Fairness crucial if third-level fees are brought back


COMMENT:Some 15,000 students gathered in Dublin recently to protest against the possible reintroduction of tuition fees for third level courses. They were addressed by student leaders, Opposition politicians and trade union officials, and the mood was clearly strongly opposed to the idea that the free fees scheme introduced in the 1990s should now be reversed, writes PROF FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

However, many of those present at the protest, when asked by reporters, also expressed the view that the return of fees was now probably inevitable, and what was said inside Leinster House on the same day by the Minister for Education and Science reinforced that impression.

We are probably now beyond the point at which this development can be stopped. At any rate, it is probably useful at this stage to start asking how any fees regime will work, what rules will apply to it, and who will administer these rules.

Many of those strongly opposed to tuition fees (and, until quite recently, I would have been one of these) may well be influenced by the remembered experience of the system in place up to the mid-1990s, before free fees were introduced. At that time students were liable to pay fees, but where their parents’ income was below a certain threshold they were eligible for education grants covering both the fees and maintenance.

It was widely perceived at the time that this system was unfair and heavily biased against the PAYE sector, as it could be difficult to determine the income of those in self- employment, who it was thought often managed to get grants where less wealthy families paying PAYE could not.

It is important, therefore, to avoid re-introducing a system that may well have the same or a similar weakness. That, however, is what we may end up doing if, as has been suggested, eligibility to pay may be made subject to an income threshold, with tuition fees not charged for those below the threshold. I fear that such a system would be both unfair and unworkable.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the threshold is set at an income of €120,000. It will then need to be established who will determine what the applicant’s family income is, and on what basis. This will resurrect all the old arguments around how to assess the income of the self-employed, with the same potential for perceived unfairness.

It will also raise the question of what should be done in the case of an applicant who argues that he or she does not have access to the parental income. And it will then be necessary to justify why one student with a family income of €119,999 (however that may be determined) should escape fees while another with €120,001 would have to pay them.

I am also concerned about how (and by whom) such a system would be administered, bearing in mind that it will be bureaucratically complex and administratively expensive.

I fully understand that the purpose of thresholds of this kind would be to protect free third level education for those who cannot afford fees, an aim I support. However, I believe it would end up being controversial, perceived as unfair and impossible to operate. Because of these limitations, it may also end up collecting far less money than is currently being anticipated.

In my view, it would be better to have a system under which, in principle, all students are eligible to pay fees, but where third level institutions are given an obligation to ensure that all students who are appropriately qualified are admitted and allowed to complete their studies, regardless of their means.

This can be achieved by a combination of grants and scholarships on the one hand, funded from part of the fee income paid by those who can afford to pay fees on the one hand, and loans made available to those who (whatever their means) feel they need additional support for their studies. An appropriate package could be worked out for every student.

Something of this kind has been done for many years by a number of American universities, which despite charging tuition fees typically have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than any Irish university. For example, the work of the Financial Aid Office of Harvard University is a good example of how such a system can work effectively to support high-quality education for all, from all backgrounds – despite the fact that Harvard has perhaps the highest tuition fees anywhere.

It is also vital that the State continue to provide financial resources to third level institutions, so that the student fee is a top-up rather than a payment of the full costs of the studies. I agree with the proposition that, in a modern democracy, there is an obligation on the state to provide a baseline level of support for higher education.

The arguments have by now been well rehearsed, but I feel strongly that Ireland’s higher education system will experience a steep erosion of quality unless a completely different approach is taken to its funding. Reality requires us to recognise that this will not be achieved without a system of tuition fees for those who can afford them.

Furthermore, we cannot continue to neglect the needs of poorer students – as we are currently doing because of the current focus on (largely) funding the middle classes. It is simply a disgrace that there are still parts of Ireland where participation in higher education is below 10 per cent.

But whatever system we introduce must also be fair and efficient and not open to abuse. Getting that right is now the priority.

  • Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University