Analysis: Student services swindle


As the heads of universities admit that the student registration charge is fees by the back door, Bridget Fitzsimons analyses the charge and questions its place

What we all knew has finally been admitted to. Last week, at a session of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science, Ireland’s seven university leaders openly declared that the student registration fee is, in essence, a form of fees by the back door.

The session came to being when Students’ Union presidents from UCD and Trinity, Gary Redmond and Conan Ó Bróin, requested detailed breakdowns of the student registration fee and what it is spent on. When the charge was introduced in 1996, it was stated that it would be used solely for administrative issues relating to student registration, examinations and student services. However, this became problematic when it was realised that there is no legal definition of ‘tuition’ or of ‘student services’.

Since then, it seems as if universities have decided to pick and choose what qualifies as a student service. Traditionally, one would assume that this covers student health, counselling, clubs and societies as well as registration and examination charges. This year, however, UCD is counting the library as a student service. With such blatant misrepresentation of an academic service as a student one, there is clearly a need for student services to be defined.

We all know that the registration charge is a fee for attending university. At €1,500, it is hardly pocket change. It is a huge sum, especially for families who fall just over the bracket to qualify for third level grants. University leaders have been open about this fact for quite a while – in particular DCU’s President, Professor Ferdinand von Pronzynski – but this is the first time that UCD’s leader, Dr Hugh Brady, has admitted this. It is also the first time that all university leaders have come together to admit the existence of third-level fees.

Both Redmond and Ó Bróin have estimated that, out of the €1,500 registration fee charged to students, about €500 goes toward true student services. They put forward two alternatives: giving students €1,500 worth of student services or lessening the charge considerably.

In truth, neither of these options are viable. While it was easy to be anti-fees during the boom years, the reality is that universities are in troubled times. UCD alone runs a deficit estimated to be around €15m per annum. While it is undoubtedly morally dubious that funds have been effectively stolen from students, the state that universities are in means that there is little alternative other than to reintroduce third level fees. Clearly, cuts need to be made to all the decorative boards and titles that UCD, in particular, seems to revel in creating. Those at the top should not be earning ludicrous salaries when we are all suffering. Everyone has to pay – students included.

We cannot continue to expect taxpayers to shoulder the burden of our education in a time when everyone is suffering financially. Reform, however, must come from both sides. If students are expected to pay, then real change must occur in universities to make them as efficient as possible. Despite what those at the top may think, this should involve the dissolution of certain positions and boards that are clearly not doing anything of value for staff or students.

The reality is that the situation we are in is unsustainable, and it is time for some transparency to come into universities. It is grossly unethical for funds that are intended to go into student services to be diverted to other sources. Maybe we should be glad, as Redmond and Ó Bróin are, that the university leaders are finally being honest and confirming what we have known for a long time. Perhaps this can usher in a new age of honesty within universities – an age that can continue with the summoning of Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, to the committee at his earliest convenience.

In bringing this case to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, the SU leaders have made progress to force authorities to properly define and fund student services. Transparency is what students need, but we need to take stock of our own responsibilities as well as lashing out at those in charge. As soon as students realise this, and university leaders understand the importance of being honest with their students, then third level education can begin to repair itself in times of economic difficulty.