Why should part-time students have to pay fees that full-timers do not?

Nearly 25,000 part-time college students are currently paying fees full-time students are exempt from. It isn’t fair and it doesn’t make any sense says Mary Daly.

WHY ARE NEARLY 25,000 part-time undergraduate students excluded from the free fees scheme and automatically ineligible for any student supports that are readily available to their full-time counterparts? This isn’t fair and it doesn’t make any sense.

Although the Irish education system must be applauded for the large numbers of school-leavers who proceed to third-level and further education – nevertheless it is an inflexible system. Those who are forced to leave school without a leaving certificate; those who for various reasons fail to secure the required points, and those who have to reject a college place because of personal circumstances, can find themselves locked out of higher education. Their only option is often to enrol as part-time students in order to balance work, family and financial commitments.

Financial pressure

Universities offer places for mature students, but many of these offers are not taken up, because of financial cost. Access to part-time education is internationally regarded as an established route through higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Oddly, in Ireland, access to this route is impaired by the fact that part-time students, in contrast to their full-time peers, are excluded from the Free Fees scheme and are not eligible for maintenance grants.

There is strong evidence to suggest that financial pressures continue to be the biggest impediment for prospective part-time students in accessing higher education. Indeed, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has acknowledged in a recent report that the lack of adequate student financial supports continues to be “the most significant issue that needs to be tackled in terms of successfully developing flexible provision in Irish higher education”.

On a purely anecdotal level, it simply does not make sense that a full-time PAYE employee earning €25,000 a year is being charged fees to study in the evenings, while the child of a bank’s CEO is entitled to free fees to study during the day.

Education gap

Ireland’s success in recent years in increasing participation in higher education, although laudable, has resulted in the development of a significant gap in educational attainment in the adult population. According to statistics from the CSO and Eurostat 51% of 25-34 year olds have a higher education qualification; however this figure drops significantly to 25% for 55-64 year olds – that’s an entire generation lagging behind. The good news is that there is strong international evidence to suggest that by expanding part-time education we can reduce this imbalance.

This is further exemplified when it is noted that 92% of part-time entrants to higher education in Ireland are mature students. It is time that part-time students were given parity with full-time students in respect of the Free Fees Scheme and SUSI supports, which are currently provided to half of all full-time students. This would make higher education more accessible for working adults and adults with caring responsibilities. It could also afford a route to higher education for school-leavers who could not afford to commit to higher education on a full-time basis.

shutterstock_64061809 Shutterstock / kawing921 Shutterstock / kawing921 / kawing921

The marginalisation of part-time education is both surprising and regrettable given that, in the past, many of Ireland’s leading public servants (most notably TK Whittaker) studied for university degrees as part-time students, and their education enriched Irish public life and the quality of public administration.

Poor career prospects

Some employers, including the public service, continue to pay the fees of part-time students, but this option is not open to those working in SMEs, or in lower paid jobs that can offer poor career prospects.

Efforts could also be expanded to develop financial supports to encourage postgraduate study. Of the nearly 25,000 postgraduate students in Ireland, 30% are studying on a part-time basis. Postgraduate fees vary – a part-time MSc in Economics can cost €10,000 per year, while a part-time MBA can cost as much as €15,000. Previously postgraduate students were entitled to means tested government grants, of which 40% of full-time students availed.

Budget 2012 saw the abolition of all financial supports for postgraduate students. Currently, postgraduates can only avail of a tax relief for fees in excess of €1,500 at the standard rate of 20%, and only then up to a maximum of €7,000.

This is despite the fact that entry to many professions or career progression within particular fields requires some form of postgraduate qualification. As a consequence many employees who cannot afford the burden of part-time fees are effectively side-lined from career progression.

Tax reliefs

This burden could be greatly alleviated by the introduction of a new tax relief covering 100% of postgraduate fees. Such a system could potentially see a PAYE worker saving €1,300 per year from the €12,000 cost of enrolling in a part-time postgraduate degree course.

The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013 committed the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills ‘to explore the establishment of financial and other supports for part-time learners from disadvantaged backgrounds’. This has yet to happen. By the Department’s own admission, the annual revenue that is currently generated by part-time tuition fees amounts to €40 million. The inclusion of part-time students in the Free Fees Scheme would appear then, to be a relatively inexpensive means of tackling this issue.

The call for the equal treatment of part-time and full-time students has already been widely supported by a broad range of organisations including the OECD, IBEC, USI and AONTAS. If we are serious about developing Ireland’s reputation as a growing ‘knowledge economy’ then more must be done to expand the reach of higher education. The abolition of tuition fees for part-time students, coupled with the expansion of tax-relief supports for post-graduate students would be an effective first step.

In the early 1960s, the then Minister for Education Patrick Hillery, described the one-third of Irish teenagers who did not receive any post-primary schooling, as ‘today’s Third Estate’ – a reference to the politically and economically powerless Third Estate of the French Revolution. That one-third of Irish teenagers received no second-level schooling seems unimaginable today.

The failure to provide parity of treatment to those whose circumstances inhibits them from taking the time necessary to complete a third-level qualification, should inspire a similar outrage.

Professor Mary Daly is the President of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).

The RIA’s advice paper on equity of access to higher education can be viewed here.

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