College fees 'are necessary'
Student fees of at least €4,500-€5,000 per year are necessary to maintain the quality of higher education in Ireland, according to UCC president Dr Michael Murphy.
As graduates gained a significant income premium from their degree, it was right, he said, that those who can afford to pay fees are asked to make a more significant contribution.
In an interview with The Irish Times, he also defended his €232,000 salary.
Dr Murphy’s comments come ahead of a major student protest in Dublin next Wednesday, which more than 25,000 are expected to attend. The “Stop Fees” demonstration is being organised by the Union of Students in Ireland.
The march will highlight what USI calls the “broken promises’’ of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. While in opposition, Mr Quinn signed a pre-election pledge ruling out the return of fees. Since coming into office he has stressed how all options are on the agenda as he seeks to address the funding crisis at third level.
Dr Murphy said the cost of higher education must be shared by those who benefited most from it. Ireland, he warned, also faced a “brain drain’’ of its brightest students unless universities here were funded in a way that allowed them to compete on equal terms with the best universities in Europe and elsewhere.
He said the higher education system in Ireland faced inevitable decline without a sustainable funding base. The rankings of most Irish universities have fallen dramatically in the past two years, reflecting staffing and other cuts imposed across the third-level sector since 2009. UCC has bucked this trend: it is up three places to 181 in the latest world university rankings despite a 9 per cent cut in staffing levels.
Mr Quinn will shortly receive a report from the Higher Education Authority underlining the gravity of the financial crisis in third level. The report concludes that a cap on student numbers may be necessary.
Cabinet discussions on a future funding model for higher education are set to take place over the coming weeks in the run-up to the December budget. Department of Education officials are examining a series of options, including the return of fees along the lines favoured by Dr Murphy. But they are also examining student loan schemes and a graduate tax.
The fees debate is expected to focus renewed attention on pay levels across the third-level sector.
Last month Mr Quinn told the Dáil that about 100 people across the seven universities earned more than €200,000 a year. This included 34 staff members at UCC and 17 at UCD.
The Minister also requested the seven university presidents to take a pay cut.
Dr Murphy, the highest-paid university president, defended his salary. A former medical consultant, he said his pay was significantly below his earnings a decade ago. He also noted a recent Guardian newspaper survey on pay among college heads which indicated his remuneration package was relatively modest when compared with that available in Britain and elsewhere.