The heads of the seven Irish universities have admitted for the first time that the student registration fee is a veiled form of third-level fees. The admission, which came at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science last Wednesday, 27th January, has brought the debate on fees back into the public forum.
The committee heard submissions from the university presidents after UCD Students’ Union President Gary Redmond, along with Trinity Students’ Union President Conan Ó Bróin, had sought a hearing on how the registration fee – formally called the ‘student services levy’ – was being spent by each college.
Redmond and Ó Bróin supplied details of the breakdown of the registration fee they have obtained from the two universities, which revealed that around a third of the fee – about €550 per student – was being spent on covering administrative costs for matters such as registration and examination, as well as funding conventional student services.
At the hearing, UCD’s Dr Hugh Brady described the registration fee as “a fee… a non-tuition fee”, while Provost of Trinity, Professor John Hegarty, claimed a link between the rise in the registration fee and the fall in grants paid to universities by the government. DCU’s President, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, called the level of questioning put by the Committee as “robust”, but stated that the reintroduction of formal tuition fees was “inevitable”.
Following the meeting, Redmond and Ó Bróin expressed relief that the leaders were “finally admitting it [the misallocation of services funds] in public,” with Ó Bróin describing the universities’ earlier denial as “ridiculous.” Redmond said he had “suggested that these are fees by the back door since September almost,” and that the current labelling of student services is “absurd,” and “nothing short of a farce.” Redmond added that while he was “not going to accuse anyone of creative accounting or ‘cooking the books’ – that’s for the Comptroller and Auditor General of the Public Accounts Committee to do – but it appears to me that the figures that I was presented with, and that my predecessors were presented with, are vastly different from the figures that the Joint Oireachtas Committee were presented with.”
While both Redmond and Ó Bróin agree that a charge for registration administrative costs, student services and examinations is fair, they have complained that universities have been slow to define what they consider to be a ‘student service’. Redmond revealed to The University Observer that UCD had deemed library and IT services to be ‘student services’ for the first time in 2008, while they had previously been considered “a core academic service.”
The two Students’ Unions have proposed that either the registration fee be cut in line with investment in student services, and that should the fee remain at €1500 or above, that it be spent entirely on student needs.
The committee has invited Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe, to appear in front of them as his earliest convenience to further discuss the breakdown of the registration fee. Ó Bróin has called for “a bit of honesty from the Minister and the universities” when the matter is discussed again.