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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 2, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    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:-  


    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

    • BetterWorld Now says:

      Do I detect a change in attitude on your part between 2002 and 2008?

      In 2002 you were all for free third-level education, today you are willing to accept that the “economy” can be used to justify increased educational exclusion? Perhaps your own children are now on the far side of the third-level financial squeeze and the sacrifice has not got the same immediacy?

      Either free education is a good thing or it isn’t. Once we decide on that, how we pay for it is a matter for general taxation.

      In a broader context, is it ever justifiable that a right won by the citizens through the election of a minister committed to furthering education is withdrawn because we find that a bunch of speculators have got their hands burnt on the property market and now, miraculously, have first call on the public purse? I suggest not. And if the citizens were ever allowed to vote on this issue I believe that they too would be unequivocal in their opposition to any bailout of speculators.

      Meanwhile, in other countries who have already outstripped our general educational attainment levels, fourth-level education (post graduate) is already free. In other countries third-level education is being brought out into the community in recognition of the need to overcome social exclusion.

      Congratulating ourselves for preserving our free second-level access whilst accepting that the already limited access there is to free third-level education is a luxury to be sacrificed is very far from the leading edge of progress in this field, and shows how retarded our development can be when ultimately financed by gambling on the markets.

    • Deirdre says:

      Hi Deaglan,

      I agree with your sentiment with regard to equality of opportunity.

      However, as someone who has worked within student politics and has seen first-hand the attitude of many Irish students towards education, in comparison to that of students who pay, I feel that the return of fees for high-earning families would not be a bad thing.

      Free fees are not enough to attract genuinely-disadvantaged students to college. They need help from primary school level to realise that a college education is something to which they can and should aspire. Also, they must still pay for rent, books, equipment and all the other costs that accompany independent living. Even if they do get a maintenance grant, that is nowhere near the amount required to fund them, and many will encounter problems just trying to remain in the system.

      There is also a huge cohort of students who narrowly miss the grant threshold, but who are struggling.

      Why give a fee free education to students who attend fee-paying schools, drive to college in their own SUVs, and will be family-funded no matter how many courses they drop out of or how many times they fail?

      Equality is the cornerstone of a fair society, but in the current fee free situation, some people are more equal than others.


    • ntab says:

      Well, I disagree with this. If university is free it should be open to everyone, the way secondary school is. It is not open to everyone, and currently, the rich and the hungry children of civil servants and teachers are going at much higher rates than the children of the poor. Part of this is that the rich and, to a lesser extent, the civil servants have had their cash freed up for grind schools.

      Free fees were supposed to make university more accessible to lower socio-economic strata. They haven’t. So why must we subsidise rich students availing of a privilege they can well afford to pay for?

      I am opposed to free fees, but it has nothing to do with social snobbery, as you suggest. (My father was a bus-driver who left school at 13. I have a Master’s degree, because he emigrated to the US, where there are many financial aid options.) I am opposed to free fees because the only people who seem to be making it to college are the middle-class and the rich, and free fees haven’t changed that.

      If you had free fees and a university system that was genuinely open to everyone, I’d be all for it. But that’s not what we’ve got here.

    • Deaglán says:

      I still strongly favour free third-level education but this government is clearly intent on ending that system. Public opinion doesn’t seem to care and, rather depressingly, media opinion seems to be strongly in favour of ending the current system even though journalists’ families will be among those who will lose out (what’s the psychology of that, I wonder). Given the economic situation and the fact that we don’t live in one of your “socialist paradises”, my dear Betterworld, the best hope is that we end up with the least-worst option and I am exploring what that might be in this blog. The notion of an extra financial imposition on graduates when they get into a job has its attractions. After all, the lorry-driver and the dock-labourer are currently paying for the education of all classes of society at third-level. There are other complications of course: the way the self-employed are able to get grants for their kids while the PAYE people are shafted. Thus a bartender might not be able to send his child to college whereas the bar-owner can apparently massage his taxes so that his kid is eligible. There is the further issue of the alleged grandiosity of certain senior college execs that I have been hearing about. I am open to your guidance on this issue, folks (as on all others, of course!).

