Head to Head: The Fees Preferendum

 
 

On April 10th and 11th, UCD Students’ Union will hold a referendum to decide its official stance on the issue of fees and funding for third-level education. Elizabeth O’Malley, Catherine Murnane, Conor O’Nolan, Jack Walsh and Karl Gill examine the advantages of each of the available options

1. Graduate Tax – Elizabeth O’Malley

Under a graduate tax system students would repay the cost of their university education through extra taxation. The rate of tax is proportional to their earnings and suggested rates are quite low; the scheme proposed by the National Union of Students in the UK includes rates of between 0.3 per cent for the lowest earners and 2.5 per cent for top earners. In practice this would cost a teacher seven pounds of their income per week. This is compared to the nine per cent students pay on average of their incomes under student loan schemes. This scheme could either be capped after a number of years or levied throughout their working life. There would be no upfront costs at the point of entry. Repayments are interest-free.

This system is the fairest suggested for a number of reasons. Unlike our current system, which is forcing students out of education because of financial difficulties, entry to university will not be based on whether you can afford it; everyone will be able to attend. The government in turn won’t have to pay grants except for maintenance fees. This will reduce barriers to further education.

Unlike the student loan scheme, students will not be deterred by the prospect of personal debt once they have left university. It will not compromise the next generation’s ability to get reasonable loans or mortgages. There is also less of a temptation to emigrate under this system; most people don’t consider future income tax ‘debt’ and there are very few people who emigrate in order to take advantage of lower tax elsewhere. The rate of tax is also minimal. There are fewer problems for students after they have graduated.

This system is proportional, taxing those who can afford it most. Those who leave education and find it difficult to get high-paying jobs will not have to pay a huge amount. It takes into account a student’s future earnings rather than their parents’ income. This eliminates the problem we currently have under our means-tested system, in which an individual’s parents may either be unable or unwilling to pay for university even if they can afford it. Those who gain the most from their education will give the most back.

A graduate tax would also raise more money than our system of registration fees as graduates will pay back the full cost of their degrees over time. Depending on whether the system is capped it could also mean that students repay their fees many times over, raising significant revenue for investment in education. All plans for a graduate tax have suggested ring-fencing funds. Money raised would go toward maintenance grants, facilities and services. This is a long-term solution for funding higher education.

Admittedly there could be difficulties in implementing such a system. The time and cost of setting up this scheme as well as the lag before graduates begin earning are practical issues. However we must remember short-sighted ideas such as increasing registration fees or student loan schemes will only deter people from entering education. This will lead to less money being earned by those people and the economy benefiting even less from their tax payments. An educated workforce is also a significant factor in attracting foreign direct investment. This can be seen as a long-term economic investment as well as ensuring that all students can avail of their right to education. Overall, the graduate tax is the fairest and most rational way of paying for our third level system.

2. Student Loan Scheme – Catherine Murnane

When students were polled by The Examiner in 2011, fifty-one per cent favoured the introduction of a student loan scheme over any of the other models mentioned here. The loan scheme, which has been introduced in over sixty countries worldwide, is implemented by the State without a guarantor. When availed of, students receive loans to cover the cost of their education throughout their time in college, only facing repayments after the graduation robes have been well and truly tucked away.

So what made every second student that responded to that poll support the student loan scheme?

The first reason would most likely be the equality of access to education that it provides. The ‘free fees’ scheme of the last government, although alleging to achieve this, merely eased access for those who could already comfortably afford third-level education. A student loan scheme removes money from the managerial role it currently holds in the Irish education system, postponing payment until graduates are in a position to afford it. Under this scheme, graduates are not instantaneously burdened with repayments on completion of third-level education. Rather, it is only when graduates attain a job and rise to a particular point on the salary scale that they must begin to pay for the education that has led them there.

A student loan scheme provides funds upfront for all, and also eliminates a variety of issues associated with our current grant scheme. Since our last budget, postgraduate students who would have previously qualified for a student grant now only qualify for the €2,000 fee grant, a figure which doesn’t even cover the costs of the contribution fee. When determining eligibility for this grant the focus is placed on the income of the applicant’s parents, but this does not necessarily translate to the finances the student themselves has access to. The student loan scheme provides up-front finance for students, regardless of family circumstances, even when their grant application fails. This enables them to complete their education without the fear of their financial assistance being reduced, without the fear of having to leave college without their degree. The strengthened awareness that this scheme gives students of the costs of their education, along with the responsibility it places on them to use it wisely, will undoubtedly heighten its value in Ireland. By delaying repayment until employment, the scheme emphasises the important role third level education plays in ensuring access to the workplace.

