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Column: Time to end this ridiculous student fees stalemate

Neither side is helping in the debate around college fees – and young people are the losers, writes former student union official Ian Power.

Ian Power

EVERY DAY, I spend hours convincing teenagers that university tuition fees do not pose a barrier to their progression to higher education and further study.

I tell young people in London’s east end that higher education is the best investment they will make in themselves, that it will increase their earning potential and will improve their understanding of the world around them. I sometimes think the Irish government could do well to heed the same career advice. Investing in our young people during a recession will make sure we have a workforce able to take advantage of an up-turn in the economy, if and when, it comes.

For the last four years we in Ireland have gone around on the same ridiculous carousel. Students annually resist any new hikes in fees – despite failing to put forward any alternatives – while the government regularly increases the student ‘contribution charge’ which does nothing to tackle the structural problem of third-level funding.

It is time for someone to shout ‘Stop’.

The public purse is no longer able to fund higher education at current levels, let alone the increases needed to sustain the sector. Yet politicians on both sides of the Irish sea have been foolish enough to sign pre-election pledges to refrain from increasing student fees, promises which they knew could not be kept.

Labour were part of the Rainbow Government which initially abolished third-level fees in 1996, and they are now faced with the ultimate political predicament – having to start charging more for something which used to, and should be, ‘free’. The student contribution charge (formerly known as a registration fee) has crept up from IR£250 per year in 1998 to €2,000 in 2011. It is essentially a tuition fee by the back door, brought in by Fianna Fail, and which Fine Gael and Labour seem set to increase further.

‘I’m guilty of enabling this silly situation’

Having been a student union officer around the time the Green Party promised to protect student fees from increases during their renegotiation of the programme for government in 2009, I too am guilty of enabling the silly situation we now find ourselves in. Whether they will admit it or not, most student representatives acknowledge the current system is unsustainable and many would prefer a student loans system or a graduate tax.

However, student leaders suffer the same predicament as the politicians – they fear a backlash from their constituents. It is simply easier for them to resist increases in current fees without proposing a potentially unpalatable alternative.

Someone is going to have to pay and if it is going to be the students, they should at least not be expected to pay until after graduation.

The political wrangling on this issue has become a massive threat to social mobility in Ireland. For students not lucky enough to secure a third level grant and ‘contribution charge’ fee waiver they are saddled not only with the full annual living costs of their education but also an annual up-front fee of €2,000 at the start of each year before they can use services such as the library, gym or even sit exams.

When part-time jobs were plentiful students could try to earn this money through summer and part-time work. Now they must turn to parents or commercial banks in the hope of securing a loan. Fees can quickly add up for families with more than one young person studying at third level, and some parents with two or three children at college now face annual bills of between €4,000-€6,000 before they even pay a deposit on rented accommodation or buy the first books on a reading list.

Over 60 per cent of school leavers currently progress to third-level study in Ireland. But the current situation does nothing to improve the widening participation agenda in this country. Research has shown free fees have not increased the number of Irish students from poorer backgrounds achieving an undergraduate degree, but you can be guaranteed ‘stealth’ fees of €2,000-€3,000 per year up-front will discourage swathes of those students staying in education.

It was reported at the weekend the government is also considering scrapping maintenance grants for postgraduate students in Ireland which is also sure to preclude many young people from access to high paying professions such as law, medicine and scientific & technological research.

‘We need to solve this problem now’

As a Twitter user pointed out over the weekend, incentivising students to study for longer is not only the more productive option but also the most efficient one too. The maximum cost of supporting a student on a grant is around €6,000 per annum, whereas the minimum social welfare payments to the same young person if unemployed equates to roughly €12,000 per annum.

We need to solve this problem before it becomes a perennial one.

Charging all students €5,000 tuition fees per year of study, repayable as a graduate tax only when they begin paid employment, presents no immediate barrier to a young person wishing to get access to a brighter future for themselves. What it does do, however, is solve the higher education sector’s precarious funding position.

The government must also put in place a robust and fully resourced support network for students by providing student loans and maintenance grants so each young person can support themselves through their education. These options have been resisted by the previous government because it was said they would not deliver immediate funding streams.

Unfortunately, neither has gradually increasing the up-front fees payable by students. We could have implemented a graduate tax system in the time we have spent playing around with a fee which is starting to have an impact on the choices being made by poorer students about whether or not to pursue a third level education.

In this high stakes game of chess it is time for the government to put an end to the fees stalemate and solve the funding crisis in third level education. Educating our young people is the best investment we can make as a country right now in order to lay the foundations from which Ireland can grow again.

Ian Power is a higher education advisor to 16-19 year old students in a sixth-form in Hackney, London and a former deputy president of the University College Cork students’ union.

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