Eoin Martin argues a Robin Hood approach to college funding ignores more fundamental problems in Irish education.

Over the past few weeks, the national media has argued strongly for the reintroduction of third level fees. Proponents of fees claim that college is a luxury enjoyed mainly by the rich which should not be subsidised by the less well off.

Furthermore, it has been argued that it is the individual who derives most, if not all of the benefit from having a third level qualification in later life.

This runs contrary to the other justification for reintroducing fees – that a knowledge-based economy needs well funded universities and ITs. In other words, that it is in the national interest as opposed to individuals’ interests to see that colleges are well resourced.

There is no doubt that Ireland’s third level institutions are in need of more funding. The resources being made available have not kept pace with the increasing numbers of students going to third level in recent years. Just 4.3 per cent of Irish public expenditure goes towards education, considerably less than the OECD average of 7 per cent.

A further problem is a lack of joined-up thinking with the way money is spent from on the education system as a whole from primary schools right through to PhDs.

It is unfair to think of imposing a financial burden on students when the government was miserly in the good times and when it did spend money, did so wastefully

Underqualified maths teachers in primary school lead to fewer students progressing with the subject at second and third level. It is unfair to think of imposing a financial burden on students when the government was miserly in the good times and when it did spend money, did so wastefully.

At present it is uncertain whether fees will be reintroduced at all or on what basis. Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe has suggested that only families with incomes of over €100,000 should pay fees.
He also said that fees would only target those with “excellent salaries” or “the very wealthy” and that there would be no impact on middle class families.

It is dubious whether in the Ireland of today, two parents earning €50,000 each could be classed as “very wealthy”. They would probably be most peoples’ idea of middle class and certainly by no stretch of maths or the imagination, would they be millionaires.

This is precisely the problem with fees. If they only target the super-rich, they will not raise enough revenue and the bands will have to be widened. If they target too many ordinary people, invariably they will be unbearable for some families at the margins who will fall through the cracks.

The objective of improving access to third level education for all is a laudable and important one. The less well off have several reasons to fear that the reintroduction of fees will not help them however.

For one thing, part of the reason free fees did not help less well off students was that the government threw money at third and fourth level but failed to make reforms in primary and secondary education. Particularly in disadvantaged areas, underfunding and a lack of support created obstacles to further education long before CAO forms were filled out.

Secondly, the experience of many students of the maintenance grants system has not been good as countless UCD students can testify. Grants have often been distributed late or been denied to people who have switched courses or failed exams. It’s no use lauding the way things work in Australia if Irish people have no confidence in their own system.

Getting a third level qualification greatly improves your chances of getting a job which will ultimately earn you a high salary. As such, the individual has a strong interest in providing that he or she goes to college, but not the only interest. Society too stands to benefit and benefit greatly.

For Ireland, a services economy with little manufacturing, economic growth depends on a well educated workforce. This means plenty of graduates emerging from well-recognised institutions.

The other side of this coin is that given the nature of our economy, a third level qualification has become as necessary for most people to get a decent job as the leaving cert was 30 years ago. There is a national interest in ensuring all our young people get the best chance in life.

It is important that we develop a knowledge economy but third level fees may actually be counter-productive in this aim. At present, many students choose the well paid professions such as medicine and law over the economically more important areas of science or engineering.

If in future they have to worry about repaying loans, this problem is only likely to be exacerbated. Furthermore, it would be wrong in principle for the government to charge fees on the one hand but manipulate the availability of college courses on the other to try to funnel students into the courses it thinks are important.

While bullying may not be common, the policy’s message is clear – UCD will not tolerate bullying behaviour from students or staff. Although one student felt that “bullying is just natural – it just happens,” that would seem not to be the case for UCD students.