A difficult necessity in this economic climate

 
 

Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD explains why he believes third-level fees must be introduced to protect the higher education sphere.

The Government’s Framework for Economic Renewal, launched by the Taoiseach before Christmas, establishes Ireland’s ambition to become internationally renowned as an innovation island. At the core of achieving this ambition will be our capacity for producing highly skilled graduates and fostering a climate of creative thinking and advanced research and development.

Ireland’s economic recovery and our future prosperity and well-being as a ‘smart economy’ depends on making the right policy choices now, at a time of difficult competing calls on public resources.

My recent announcement of a call for proposals worth €300 million under Cycle 5 of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions is an important signal of the Government’s continuing determination to lay the foundations for our future competitiveness, to create and protect high-value jobs in our economy and to accelerate our recovery out of the current recession.

Our capacity for innovation relies equally on the quality of undergraduate provision right across the sciences, arts and humanities in our third-level institutions. In these more diffi cult economic times, we need to ensure that we can protect and enhance the quality of provision and the growth in participation rates in higher education that have been so proudly achieved over the last decade.

The continuing development of our higher education system will be critical in placing Ireland at the forefront of international innovation, in embedding high value jobs in the Irish economy and in encouraging international investors to continue to see Ireland as a location that offers a highly skilled, creative and fl exible workforce. We cannot afford to lose ground now in this highly competitive global knowledge market. We need to ensure that our higher education system is appropriately geared to support our strategic economic development ambitions.

Over the past number of months, I have met students in third-level institutions all over the country to hear their views on my plan for a form of student contribution. Their feedback was most often constructive and reasoned and it helped me to appreciate many of the concerns of the student community in formulating my proposals for what I believe is the necessary course of action for higher education in Ireland at this time.

“It is essential to our future social and economic well-being that it can – then the sector’s level of dependence on exchequer funding must now come under review”

The forthcoming strategy on higher education will be important in identifying the means of achieving our strategic economic development ambitions. We know that this will be resource-intensive. Government investment in our higher education system will amount to some €2 billion this year.

While that investment is extremely important, it is also the case that our higher education system currently relies disproportionately on the exchequer as its principal source of revenue. Leading higher education systems internationally are characterised by wide revenue sources that, in many cases, include a form of direct student contribution through a form of tuition fee or student loans system.

If Ireland’s higher education system is to develop and meet future demands in an environment of increasingly tight public resources – and it is essential to our future social and economic well-being that it can – then the sector’s level of dependence on exchequer funding must now come under review.

We need to ensure that participation rates in higher education can continue to grow and that the opportunities for participation continue to spread into communities that have traditionally been under-represented.

It has been argued that the introduction of free fees in the mid-1990s was an important catalyst in opening up participation. However, the evidence is somewhat inconclusive on that front. The rate of increase in participation has not accelerated in the main target groups as a result of free fees.

Investments in access programmes, student grants and other direct student supports are more signifi cant factors in promoting participation among lower socio-economic groups. It can be argued that resources used to subsidise those who can afford to contribute to their own higher education would be better directed at enhancing supports for those who cannot.

In spite of the considerable progress that we have made in raising participation rates among the lower socio-economic groups, it still remains the case that postal districts or parental income are good indicators of the likelihood of someone progressing to third-level.

There are strong equity arguments, at a time of diffi cult choices for the public purse, that those who benefi t from higher education and who can afford to contribute to the costs of their higher education should be asked to do so. This is a well-established principle internationally and an important element of resourcing arrangements for the best higher education systems around the world.

Future funding of the Irish system is an important issue in the context of our attempts to ensure that Ireland’s capacity for generating knowledge and skills is sufficiently well developed to support our future ambitions as Europe’s ‘innovation island’. I have asked my officials to look at the policy options that are open to us here in Ireland on possible forms of student fee contributions and I expect to bring recommendations to Government by April. In these difficult economic times, there are no soft choices available in the prioritisation of public funding.

I want to be able to protect and prioritise investment in student supports, to bridge the gap between poverty and privilege, to encourage further growth in participation rates in higher education and to support our higher education institutions in playing their vital role in providing the skills and knowledge on which our future prosperity will rely.

The policy decisions we take over the coming months will be important in addressing those requirements.

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