No such thing as free lunch


James Fagan argues that a golden opportunity was lost in abandoning the return of third level fees

When I walk into a deli or go to a restaurant, I order food. This food is good for me, it nourishes me, and it makes me stronger. I don’t exactly need it, it is certainly a premium. One thing is clear; I don’t expect to get it for free. If I can’t afford the restaurant food, I eat my own. If I can’t afford that, I can get food stamps under social welfare. Thus, to demand free food would be unreasonable.

Why, then, should be the opposite be true for third level education? We recognise that to attend university is a choice; we recognise the opportunities that it opens up for us. We don’t necessarily have to go to one of the universities – there are many institutes of higher education we could attend if we so fancy, so there is a level of premium attached to institutions. Considering that there are mechanisms for grants, if we want to go to college then we can receive a subsidy. If we can afford then we should be obliged to we our own way.

This country needs the drain of free university education to be consigned to history. Public debts are at an all time high, and year after year, Ireland’s universities siphon off unnecessarily high amounts of money from the coffers. Were fees to be introduced, everyone would be a winner.

CustomsHouse3The universities would get more cash. This appears to be paradoxical but look at it this way. By having the majority of students pay their dues, universities can receive similar levels of funding that the government gives them presently, so the colleges run as they currently do. This frees up the government to do more things. First it can give targeted funding to improve services and facilities without having to pay for the day to day running of universities. Secondly, it allows it to increase the subsidy payments to the socially disadvantaged to get them into university. The cost to the government will be less than if they tried to do all three things (run, fund and subsidise), but the benefits realised to society overall will be net.

Furthermore, opening up the university to market forces would result in gains to students. Universities will be necessitated to evolve from the lumbering giants that they currently are into highly competitive machines. Courses will need to be academically fine tuned; student services will need to be effective and of high quality. Moreover, there will need to be an attractive price to ensure there is sufficient take up.

People oppose fees at the moment because to reintroduce them would apparently force some students out of college. However, at the moment people are prevented from attending because subsidies, as they stand, do too little. Freeing up government capital allows more comprehensive welfare systems to be brought in, bringing more disadvantaged people into college.

For those who fall outside the range of subsidies, there are those who can pay outright and there are those who can avail of new student loan products (which you pay off, whether you emigrate or not) or even more socially fitting would be payment via graduate tax, paying for the benefit accrued should a third-level education result in a well-paid job.

The recent backpedalling by the Government on force of the Green Party was a step in the wrong direction. Fianna Fáil was scared into accepting a deal as a way of saving cabinet members their jobs. It may seem as a victory to the Greens, to Labour and to every student union out there but it is a crippling blow to the state as a whole.

There was no proper governmental debate on the issue of third-level fees. No white papers were tendered. No academic institution input was given, bar the inflammatory antics by student groups. A worthy idea was thought up, but it was never given the rational discussion it deserved – becoming a bargaining chip, thrown away to appease the political fatcats.

It is an endemic problem in our society that people entertain the notion of deserving things as a right. This is false; the only things we should be actively provided are those things that keep us alive – basic securities such as food, medicine and housing need to given. Then come second order necessities like education, awarded through giving people the opportunity to partake in them.

We are entrenched in a culture of taking things for granted, and when asked to take on our burden we balk. For a better education system we need to take up the slack. Fees are the only way this can happen.