Time for Ireland to embrace ideal of free education

Cassells Report shows that expecting more of people who have less is not a sustainable system of financing education, writes Brion Hoban

'While there is an unquestionable benefit in not having to pay extortionate charges up front, students would ultimately be left with a €20,000 debt hanging over their heads once they attempt to enter the workforce.' Photograph: Bryan O Brien/The Irish Times

'While there is an unquestionable benefit in not having to pay extortionate charges up front, students would ultimately be left with a €20,000 debt hanging over their heads once they attempt to enter the workforce.' Photograph: Bryan O Brien/The Irish Times

 
The recently published Cassells Report found that funding for third level education in Ireland is unsustainable. There is not a single person in the country that can be surprised by this conclusion.
 
The report highlights the need for urgent reform, noting that the current system “fails to fully recognise the pressures on families and students, not just because of the €3,000 fee but also the high living and maintenance costs associated with studying and successfully progressing through college.”
 
Unsustainable is not a strong enough word for the current system. We as a country began raising fees for third-level education after the country’s economy collapsed and its people were left poorer.
 
Fees have been steadily rising since 2008, yet it took eight years for a report to consider that expecting more money of people who have less and less every year is not a sustainable system of financing.
 
The report outlines three possible solutions. The first option is to scrap contribution fees entirely and massively increase state funding, returning us to the ideals that led to the abolition of tuition fees in 1996. University would suddenly be free at entry for all first time EU students looking to study both full and part time courses. The State’s contribution to all third level funding would rise to 80 per cent (currently the figure is 64 per cent).
 
The second option would involve a smaller increase in state funding and a freezing of the contribution fee. This is rather like beginning a blood transfusion before sewing up a bleeding wound: while the patient is unlikely to die, their condition is not exactly improved. It is odd this is even recommended as a solution, given the report outlines it in its opening pages that the situation is already untenable for many students. Maintaining the status quo regarding fees would continue to heap the same hardship on students.
 
The third option also involves the abolition of initial fees. In their place an American style loan system would be introduced. This coming to pass would undoubtedly trigger another mass exodus of young people from the country.
 
America is a great country in many respects, but its student loan system does not merit much praise.  Saddling a generation with massive student debt is not so much fixing the issue as replacing it with a far more serious problem. 
 
While there is an unquestionable benefit in not having to pay extortionate charges up front, students would ultimately be left with a €20,000 debt hanging over their heads once they attempt to enter the workforce. The Union of Students in Ireland has called this option both “socially regressive” and a possible deterrent to students seeking out third-level education. “Our generation is the first generation who will be less well off than our parents,” said USI President Anne Hoey. This is the very antithesis of progressive reform.
 
Fortunately for the young people of Ireland, an increase in state funding is favoured by most opposition parties. This includes Fianna Fáil, the support of whom Fine Gael would require for any such radical change. The question remains as to how the state could possibly fund free third level education. Well, the economy grew by 26.3 per cent in 2015. Add that with the forthcoming welcoming of fleeing finance companies and the tax base should be strong enough to carry the burden.
 
Free education is an integral part of a modern society. It encourages the betterment of prospects for people from all social classes. It is time for the country to re-embrace this ideal.