’s Education Spokesman Brian Hayes has put forward a similar idea except there would be no loan in advance. There would be a deduction from your pay-packet in the form of increased PRSI (Pay-Related Social Insurance) for a number of years. It’s not really PRSI but the system is in place and could be used without much trouble.
Another possibility, which I find appealing, is that new graduates would spend a year doing community work as a pay-off for their education. Or we could just keep the present system – which will be admittedly difficult, given the political and economic pressures. But it would be in line with the 1916 Proclamation’s aim of ”cherishing all the children of the nation equally” (although it was mainly referring to Orange and Green.)
At any rate, I reproduce my 2002 article in full below (if I give you the link you will get charged for looking at it). Not mad about the headline but some may find the content of interest:-
TIME TO TAX THE RICH TO PAY FOR COLLEGE
None of us would dream of imposing charges on people for using the public library. Sure, the books cost money, the staff have to be paid and there are construction and maintenance costs for the buildings, writes Deaglán de Bréadún .
But libraries are a public service. They exist to provide knowledge and education to everyone.
When public libraries were set up, I have no doubt that the idealists and pioneers behind them hoped they would break down the inequalities in society. The treasures of literature, formerly the preserve of the genteel classes, were now available to anyone who walked in off the street. But there was no quick fix, and I am not aware that anyone complained after the first five or 10 years that the system wasn’t working, people at the lowest income level still weren’t reading books, they should take money at the door and post books out to the deserving poor.
In their own way, libraries are as much part of the education system as the universities. Back in 1995 the minister for education, Niamh Bhreathnach, decided that third-level education should be free and abolished university fees. Like running the libraries, it was not a cost-free exercise. The fees had to be made up from the public purse. But it established a great liberating principle: the knowledge and qualifications available in the universities were now free at undergraduate level to every eligible person, just as the public libraries were available to everyone who could read.
Surprisingly little was made of the decision at the time; indeed it was widely disparaged as a cynical and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to purchase the middle-class vote for the Labour Party.
There was a much greater fuss about the introduction of free secondary education by the legendary Donogh O’Malley. I have been told by another member of that cabinet that this historic decision was taken by O’Malley in consultation with the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, while the minister for finance, Jack Lynch, was on holiday!
As a journalist and trade unionist I am proud to discover that O’Malley made his announcement at a conference of the National Union of Journalists on September 10th, 1966. He was introduced by an esteemed colleague and former industrial correspondent of The Irish Times, Patrick Nolan. Pointing out that 17,000 children were finishing their education for good at primary level every year, the minister said: “This is a dark stain on the national conscience.”
Well, he removed that stain, with the result that the country acquired a well-educated workforce which was ready to grab the tail of the Celtic Tiger as soon as it loped into view.
If enlightened government leaders could decide on a dramatic expansion of educational opportunity less than half-a-century after independence, what excuse is there for backing down now, when Ireland is prosperous and successful beyond the wildest dreams of Pearse, MacDonagh, Lemass and O’Malley?
One of the arguments is that dropping fees did not increase the number of students from the lowest-income groups over the past seven years. It is a very short period on which to base a judgment. But it appears – indeed it stands to reason – that the lower-income PAYE groups are benefiting from the change.
I am humbled when I think of how my parents’ generation scrimped and saved and worked themselves to the bone to pay for their children’s education. Today’s parents, even in the absence of third-level fees, are also put to the pin of their collar to keep Johnny and Sinéad in that flat in Dublin or Limerick and ensure they have clothes on their back as well as enough to eat and have a night out. Meanwhile, last summer’s sneaky 69 per cent increase makes the registration charge look like fees by another name.
Instead of being praised for their commitment to their children’s education and their willingness to make any sacrifice for the next generation, a bizarre form of class war has been declared on these parents. They seem to have become a surrogate for the truly rich, including the tax-dodgers and the wide boys with illicit offshore accounts.
I have always felt very strongly that the opposition to free tuition was based on social snobbery. That layer of society which can comfortably afford to pay does not want the layer immediately below them to catch up. There is an element in the professional and moneyed classes which does not want its offspring competing with the hungrier and frequently-brighter children of civil servants, teachers, middle managers and gardaí.
It is unfair to force a “guilt trip” on these people by saying that resources should be devoted to primary or secondary level instead of university when the problem should be dealt with by allocating more funds to education as a whole, at whatever level, paid for by increased and fully-enforced taxes on those who can afford to pay them.
More recently, the idea of fees has given way to student loans but, at a time when many young people are giving up on ever owning a house, the notion of having to stump up for college fees at the start of your working career is a burden too far. A review group is reporting on the issue shortly, but the Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey, should look instead to the example of Donogh O’Malley. When is Charlie McCreevy taking his holidays?
Friday 27 December 2002
© 2002 The Irish Times