It is also important to remember that our government will want rapid returns from these loans over the coming years. As the state will receive no revenue from their graduates until they have attained suitable jobs, the scheme will act as one of checks and balances on our government. Employers will choose the best candidate with the best education, regardless of what state they come from, and the scheme will motivate our government to constantly improve the education system to not only ensure that we supersede competing institutions, but to see that we can also reap the financial benefits it provides.

So far our government has taken a twisted stance on equal access to education. By raising the contribution fee and simultaneously cutting the grant, those who were struggling to get in have now been locked out. A student loan scheme which provides finances upfront, only views education as valuable if it provides you with employment, and places the value of education directly in the hands of those receiving it is a viable alternative and a worthy winner of this fifty-one per cent majority vote.

3. Full Upfront Fees – Conor O’Nolan

The government needs to make dramatic cutbacks in an attempt to plug our ever-growing deficit, and there is one sector that is heavily funded and can easily be cut: third-level education. The reintroduction of full, upfront college fees would probably have no adverse effects on the education system in Ireland; in fact it could improve the education available.

The argument that the introduction of full up-front fees would be a barrier to the access of third level education is somewhat disingenuous. There is little or no evidence to suggest that the free fees initiative introduced in the 1990s increased participation levels from members of low-income families. It is hard to imagine that the reintroduction of undergraduate fees would really impact the uptake of third-level places. Put simply, those who want to go to college will find a way to go to college. Secondly, it is unlikely that there would not be some description of a loan scheme set up to help people pay for fees, either run by the state or by the individual colleges in partnership with a bank.

A system in which those who can afford to pay for their education actually pay for their education should be introduced. The only particular hurdle involved here is that there is no functional, existing system in place. The county/city council grants system is broken; there is no question of that. However, aside from the inherent difficulties, restructuring the current system could potentially save taxpayers millions and possibly make access to education ‘fairer’, as those who need monetary support for third level education could be granted it instead of giving it to students who don’t actually require it.

Of course, there is the argument that charging high-income families for education is unfair because they already pay more tax than lower income families. Unfair or not, it is likely to be a necessary evil. The current austerity measures have adversely affected everyone’s finances to some degree, and while further impositions might seem harsh, they may be essential if Ireland is ever going to escape the massive level of debt it is currently facing.

Aside from the fact that universal access to education probably wouldn’t be affected, the standard of education received in third-level institutions under full fees would most likely improve. If students have to pay a significant amount of money for their education, they are in a much better position to demand quality from universities. As it stands, lecturers are allowed stay in the university’s employ regardless of their ability to teach, especially if they contribute a significant amount in terms of research.

If students have to pay, it can be expected that the quality of lecturing in the college will become a more important factor in choosing a third level institution. Currently, in private institutes, close attention is paid to the standard of teaching; lecturers who are not performing to a high enough standard are replaced. This would not only stop academic staff becoming complacent in their roles, but it would also force colleges to compete with each other in a meaningful way, not just trying to attract students on the basis of better sports facilities or a superior social scene.

Funding for colleges would also improve, as colleges would no longer be faced with problems like not being able to afford books for their libraries, and redevelopment works to buildings would happen as they need to happen as opposed to being subject to long-overdue quick fixes.

Finally, the inherent value of third level education would change. If a student is paying upwards of €6,000 for a year of college they now have a financial incentive to perform better. Not only this, but it would stop people going to college purely for the sake of going to college. People will be more likely to enrol in courses that they have a genuine interest in or that could increase their employment prospects. It would be very hard to justify continuing a course that you don’t enjoy at such a high cost.

4. Student Contribution/Registration Fee – Jack Walsh

Following the UCD Students’ Union’s decision to hold a referendum on fees it is necessary to discuss and showcase all available options voters will be privy to, no more so than the choice of maintaining the way fees are currently implemented, via student contribution and registration fees, which currently sits at €2,000, excluding local levies.

