'Free fees' were a disaster for society and the third-level system


LEFTFIELD:To offer globally competitive third-level education, we need some level of student contribution by those who can afford it, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

EVER SINCE tuition fees for third-level were abolished in the mid-1990s their return has never been far off the national agenda. When “free fees” were introduced it was predicted with some accuracy that pressures on the exchequer would, from time to time, tempt or force governments to cut higher education funding. Over time the cumulative effect of this would call into question the ability of universities and colleges to resource programmes of world class quality. And so it has proved.

During my tenure as president of DCU, I experienced an almost constant contraction of the amount of money available to teach each student. This reduction in real terms was for many years obscured by the overall volume increase in student numbers, which produced year-on-year increases in the taxpayer’s investment in higher education, but steady reductions in the money available per student.

Faced with this, we had to start cutting certain services some time ago, and long before the recession set in. Any institution that did not do so (often for understandable reasons) found itself recording increasing deficits. Taken per student and adjusted for inflation, today’s funding, through the recurrent grant and fees paid by the Government on behalf of students, is roughly the same as the recurrent grant element alone was in the mid-1990s. In other words, since the introduction of free fees the universities have been asked to “absorb” or fund from other means what was once the student fee; over time the Government simply withdrew it. And as we know, the cuts are nowhere near finished.

The idea of “free” higher education is an attractive one. It suggests that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means. That’s a beguiling notion, and it still influences many people.

But it never really reflected reality. For years all the available statistics have shown that social exclusion from higher education has remained stubbornly high. For example, while some areas of (mainly south) Dublin have more or less 100 per cent participation rates in higher education, others (many close to DCU) continue to have rates well below 10 per cent, and these have hardly changed at all over the 15 years of “free fees”.

Recent statistics from the Higher Education Authority show a deterioration in this participation. Partly the reason is that fees are not the major issue for these groups anyway, as even before their abolition people from disadvantaged backgrounds qualified for free access and grants. What changed in the 1990s was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.

But the socially deprived remained deprived, and in some ways their position worsened because some well-meaning people thought that “free fees” had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed. In fact, access for the disadvantaged requires careful nurturing, from primary school onwards, and is expensive. But as we have been giving wads of money to wealthier families, we didn’t have enough resources to promote access programmes to the level required. These access programmes were in any case largely funded by private philanthropy.

It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich. It is a scheme that is now both morally and financially unsustainable.

So, in their protest march last week organised by the Union of Students in Ireland, were the students wrong?

One can understand the anxieties and fears felt by students at times of growing economic hardship. And, I confess, I have some sympathy with their objection to rising registration charges, which provide money for services other than tuition. That’s not what we need now. We need a proper system resourcing higher education that doesn’t asset strip teaching on a continuing basis.

But we must face up to the fact that we simply cannot continue to offer third-level programmes that claim to be globally competitive on the back of such meagre resources. And however hard this may be for many people, whether on grounds of principle or because of their concerns and fears, we must also face up to the fact that, whatever we might wish in an ideal world, the Government cannot provide the resources needed.

There is no way to go, absolutely none, that will not involve some level of student contribution by those who can afford it, whether in the form of fees or graduate payments, together with proper financial support for access programmes. If we reject that, we will signal that Irish higher education no longer aims to be internationally excellent, and that it will play no serious role in our recovery from gloom and recession.

Is that what we want?

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU