College fees must be used to combat social inequality


University fees should be redirected to provide low-income groups with greater educational opportunities, writes SARAH CAREY.

UNIVERSITY FEES are coming back. Good. The mechanism through which they will be reintroduced is unclear and could be messy. The problems created by the corporatisation of universities won’t be resolved. The antiquated grants system remains in desperate need of reform. Economics rather than ideology is driving the move, but the principle that students who can afford it should contribute towards the cost of their tuition should be re-established.

Since students themselves personally reap the financial rewards of their higher education, it’s only fair that they should be required to invest in their future careers. On a macroeconomic level, the country benefits from a well-educated workforce, but on a personal level, lawyers, doctors, dentists, teachers and computer scientists earn a good rate of return on their education. Why shouldn’t they pay something towards it?

“Free fees” has always been presented as an egalitarian benchmark that threw open third-level education to all classes. That of course was nonsense. Free fees had no effect whatsoever on lower-income groups who were entitled to the miserable grant anyway. Changing the grant system rather than doing away with fees would have helped them. Instead, the winners were the upper and lower professional classes and private secondary schools. You know – Labour Party constituents and the like.

Participation rates at third level have increased since 1995, but to attribute this to “free fees” is to make the classic mistake of assuming causation where there is only correlation. In 1995, about 40 per cent of school leavers enrolled in higher education. In 2005, that figure had risen to 55 per cent. That looks impressive until you realise that the 40 per cent had jumped from a mere 25 per cent in 1985. In other words, the biggest increase in attendance in higher education occurred when everyone was broke and fees were still in place.

The increase was also facilitated by the huge expansion in college places. In 1985, there were just 55,000 places in what they call the “student stock”. In 1995, there were 95,000 and by 2005 that had risen to 135,000. More places means more students. Take into account soaring income levels during the last 10 years and it is hardly any surprise that participation rates increased too. Free fees help, but they are not the whole story.

Education is more about expectation than finance. Farmers have high participation rates, not because of corruption of the system as has been argued, but because of a strong tradition of prioritising education. Even though rural folk had to fund the higher costs of rent and maintenance, the money was found because it had to be.

Meanwhile, the children of the poorest, where expectation is at its lowest, saw little increase in their attendance at university despite the absence of fees. In one of the lower demographic groups – “non-manual labourers” – participation rates at third level actually decreased since 1995. Free fees helped some families access college, but mainly it reduced the burden on the middle class rather than improving the lot of the lower class.

This is what drives me completely mad about the Labour Party. They are supposed to be left-wing. That means they should be trying to achieve equality of opportunity for the people with the least opportunity in life. Making it easier for middle-class people to go to college is nice, but a long, long, way from helping those in greatest need of social justice. If you want to help someone born into a disadvantaged home to achieve their full potential, university is too late. Secondary school is too late. And the enormous tragedy is that even primary school is too late.

A true left-wing party has no business making it easier for the children of professionals to get ahead when they are already ahead. A true left-wing party should be demanding that our limited resources be diverted to where they can make the biggest impact.

Those who defend the abolition of fees argue that since the system of “covenanting” – tax relief on financial gifts to children – was abolished at the same time, the move cost the exchequer “only IR£50 million”.

Only IR£50 million. How much does it cost now? Imagine if you took a million per year and sank it into high-quality free childcare in 50 severely disadvantaged areas. The kind of places where child welfare officers are firefighting, where literacy is a high point of education, where dysfunctional families and communities render the term “full employment” fanciful and a spell in Mountjoy is a mere rite of passage. You could turn around an entire generation by providing a start that would allow them to compete with the creche-attending middle classes. Early intervention could achieve something real and sustainable for those children and their entire community. At the very least, it would give them a chance.

People will tell me that there should be no trade-off between free childcare and free fees like in France or Sweden. Spare me the comparisons. Ireland is not Scandinavia. We have low general taxation. Our resources are limited and we have to make decisions that have the biggest impact on those who need it most. The moaning middle classes have a loud voice. They can and will fight to preserve their place in society, fees or no fees. Who will fight for the people at the bottom of the heap? No one. So fees are back, but nothing will change. It’ll cost them a bit, but students should relax. They’ll still come out on top.