    • in says:

      The loan option won’t come in because, guess what, that requires capital to loan out to students. The Department of Finance, in these belt-tightening times won’t go with that.
      So what else is there? Re-introducing fees?
      The Minister claimed he wanted to tax the 33,000 millionaires or those who earn over €100,000 per annum. Well that won’t solve the funding crisis in our universities because it would only raise a few million. These funds would be reduced by the cost of the bureaucracy required to run the means-testing. Remember, the Minister’s mate got his sums all wrong on this one!
      So what else is left?
      Brian Hayes’s PRSI idea. Well that just sounds silly because we could just tax those who earn the most from their third-level degrees more. We may as well call a spade a spade and make income tax for high earners high. What reasons are there in support of this method?
      As child benefit and free fees show, the best defence for any welfare measure in this country is to make it universal and to give it to the middle classes. That’s why we tolerate such a crap health system in this country- because the middle classes don’t use it. They have private insurance instead.
      But only the middle classes get to third level some say? That’s not the fault of free fees – that’s the fault of an underfunded grants system. This should be paid for by progressive taxation – simple as. It is disingenuous to portray supporters of free fees as supportive of middle-class subsidies.
      On a final note, the university presidents are not on the same hymn sheet as the Government. The Govt wants to cut exchequer funding for third level while throwing the universities a bone. But at the end of the day, fees wont plug the gap of the universities. All this talk of world-class universities is never going to happen with fees.
      So why bother making third level even less equitable with a half-baked funding measure? Because this right-wing government wants to cut spending and doesn’t care about our education system. And that’s a fact.

    • Joanna Tuffy T.D. says:


      I remember your article very well. I was the Labour Party Seanad Spokesperson on Education then and I too had an article published in The Irish Times about the issue in 2002. The main point of my article was this: that according to studies by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) between 1980 and 1992, the children of all but three social groups out of 11 improved their participation rate in college. The three social groups were the Lower Professional, Salaried Employees, Intermediate Non-Manual workers – all low-to-middle-income PAYE workers. The participation rate of children from the three social groups concerned not only did not improve but worsened from the years 1986 to 1992. By 1998 a year after the abolition of third level tuition fees the HEA report found that the decline in participation by each of these groups had been reversed. You made the same point in your original article when you said that the lower income PAYE groups appeared to be benefiting most from free fees. This trend has been shown to have continued by the most recent studies by the HEA. For example between 1998 and 2004 participation in third level by school leavers from Clondalkin in my constituency went up from 12 per cent to 22 per cent. That does not include those from Clondalkin schools that attended college through Access Programmes that are aimed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That brings me to my main point – the abolition of third level fees widened participation at third level and that was its purpose. It was based on the view that education was a right. It was in keeping with the call by James Connolly for “Free Education up to the Highest University Grades”.

      There is a political viewpoint that we need more equality and not less during this recession and that particularly includes access to education and health care. I think you may be wrong that the public don’t care. The Government probably thought that about the medical card for over seventies. The protestors however were protesting to retain universality. The medical card for over 70′s had become a right as far as most people were concerned. It seems from world history that voters are more open to political ideology based on values of equality and solidarity in harder economic times and that may be one of the reasons Obama won. It was apparently why the British Labour Party had a landslide victory in 1945 and had a mandate to bring in social insurance and to set up the NHS.

      These examples were given by Eamon Gimore at the weekend when he spoke of governments that have taken a different approach to our Government. The alternative political viewpoint sees investing more not less in education as a means to bring us out of recession. We need to improve levels of educational attainment across our society if we are to compete in the global economy and ensure our people have jobs. This type of view point underpinned the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the British Labour Party after the second World War. It is why Obama and the European Union are arguing for economic stimulus. Economic growth that would result would be more sustainable in the long run.

      Just a note there was a source of funding that paid towards and continues to pay towards the abolition of fees. In 1996 the Government abolished the tax covenanting scheme that was used by many rich people to pay for college fees. According to a PQ reply I obtained recently the abolition of that tax shelter has saved the state millions each year.

    • Deaglán says:

      I can now reveal, as they say in certain publications, that the source of my information about O’Malley and Lemass bringing in free secondary education while Lynch was on holidays was … the late Charles Haughey. Brian Farrell also has the story in his book “Chairman or Chief”.

    • dealga says:

      Free fees education for all to any level attainable should be the goal of any developed society. But how that goal is achieved should be fair and equitable and, in the case of free fees at third level in Ireland, it demonstrably isn’t.

      Free fees assumes that the third level institutions are well funded. It also assumes that the courses on offer are of an acceptable standard nationally and internationally and that there are enough places on courses to let those who deserve a place in, while keeping those who have not earned a place out. Can we say all that about Irish third level institutions?

      Furthermore it assumes that the second-level system is equitable. It isn’t. How is it fair that the well-off can pay for their children to go to private schools, and/or get private tuition and/or pay for specialist exam grind-schools eight weeks before the Leaving Cert, to make sure Little Johnny finishes ahead of the pack in the points-race, then avail of free fees at third level?

      Personally I think children that attend fee-paying schools should automatically forego the right to free third-level education

      Lastly it is clearly unfair that the taxes paid by lower income workers are partially used to a) fund the education of wealthier people’s children and b) potentially fund the education of people who, within as little as three years, could be earning a lot more than them.

