Head to Head: Should we have to pay for our education?

 
 

NO: Cormac Duffy

Another year, another impending student march and the reprise of the fees debate. When all of us are living a constant state of insecurity and uncertainty about how much our education could cost next year, it’s no wonder that the issue receives such focus. Yet the arguments in favour of the threatened introduction never hold much weight.

The worst assumption about third level education is that it is by necessity a luxury good, not one that should be largely funded by the government if it is not going to be treated seriously by students. If there is any concern about the quality of the education that the government is paying for students to have, then the issue is about improving standards, not about money. All fees manage to do is to limit the potential for individuals to access education because of their wealth, not their ability or dedication.

When we ask ourselves whether third level education is a right, we’re probably asking the wrong question. We need to decide whether it should be a right and I think the answer is an obvious yes. The changing nature of the jobs market means that more and more jobs in our country will be exclusively for university graduates. We’ve seen a higher percentage of students opt for college after their Leaving Certificate, and an ever growing number of mature and returning students. Why should it be that as more need to attend for employment, we should be actively limiting access?

Fees and graduate taxes all send the message that the cost of education is to be incurred by those who partake in it alone. The message this sends out is absurd. Firstly, it perpetuates the false idea that education is unnecessary. Funding the training and education of graduates in all disciplines as an investment yields higher dividends for society as a whole than many areas of government expenditure. The argument against the graduate tax captures this well, pointing out its redundancy given that graduates tend to fall into higher tax brackets in general anyway. Secondly, anything that is universally accessible amongst our society should be universally funded. This is happily taken as a given for healthcare, infrastructure, and for primary and secondary education, so why not for third level education? If the criticism offered is that the rich should be paying higher fees just because they can, the idea is not that simple. As with everything else, taxation is progressive for this reason. If we are coming up short in our state finances, then those who can contribute should be contributing. But when you allow this to happen through fees rather than taxation, you merely create the risk of division.

The free fees programme in Ireland, while not a cure for all, goes a long way to prevent the formation of a two-tiered education system in Ireland. By paying for fees, the government puts all universities in the same boat. Compare this to the secondary education system and the difference is immense. Those who can pay for better standards always will, allowing them to bypass public schools in favour of private ones, leaving many schools financially struggling while some take in huge profits. For universities, everyone, regardless of class and background, attends the same set of universities. When parents and individuals with wealth and influence are concerned about the standards of education enough to seek change, they demand more of the universities we all attend. That change benefits everyone in the system, not just those in the same income bracket or classroom.

Rebuttal: Colm O’Grada

A limit on access to university based on financial status is to be avoided, but it has been demonstrated, time and again, that the introduction of state funding for third level education has not helped in this respect. The problem remains and is based on socio-cultural barriers, not purely financial issues. By introducing fees for the majority of students, more money is made available for programmes that encourage and fund those from typically non-attending backgrounds to enter university. This is in contrast to the current system, a dysfunctional smattering of grants trickling from a fast emptying pot.

Equally importantly, the focus of our education system should be on the graduates it produces. Without adequate funding we simply won’t be able to provide the quality education our country needs to support its economy.  With a retracting education budget, funding is already tight and impacting the performance of our third level institutions. Ever rising taxes aren’t an option; those who avail of third level education should be responsible for funding it, whether through a loan system or otherwise.

YES: Colm O’Grada

There are very few things in life that are truly free, and education is certainly not one of them. Misleading and downright false concepts such as ‘free fees’ have helped to generate a culture wherein education, up to and often beyond third level, is seen as a basic right for all. This veil of entitlement has blinded many to the failures of the system and the focus has shifted from what we look for in the output of our education system to what we must have in the input.

Our public education system has provided a great deal of valuable service to Irish society over many decades and is undoubtedly a contributory factor in the successes of so many Irish men and women throughout the world. The value of strong fundamental education is unquestionable. In a context of economic challenges and spending cutbacks, the security of free primary and secondary education should be prioritised to ensure strong foundations in learning are provided to all Irish children.

Unfortunately, with a shrinking education budget, realities have to be faced. Third level education is expensive; do not let poorly sloganised t-shirts and naïve, misguided protests have you believe otherwise. Every academics’ salary, every chemical used in a lab, every exam paper printed and every unit of energy used to light and heat a building are paid for by someone; the taxpayer.  Add to this the cost of constructing new buildings, providing services for students and maintaining the grounds of a university and the combined cost of third level education is far from free.

The priority of third level education must be to generate the best quality graduates that we can; graduates that are competitive on a global scale and degrees that are more than just a piece of paper. This education is not cheap, and with cutbacks in government education spending, alternate sources of funding must be sought to ensure future graduates attain the same quality of education that we have come to expect from our best third level institutions.

Time and again, it has been demonstrated that the introduction of so-called ‘free fees’ has done little to increase the proportion of those from lower income families continuing into third level education. The barriers to third level education for many low-income families are more than just financial; cultural and societal factors play a greater role in preventing traditionally working class students from attending university. The biggest winners in the ‘free fees’ game has been middle class families, who with a tradition of attending third level education, are now relieved of the burden of paying for their children’s education.

By re-introducing fees for the majority of students, we solve several longstanding issues with our third level education system. An increase in funding will undoubtedly benefit students and enhance the quality of their education. More money in the pot means that those who are truly incapable of paying for third level education have greater access to grants and services to help them fund their studies. The investment required in funding a degree would represent an important thought process that should help students and their families consider more carefully whether a particular degree is suitable for them.

We focus too much on the total proportion of Irish youths that are in third level education and not enough on the quality of the degrees they receive; university is not for everyone and education is not a replacement for employment. By focusing on quantity rather than quality, we have spited ourselves with a resultant education system that caters to the lowest common denominator. Fees may just be a small part of this problem, but they represent an important part that cannot be ignored.

Rebuttal: Cormac Duffy

To say that the issue is that universities emphasise quality over quantity is a dubious assertion at best. When the pro-fees argument emphasises the notion that all money taken in is to improve educational standards, the main assumption that underlies this is that there are too many people in our education system. It’s ridiculous to say that we need graduates that are competitive on an international scale while not being bothered that we put ourselves in a situation where the only ones attaining this quality education are those who can afford it.

It’s especially ridiculous to claim this will help those lacking the means to achieve this. That the middle class has always had a culture of third level education and can easily afford fees is simple falsehood. Across the majority of the middle class, the introduction of free fees was the first time a family member attended college. And in recessionary times, families who benefited from the Celtic Tiger are back to living from paycheque to paycheque, not least due to the fact that they are paying higher taxes and ‘social charges’. To add another flat tax in the form of university fees would stretch them to breaking point. Education benefits not just the individual but the nation as a whole and should be paid by the nation through progessive taxing, as with other education.

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