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FG accused of being 'out of touch' over college comments, but who wants to scrap fees and how much would it cost?

Comments by two Fine Gael ministers this week landed them in hot water with students.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor.
Image: Leah Farrell

THE COST OF going to college has been up for much debate this week, as has Fine Gael’s choice words for students who are facing difficulties heading into September. 

Last week, in what has been dubbed by some as a promise to appeal to voters ahead of of an expected General Election later this year, Education Minister Joe McHugh said he wanted to freeze college fees for five years. 

It later emerged that this promise to freeze fees at €3,000 a year for college students was not approved by the Department of Finance.

As the week moved on, students got their Leaving Cert results and CAO offers were made, but both McHugh and the Junior Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor landed themselves in hot water. 

O’Connor commented that students should use their grant to cover accommodation costs, later stating that she would love to take out a cheque book and write a blank cheque to cover higher education costs, but she can’t.

McHugh said families who cannot afford to send their children to university should consider more affordable options in regional colleges.

With the majority of colleges increasing the price for accommodation this year, and taking in fees and other expenses, the cost of going to college has risen to well over €10,000, depending where students attend. 

Rising costs 

The Union of Students in Ireland has launched the Break the Barriers campaign and is calling on government to tackle the rising costs of fees and student accommodation. 

USI President, Lorna Fitzpatrick said it is clear that our ministers are out of touch with reality when it comes to student issues.”

She said the government has made “no effort to recognise the crisis that has continued to unfold” such as the prices of accommodation, which she states has “risen to the point of blatant unaffordability”.

She said the SUSI Grant no longer reflects the cost of student life between rent, groceries, books and bills, and students are paying the second highest fees in the EU after the UK.

“The people in charge of our education system have put barriers in place to make education inaccesible and have made no effort to hide it, it’s time to break the barriers. A general election is coming, and we will see this Government in the ballot box,” said Fitzpatrick.

4/10/2010 Education Protests Students holding a protest in 2017 calling for greater public investment. Source: Sam Boal

Scrapping fees – how much would it cost?

What if the government went one step further and scrapped fees altogether? How much would it cost? And where do other parties stand on the fees freeze and the issue of abolishing tuition fees. 

University tuition fees for undergraduates were abolished in Ireland in 1996, and prior to that tuition fees cost around £2,000.

However, over the years the fees began to rise, in the form of the student contribution fee or registration fee, making Ireland a country with one of the highest fees in the world.

The Student Contribution was introduced with effect from the 2011/12 academic year, with the student contribution now standing at €3,000.

So could Ireland go back and remove college fees altogether? 

It is estimated that the net cost to the Department of Education of abolishing the contribution would cost approximately €229 million.

This figure is based on the number of students that qualified for free fees funding in the academic year 2017/18, and taking into account projected growth in student numbers for the 2019/20 academic year.

In a recent parliamentary question, the minister did not indicate that scrapping fees was on the cards, outlining the cost of abolishing the fees and stating that tax relief provisions are available so second and subsequent siblings do not have to bear the full cost.

In addition, higher education institutions have provisions to allow students to pay the contribution in two parts, he said. 

shutterstock_60737002 Source: Shutterstock/Gunnar Pippel

So, Fine Gael are not pushing for the abolition of fees, just a freeze of the contribution to €3,000 per year. 

What about other parties? 

The Labour Party pinned its colours to the mast on college fees in 2017, with Labour leader Brendan Howlin declaring that it is time for fees to go. 

This follows the infamous u-turn by its party’s former Education Minister Ruairí Quinn who promised throughout an election campaign to reverse a €500 increase in the student contribution fee, only to then refuse to rule out new student fees when he took office. 

Fianna Fáil also favours a freeze on the current fee of €3,000, stating in a policy submission document that there is “absolutely no justification for increasing fees for the foreseeable future. Fianna Fáil is committed to ensuring registration fees are frozen at their current levels”.

The document goes on to state that the abolition of fees in 1996 “has not been sufficient in narrowing the social class differential in higher education participation”. 

The party goes on to state that ”this is likely due to the fact that other direct costs facing individuals, such as the cost of maintenance and accommodation, have remained high”.

It called for an increase in the student maintenance grant as well as the student assistance fund for those in financial stress. 

The Green Party also favours a freeze, stating in its policy document that fees should be frozen with an aim “where possible to gradually reduce these fees”. 

A party spokesperson said “freezing the fees is the bare minimum that the Government can do, but it is not a long-term solution and doesn’t really offer any guarantees for students post the five-year point”.

They added:

When we talk about fees – whether to freeze or reduce them – we must firstly talk about the dire state of funding for third level institutes. It’s three years since the Cassells’ Report (a report which made recommendations about the future of third-level) and still we have seen no decision by Government on any of its three recommendations.
In fact we are still waiting for the economic analysis on the Report, as requested by the Oireachtas Education Committee.

Meanwhile, People Before Profit are for abolishing university registration’ fees and extending and improving maintenance and back-to-education grants.

Last year, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty repeated the party’s pledge to abolish student fees at the party’s Ard Fheis. This followed on from Sinn Féin’s pre-election manifesto in 2016, which also promised to abolish student feels over the course of a government term by “incrementally reducing the student contribution”.

That document said that lost revenue would be replaced “through the central exchequer.

Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire told TheJournal.ie that his party wants to see college fees abolished.

We would do so by reducing them by €500 a year during the course of a five-year government term. We would also abolish post leaving cert fees and apprenticeship fees.

He added that the comments of Minister McHugh this week, and those of Minister Mitchell O’Connor “show that the government is completely out of touch with the reality facing students”.

“Minister McHugh is basically telling students who can’t afford to study in big cities, where the major universities are, that they should consider regional options where many courses may not be available. Basically it’s those who can’t afford to live in the big cities need not apply.

“And, to add insult to injury, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor is telling students to put their SUSI Grants towards the cost of excessive rents which would leave them with nothing for food, travel and other college expenses.

“The reality is that third level education is rising further and further out of reach for many students under Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil,” he said. 

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