Free education can benefit all of society


OPINION:Reintroducing fees isn’t the answer to lack of third-level funding, writes GERARD HORGAN

I HAVE been following the debate over the reintroduction of university fees and am sufficiently moved to write to you on this topic. There are two main issues with this move on behalf of the university authorities and the Government.

Firstly, there is the concern about the impact such a policy would have on students from economically disadvantaged areas. The reintroduction of fees may discourage and prevent bright students from impoverished backgrounds from making an important contribution. This represents a serious loss to the individual’s development, to the university in question and to society as a whole. Moreover, with rising unemployment it will be increasingly difficult for parents to come up with the necessary financial funds that will be demanded of them.

The increase of the university registration fee from €900 to €1,500 is potentially counter productive. It may be worth considering a more nuanced approach, taking into account the financial situation of each individual.

Moreover, the decision not to refund the registration fee in the event that a prospective student decides not to go ahead with a particular course of study would seem to penalise those from disadvantaged backgrounds more than those drawn from the wealthier sections of our society.

The reintroduction of fees does not strike me as an innovative approach to our economic woes and could, in time, be viewed as a serious bulwark to the development of a section of our society that needs free access to third level in these challenging times.

We must move away from the accountant’s balance sheet and look at the spirit of education, to how it enriches an individual’s soul and mind, how it breaks the cycle of poverty and benefits future generations. It is time to focus on the positive impact “free” education has on society’s development with reduced levels of crime and greater social cohesion.

We have worked hard over the years to open up our universities, which previously were bastions of power for the elite of Irish society. I would not like to think that those old walls are being re-erected by those who have benefited most from Ireland’s education system to the detriment of those who have benefited the least.

It is time for those in the university sector to reach out and actively engage with people from the disadvantaged areas. In 2008 The Irish Timesreported on Graham Baitson from Ballymun, who despite an underprivileged background, discovered he had a unique talent in the field of electronic engineering. He graduated with a first-class honours masters and is going on to complete a PhD. There is a great wealth of talent like Graham Baitson waiting to be unleashed in so-called disadvantaged areas. Although scholarships, Bridging the Gap and Access programmes are commendable, we need to be more radical in our approach.

Secondly, the reintroduction of university fees will lead to the increased indebtedness of our students. Contrary to perception, university education is not free; the Students’ Union have calculated that the average student incurs, at minimum, a bill of €10,000 per annum when taking into account living costs, the price of books, materials etc. The reintroduction of fees will add greatly to this financial burden.

We must look at how we can all make a contribution. For instance, there are many senior university officials who earn considerable salaries and benefits. Given the massive economic challenges Ireland faces, it may be time to re-examine this distribution of resources.

Taxpayers’ money should be earmarked first and foremost for students and the upgrading of student facilities. Universities are environments of learning and should be about those in privileged positions bestowing their knowledge while the creation of an overpaid university managerial group is potentially detrimental to university development.

I urge university presidents to use this opportunity to transform the education system in Ireland so that all students, regardless of means or background, can benefit from a level educational playing pitch.

Gerard Horgan works in the education sector