This system spreads the costs of higher education between the exchequer and the student, or indeed their family. The contribution fee has been set for all those who do not qualify for its payment due to not fully meeting the requirements set out in the maintenance grant system, a system which examines the socio-economic background of a student, such as yearly household income. The aim of the contribution fee is to finance non-academic services such as student activities, health services and student support services. If the fee was discontinued universities would be required to find money for these services elsewhere, or cut them altogether. The registration fee’s origins coincide with the ‘free fees initiative’, created by then Education Minister Niamh Bhreathnach, introduced as the ‘registration fee’ in 1997, after it received approval by Dail Eireann in 1996. The Minister’s introduction of the fee was a result of heavy lobbying of Students’ Unions and other student service providers at that time. The advantages that are prevalent within this system of dealing with the situation of third level education are clear and easily visible at a glance. The means-tested maintenance grant system introduced, although competitive, ensures that those on the lower scale of socio-economic backgrounds who have been approved by the set requirements of the testing system will have the fee paid for on their behalf by the government. This maintenance grant has allowed many students to enter into college life who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to do so.

It has been speculated that should a one-hundred per cent exchequer funded system be put in place, it would leave no room for the maintenance grant, and as such would leave many out in the cold. Perhaps the most attractive method in terms of equality of access, it certainly holds regard with those who do receive the grant and perhaps those who don’t in comparison to paying upfront full fees, and it can also be argued that this system is favourable for less well-off students in comparison to the proposed idea of the student loan scheme, with students from lower income groups seen to prefer to avoid future debt, also taking into consideration the idea that graduate loans may be subject to annual interest, arguably outweighing, in monetary terms, increases in the student contribution fees.

The admittedly shocking rise in student registration fees, initially beginning at £150 (€190) with the 2012 charge is set at €2,250, in comparison to future taxes and possible loan interests observed within other available options is a serious issue that must be weighed up, and it should be considered a very real possibility that long term taxation can be a more demanding form of payment. An upfront payment may seem to be a more cost-effective approach, despite the initial and unappealing sting of paying a large sum in advance. The current system also ensures that all students pay a set amount, regardless of their course choice, and as such does not evoke the pitfalls that could potentially arise from students choosing a course that may be more expensive, as courses that may cost more will not be seen as attractive options to prospective students.

5. Fully Exchequer funded – Karl Gill

In 1997 fees for third level education were abolished and replaced with a registration fee of £150 (€190). Every year but one since 1997, this fee has gone up. Now, as most of us know, we have a registration fee of €2,250. Obviously this figure is impeding access to education for those of us who cannot afford it. So what is the solution? Some people think that because our policy is not working, we must have the wrong policy. However, I want to argue that our current policy is perfect but our strategy for achieving this is flawed.

The current UCDSU/USI policy is that the state should pay for third level education through progressive taxation. However, the aspect of ‘progressive taxation’ is often neglected in rhetoric and in our demands. Progressive taxation is when those who have larger incomes pay more tax and receive quality public services in return. We do not have progressive taxation in Ireland.

Every year there is a lobby of Students’ Union representatives who try to educate individual TDs on the benefits of free education in Dáil Éireann as a way of ensuring equal access to college is achieved. A successive line of SU reps, who are often not convinced of the arguments for publicly funded education themselves, presenting policy documents to politicians as a plea to lower our fees has failed. The student movement in this country looks weak and is not taken seriously.

Why is it that the farmers, trade unions and businesses can be taken seriously as lobby groups but the Union of Students in Ireland are simply brushed off by the powers that be? Well for one, unlike USI, representatives of other large lobby groups are mostly not members of one of the three main political parties, but also our strategy of lobbying makes us, on a national level, as students, look soft.

The Students’ Unions in this country were founded on the basis of free access to education and communicated their message through mass meetings, protest and peaceful civil disobedience in the name of not only student’s rights but also women’s rights, gay rights and plenty of other economic and social issues. USI officers in the past were people who knew about political activism and were predominately youth members of the Worker’s Party. Today SU officers can be seen posing for election pictures with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs.

So why is free education so important? Just like free primary and secondary education, third level education is a public good. Having more educated people is of great benefit to both our society and our economy. If we had fees or a loan scheme students would pick courses on the basis of cost rather than on the basis of genuine interest in a particular discipline.

Besides the fact that it is unfair to add an extra taxation onto people for simply having a degree (regardless of income), having a graduate tax in a time of high emigration is economic lunacy.
A loan scheme would leave people in huge amounts of debt before they even have a job. In other countries such as the US or UK, loan schemes have not worked and have added significantly to the gap between rich and poor.

There is pessimism within our Union. People don’t think that people power, with the right kind of leadership, can work. Some people think that within the current economic circumstances it is not possible to have people freely attending education. Strong, serious leadership is needed, not a change in policy. What we need is energy, vibrancy and to use our youthfulness and creativity to challenge unequal access to third level education.

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