Analysing the Free Fees Referendum Result

IN a recent preferendum held by the UCD Students’ Union, students voted on what stance the SU should take on higher education fees. In the preferendum held on the 7th and 8th of March, students were given three options on what stance the SU should adopt: to maintain the current system of fees, an income-based loan system or significantly lower fees. With a voter turnout of 3,264, the third option of campaigning for significantly lower fees won emphatically with almost 55% of the votes. 890 students voted to support the current system of paying a 3,000-student contribution at point of access. The option of introducing an income-based loan system received 890 votes.The preferendum result comes almost a year after the publication of the Cassells Report, an investigation into third-level funding in Ireland. The expert group, headed by Peter Cassells, was established by the then Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn, in 2014 ‘to identify and consider issues related to the long term sustainable funding of higher education in Ireland and to identify funding options for the future’. In relation to higher education in general, the group strongly advises a significant increase in the level of state funding.The sector is effectively in crisis, with the quality of education being provided suffering while the cost of attending third level education is continuously rising for students. State funding in third-level education has seen a dramatic drop of almost 40% in the last ten years. In Budget 2017, Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton announced an extra €160m would be allocated to third-level education over the next three years. However, a more significant investment in higher education will be needed to deal with the 27% increase in the student population predicted by 2030. Furthermore, there was no promise to decrease the €3,000 non-tuition fee annually paid by Irish undergraduate students, a move which UCD students have shown a strong desire for.The first option suggested in the Cassells Report is to scrape the tuition fees currently paid at point of entry, with the State contribution to higher education increasing from its current 64% to 80%. The second option is to retain the €3,000 entry fee, with State funding in maintenance and development of third-level institutions seeing an increase. The final option, which the group recommends as the best in balancing public and private interests, is to introduce a system of state loans for students. There would be no student fees while attending college, with repayments commencing once earnings reach a threshold level.The UCD student body has voted to support an SU-led campaign for significantly lower fees. Option one presented by the Cassells group is clearly best aligned with this recent vote. However, the expert group warned that this option to abolish fees is problematic in terms of the level of additional State funding it would require. A second problem with this option, the group believes, is that it would be unfair to indirectly impose such a cost on citizens who do not receive higher education and, in turn, the benefits of such. However, the merit of this second objection is questionable as a reduction in student fees would make third-level education more accessible for all citizens. In a survey by Careers Unlimited, more than a third of those surveyed said they did not attend college because of the high cost. Following the introduction of free secondary school education 50 years ago, is that over a 30 year period the number of students sitting their Leaving Cert virtually doubled from 40 to 80%. The abolition of college fees for students would, no doubt, lead to a similar result, particularly for those living in disadvantaged urban areas with local access to third-level institutions. State funding in the area would be an investment for the future as having a well-functioning system of higher education accessible to the wider population has a strong, positive impact on the economy.A reduction in tuition fees paid by students is not unreasonable, considering the most recent report by the OECD on third level funding showed Ireland allocation of 1.3% of GDP to higher education is below average. Irish students currently pay roughly €3,000 non-tuition fees, a large sum compared to other EU countries such as Austria, Belgium, France and Italy where students pay less than €1,00 yearly.Following the recent preferendum result, the UCDSU must now campaign for lower fees. This stance is familiar to the SU, who encouraged students to take part USI-organised protests against fees back in September. However, more action will be required before any action will be taken by government. An area of concern for the SU is, perhaps, the support shown by the Irish Universities Association which has addressed the Oireachtas to show support for loan scheme envisaged by the expert group. Such an idea was categorically rejected by the UCD student body, presumably due to the fact that it would, in fact, lead to students paying more fees in the long run. The UCDSU will need to make a detailed proposal relating the future of fees and actively involve the student community in their campaign.