    • Deaglán says:

      The idea that those who attend fee-paying schools should be also be liable for college fees has a certain crude egalitarian attraction, no doubt about that.
      I have mixed views on the issue of parents who spend extra money on their children’s education. Are they not more admirable than the ones who waste the money on drink or fritter it away on selfish holidays in the sun? This issue has a lot of angles.

    • Keith says:

      Ruairi Quinn, who was Finance Minister at the time, has told me in the past that the introduction of free fees only cost about £5m net because of all the tax breaks for third level education payments (bursaries, grants, neighbours paying for each other’s children’s educations, etc) that were abolished at the time.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglán, I understand your ambivalence about parents who pump-prime their children’s education – but I say ‘good luck’ to them. I’d just make sure that education was about the only thing they were allowed to bequeath to their children by vastly increasing inheritance taxes.

      The transfer of learning (and access to learning) from one generation to the next is the basis of a learning society and is to be encouraged and promoted by government policy. In contrast, the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next has the effect of perpetuating inequality, and, in a period of economic growth (as we experienced in the last decade), wildly exacerbating that inequality.

      Allowing the toxic mix of pump-primed education and inter-generational capital transfer, as we currently do, is the root of the corrosion eating at the heart of Irish society.

      Education should be a key component of a process of resetting the inequality index for each new generation, not part of the means to perpetuate and increase it. That is why the government needs to fund education from general taxation “up to the highest levels”.

      As for grants – all government supports should apply equally to all citizens, targeting support only creates poverty-traps and they in turn perpetuate inequality. Give universally and tax universally – apart from any other consideration, this at least has the advantage of minimal administration costs.

      Rather than grants for some and free fees and top-ups for others, I’d like to see a lifetime educational fund allocated to each citizen to spend on education as they see fit, and paid for from increased inheritance tax. That way, you level up the playing field and encourage the meritorious to prosper. Only when each person in society has achieved their maximum potential, will the society have achieved it smaximum potential.

      Anything less is just the rich protecting their advantage at the expense of the poor, however they choose to disguise it.

    • Deaglán says:

      I like the idea of a lifetime educational fund. Taxing heavily is the way they pay for education, good pensions, etc., in the Scandinavian countries. Not sure it would work in Ireland.

    • Joanna Tuffy T.D. says:


      Just to back up the statement I made about the Higher Education Authority analysis of increased participation in third level the following is an extract from a press statement issued by the HEA in 2006. This statement relates to the most recent report by the HEA Who Went to College in 2004. The next report will be in relation to 2008 college entrants. From enquiries I have made there was a higher level of acceptance of college places this year. This has been attributed in newspaper reports to the increase in unemployment. It makes sense for people in today’s economic climate to choose college as a way of improving their chances of getting a job in the future. Why would a sensible Government that wants to bring us out of recession bring in a measure, i.e., tuition fees, that might deter them from making this choice?

      Higher Education Participation makes impressive gains according to HEA Report

      For release Thursday 2 March 2006 – 12.00 hrs Participation in higher education in Ireland has increased by an impressive 11% since 1998 and is now 55%. All socio-economic groups have benefited. This is particularly so for the Skilled Manual Group which has almost doubled their participation in higher education to a range of 50-60% compared to 32% in 1998. The Semi and Unskilled Socio-Economic Group has also made a considerable advance – from 23% to between 33-40% over the same period. At 71%, Sligo is the county with the highest rate of admission to higher education and there has been a 13% increase in the rate of admission for Dublin. Seven out of every 10 (68.3%) of those who sat the Leaving Certificate entered some form of higher education.

      These findings are contained in the HEA commissioned report (the fifth in the series) Who Went to College in 2004? A National Survey of New Entrants to Higher Education compiled by Philip O’Connell and Selina McCoy of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and David Clancy of Fitzpatrick Associates. When entrants to higher education institutions in Northern Ireland are included, the national figure for participation in higher education reaches 56%; and rises further to close to 60% when entrants to Colleges in Great Britain are added.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks Joanna, those figures are very heartening.

    • Brian Boru says:

      The abolition of Third Level tuition-fees was actually a regressive transfer of resources from the poor to the rich. There is something deliciously ironic about how the Left combine criticism of “inequality” in our economy, while then supporting the universalist principle that the rich – who can afford tuition fees – should nonetheless get bailed out by the working-class masses of Ireland. We should only provide free fees to the very poor in my humble opinion, with aid towards the cost of the fees for the middle-classes and no help at all to the upper-classes.

    • Deaglán says:

      Ah yes, but how do you define “very poor” (I’m sure they would love the designation); “middle-class” and “upper-class”?

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