Head to Head: Fees Debate

 
 

Kate Rothwell and Killian Woods argue the merit of fees being introduced to our third level education system.

Pro Fees

No doubt many of the students who read this piece will have been part of the 25,000 or so who took to the streets this month in order to protest against a potential increase in the college registration fee. There were probably very few among this group who have an extra €1,000 to hand, but how many honestly think that there is a better possible alternative?

Our representative students’ union bodies promoted the protest, but seem to have a little more cash to splash. UCDSU President Paul Lynam stated that he was proud of the fact that no other students’ union had put as much money, time or effort into the anti-fees campaign.

Moreover, students’ unions in colleges nationwide have had this campaign at the top of their agenda for the past couple of years, and the national body, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), has supported them. But wouldn’t USI and its associated unions be of greater use to students if they spent the money that went towards T-shirts, placards, buses and banners on funding those who need it the most, instead of on a march that can’t change the inevitable?

We are all well aware that the Irish government is in dire financial straits and that the Irish jobs market can offer little to many of our current and upcoming graduates. The ‘Education not Emigration’ motto is a rousing retort, but the reality is that not increasing this year’s registration fee won’t stem the flow of emigrating graduates who quite rightly feel that they can do better for themselves elsewhere.

The government could continue to fund the third-level sector as it has done in the past, but until Ireland can offer graduates the number and variety of jobs that they want and need it is a poor investment. Why pour so much money into the education of students who, at the end of their degree, will have no choice but to leave the country?

Of course, the proposed increase in the registration fee would make the already incredibly expensive experience of third-level education a luxury that even more people cannot afford. However, let us not forget that it is already a privilege beyond the means of many whose taxes have contributed to putting the children of much wealthier citizens through college. Research by the Higher Education Authority goes to show that the introduction of ‘free fees’ in 1995 has not resulted in the expected increase in the number of people from poorer backgrounds going on to third-level education. The main issue lies at secondary level, as the first hurdle for these pupils is obtaining the sufficient points in the Leaving Cert.

The current system is undoubtedly unjust, but neither the government nor USI have a magic money wand with which they can fix it. Therefore, a rise in the registration fee might well be the best we can hope for. It may mean that more people have to take a year or two out to work after school before deciding whether or not third-level education is a worthy investment for them and it will undoubtedly be the case that going to college becomes less of the rite of passage that so many young people now view it as.

At school I more or less assumed that I, like the vast majority of my peers, would go on to college, with hardly a second thought as to what the financial implications might be for my family.

Now, after over three years of study and a recession-formed reality check, it’s hard to believe that I could take this opportunity for granted. No one should be denied the chance to go to college, but if we want our economy to improve, we can’t expect the government to keep paying the entirety of our fees when it can’t even afford to maintain the previous level of funding given to the health service. The opportunity is still there, but the price simply has to be higher.

An ideal solution is nigh-on impossible, but we could have a fairer alternative. A student loan system similar to the one in the UK would allow those who really want to go to college to take on the responsibility of paying for it themselves. Such an initiative would ensure that their education has been paid off by means of their subsequent employment, instead of looking to their cash-strapped parents for financial assistance, or taking out a regular loan when more immediate repayments are required.

The financial demands of the health service can’t be put on hold, as pensioners don’t have the opportunity to pay back government funding later on in life, while we do. Or at least we would, if the Green Party hadn’t vetoed the proposal of such a system last year.

December’s budget is going to be a tough proposal to live with, but live with it we must. Today’s students aren’t the ones who made mess, but our only way out is to pay up.

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Kate Rothwell

Anti-Fees

We are in a difficult economic climate at the moment. As Ireland creeps out of this depressing post-Celtic Tiger era, inevitable cuts in many sectors are being recommended by our government in an attempt to speed up the recovery process.

Most sectors of society don’t feel accountable for the economic mess that certain bad decisions during the boom have landed us in. Whether it is concerns relating to the cutting of the pension or the consistent rise in the price of the registration fee, pensioners and students alike don’t believe that it is their responsibility to bail our country out of this situation.

The recent protest march organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the success of which can be largely attributed to the constant campaigning by respective Student Unions nationwide, has displayed the specific discontent shared by most students. Mainly united under the concept of opposing the proposed €1,500 increase to the registration fee, these students echo the opinion of the majority of those currently in third-level education.

The cited increase in the registration fee will bring the seemingly unavoidable charge paid by all students to €3,000. At this current time, we are already the second highest tuition fee-paying students in Europe. The government are asking a lot of people in third-level education at the moment.

Students are constantly referred to as the driving force behind regenerating the Irish economy. This is a job that has been entrusted to our generation. Adding the increase in the registration fee to the equation and translating the political jargon, students are being asked to clean up a mess that they haven’t created and at the same time, pay for the costs.

The government will argue that they are not realistically able to fund third-level education and they may be telling the truth, but at this stage they cannot afford (metaphorically speaking) not to fund education.

The devastating cuts set to be landed on the education system will have drastic effects on the broad spectrum of social classes. Not everyone has parents that can aid their route to college through funding their registration fee, and with a further upping of the registration fee this statistic will increase.

Ireland needs a thoroughly educated workforce to pull it out of economic depression, not a small top percentile of well-educated individuals. The only socially equitable solution that allows for a fair education system is through a progressive tax scheme. This measure would see those who can afford the relevant fees fund their own education, while others who are more disadvantaged would benefit from a system that allows people to attend college, irrespective of their financial situation.

Students can be maligned for taking what, when crudely broken down, can seem like a lot of money out of people’s pockets. However, what is not highlighted is the rate at which students repay this faith shown in them through paying higher taxes throughout their life. On average, third-level graduates will pay seven per cent more tax than those who do not have a degree.

People argue that a means system for paying fees, or a loan system by which graduates pay their fees back once they enter the workforce and hit a certain income threshold, should be implemented. These schemes have failed in other countries such as New Zealand, where one in four of their graduates are emigrating, while means testing has been a flawed measure for the grants system in Ireland for decades.

Scandinavian countries have cultivated relatively efficient schemes whereby their education system is publicly funded. This system, since its introduction in Ireland, has been successful, despite what the many people may argue.

It is argued that we haven’t visibly seen the benefits of free fees since their implementation. Although our colleges may be poorly ranked among the top universities in the world, under OECD world rankings, Ireland ranks second in value for money gained from our third-level education.

Our current system may not be air tight, but it is along the right path. We clearly heard the loud voices and opinions of third-level students nearly two weeks ago on the streets of Dublin. Admittedly, certain sectors are going to have to suffer cutbacks to aid our way out of this economic situation, but education is the backbone of any society. And without an educated workforce, the opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation are restrained.

The burden of saving this country has already been placed on the lap of the Irish third-level students. It is this generation that will be made suffer through the inevitable cutbacks, thanks to the billions of euro of debt accumulated. It would be in the government’s interests not to increase the registration fee in any capacity, and in doing so, they would helping the potential saviours of our economy to better themselves through third-level education.

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Killian Woods

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