Third-level fees debate: the case for and against

The former president of DCU argues that fees are necessary to improve standards, while the president of Trinity students’ union argues that the less-well-off will bear the brunt of their reintroduction

Photograph: Chris Ison/PA Wire

Photograph: Chris Ison/PA Wire



‘We need them to stop the decline of third level’

Not that long ago everything seemed possible. I was president of Dublin City University during some of the golden years of the Celtic tiger. Increased State funding for research and the extraordinary philanthropic support of Chuck Feeney were products of a vision for higher education that saw this small European country competing seriously with much bigger nations on the world stage.

Actually, not quite everything seemed possible. Even in 2005 there were dark clouds on the horizon, before people waiting at the bus stop had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

The problem was that, while politicians understood the potential of special targeted investments for specific third-level programmes, they tended to believe student numbers could grow and grow while the State gradually cut its investment.

During my first five years as president of DCU – in the years of apparently unlimited plenty – government funding for each Irish university student decreased in real terms by nearly 25 per cent.

This disinvestment was masked by the phenomenal growth in overall student numbers, so that in headline terms funding appeared to increase.

Indeed, it became government policy to continue to increase the proportion of the population who had a third-level degree; at one point the target for each age cohort was 70 per cent, which would be some 20 per cent higher than anything achieved by any other developed country.

But the pressures even then were significant. In 2004 the OECD published a report on higher education in Ireland that had been commissioned by the then government. The report pointed out that Ireland was spending a smaller proportion of GDP on higher education than a number of comparator countries despite having a larger proportion of the population in third level than almost anywhere else.

The OECD concluded that the Irish university sector would need greater investment, but that the State would find it difficult to provide it because of competition for resources from other parts of the public service.

The report therefore recommended that tuition fees should be reintroduced to provide some of the money required for the sector’s urgent investment needs.

Nothing happened in response to the OECD report. The recommendations were politically too toxic, in that it would have required sending Ireland’s middle classes (who are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of free fees) a difficult message: you need to contribute.

Neither the government of the time nor any of the opposition parties were willing to do that.

So the funding problem was simply ignored and, as the recession hit Ireland from 2008 onwards, the already significant problem was exacerbated by severe funding cuts.

Within a few years of the OECD report, the government commissioned another review. Colin Hunt chaired the review that in 2011 produced its influential report, the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030. This report again pointed out that Ireland was not adequately resourcing its higher education system – perhaps understating the problem in that the impact of budget cuts in 2008-2009 had not yet worked its way through the system.

Considering possible options for addressing this, the report concluded that “the best model is a combination of means-tested grants and student fees, allied to a system of deferred-repayment, income-contingent student loans”.

The Hunt prescription was based on what had in some political and university circles become a popular model of funding, based on a system of student loans funding tuition fees. It was the system that had been in use in Australia for some time and was being introduced in England but not in Scotland or Wales.

The problem with student loans is that many of them are not repaid. In Australia the government has had to deal with a staggering €40 billion of unpaid student loans, writing off much of this sum. If that happened here, it would produce a major public finance crisis.

In the meantime, Irish universities have faced huge problems resulting from years of cuts. The erosion of their league table position is one of the results, and this erosion is likely to accelerate. In this setting the Government has established yet another review, this time focused specifically on funding: the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education, chaired by Peter Cassells.

This is due to report shortly, and its recommendations might determine whether the situation can be rescued.

Two principles should drive the report: that higher education must be accessible to all; and that this must not be compromised by diverting large amounts of taxpayer resources to those who need it least – the middle classes, whose sons and daughters still make up the majority of university students.

There is a nettle here that will need to be grasped to ensure that the Irish university system can compete with the best in the world, and that those who need the most help to access it have resources focused on them specifically. This cannot be done without tuition fees.

If this problem is not tackled, Ireland’s universities will continue their decline, and with this decline, Ireland’s ability to brand itself as a high-value, knowledge economy will be destroyed.

  • Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU. He is now principal and vice-chancellor of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen


‘They will force the less-well-off into debt’

As speculation mounts about the introduction of tuition fees or a student-loan scheme for third level, so do my fears for the future of education.

The wealth and progress of a country relies heavily on the degree of education of the population. So why are we moving toward education being associated with debt rather than with investment?

I believe that the public benefits of education over time outweigh the individual private gain of education, so why does government investment not reflect this?

The problem lies in the inability of this Government and the status quo to grasp just how crucial education is for a productive and stable economy and more importantly for a fairer society where education is for all. The economic impact coupled with the broader social and cultural impact should be enough to justify free education, yet it does not; it is completely ignored.

So why are we divided when it comes to free education versus fees and loans? My best guess is that it is the old problem of the wealth divide.

Many students who are not on State grants, whose parents pay for their education, quite understandably want to pay their own fees or at least have the option to. A loan system gives them that option.

The problem lies in the fact that those on State grants do not have an option. They will be forced into debt. There is also the issue of students who are forced to pay fees that may be estranged from their families but are still being assessed on their parents’ income. What we need is State grant reform, not commodification.

As a working-class woman, single parent and access student, had I not received a State grant I would not be in the position I am in today. No matter what my future earnings might be, I have other factors stacked against me that would inhibit me from being able to repay a loan. Many people are of the belief that loans will not replace grants. We can see from other countries that have taken this route to fund education that this is simply not the case.

It is time to move away from the debate on what loan system will work best and get back to the conversation about how the State can best fund third-level education.

My preferred funding model is through a progressive tax system, one that goes as far as providing free education for both EU citizens and non-EU students. There is a clear benefit in extending free education beyond our own society to international students who contribute to our economy during their time studying in Ireland. We also want to attract a diverse range of students to Ireland, and free education is the incentive to do so.

Germany, where there are no undergraduate fees for domestic or international students, is an example of this. We need to be competing with such countries.

I can hear the opposition in my head as I type: where is the money supposed to come from?

Ireland has money and we can see from the recent election budget that Fine Gael chose tax cuts over generating revenue for services. Our Government is choosing to invest in the rich, and the introduction of a loan system is another example of that.

Do they expect us to pay for education twice? Most students will enter the workforce, hopefully in a profession that pays well. We will be paying tax for the next 40-plus years.

So where does that tax go? You would expect an adequate proportion to go on services such as health and education. We pay tax so we can be provided with a quality education system but this is not the case. Working towards making education accessible to all will relieve some of the revenue that goes towards the social welfare system and can be invested in education. What we are facing is the prospect of paying a student loan – most likely through tax – and also paying tax that was meant to fund the education system in the first place.

The biggest determinant of educational achievement is socioeconomic class. Children from wealthier backgrounds are given the linguistic, cultural and educational tools to do better in school. Raising financial barriers makes it even more difficult for children from lower-income backgrounds to succeed.

The increased fees that are sure to come with a student-loan system will inevitably increase the dropout rate among this group. Such students who are forced out of education will have the burden of debt without the benefit. We need to be mindful of the cost of living in Ireland when considering such loan schemes or when turning our backs on continuing the fight for free education.

Most loan schemes come with an income threshold for repayments once students graduate and enter the workforce. Faced with trying to rent or buy property, potentially own a car and just meet the daily cost of living, we are further crippling our youth if we refuse to fight back against the extortionate fees that already exist and the introduction of a loan scheme.

We have a situation here where those who are better-off need to stand with the more vulnerable and fight such a loan system, and demand free education for all.

Education must remain a universal right and we must never place barriers in the way of our citizens in accessing that right. The commodification of our youth is wrong.

  • Lynn Ruane is president of Trinity College Students’ Union
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