Brian Hogan argues that Minister O’Keeffe’s proposal to reintroduce third level fees is balanced and admirable.

It comes as little surprise that the recent proposal by Education Minister Batt O’Keefe regarding the possible reintroduction of university fees has drawn so much ire.


The topic of tuition charges for third-level students has always been something of a raw nerve. Mr O’Keefe’s proposed plan is part of an 18-month expert advisory board study of the entire third-level system and remains entirely speculative at this stage.

Furthermore should fees be reintroduced, O’Keeffe expressed the view that no family earning less than €100,000 would be liable to pay. “I would rather be looking at people who can afford to pay and there are many millionaires in this country that can afford to pay,” he said.

However, the reaction so far by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) simply does not correspond to the measured, tentative and entirely provisional process followed by the Minister.

USI President, Shane Kelly has recently presided over a 300-strong sit-in protest in the Department of Education as well as a similar protest outside Leinster House, in reaction to Mr O’Keefe’s proposal.

Ireland is very much in the minority world-wide in having a system of free college education

Mr Kelly’s claim that the reintroduction of fees on the basis outlined by the Minister would, “make higher education an unaffordable luxury for most average families”, is entirely untenable. Ireland is very much in the minority worldwide in having a system of free college education, and even a system as proposed by the Minister would be extremely generous when compared internationally.

Australia and the United Kingdom both have third-level education systems based on the payment of tuition fees, but these payments are tempered by the allocation of low-interest loans and the ability to defer payments for years at a time.

University placing in both nations are still extremely high and the levels of students from underprivileged backgrounds have not suffered. In the U.K, due to generous term loans combined with government schemes aimed at raising the levels of students from such backgrounds, the percentage of Oxford and Cambridge students coming from state-schools is now 53% and 56% respectively.

Mr Kelly’s argument that the reintroduction of fees would limit the prospects of disadvantaged students is simply not borne out by the evidence.

Mr Kelly’s argument that the reintroduction of fees would limit the prospects of disadvantaged students is simply not borne out by the evidence

Furthermore, it is symptomatic of a blind spot present in student campaigns regarding the issue of fees going since the introduction of ‘free fees’ by the Rainbow Coalition. University is not an entitlement; it is a service to be paid for and most importantly an investment in one’s own future.

According to research carried out in the UK, a graduate’s lifetime salary averages out at around €400,000 more than a non-graduate. When compared with the debts accrued by the average third-level student in Ireland and even considering the additional costs that may be forthcoming, the benefits of such an investment in oneself far outweigh any downside.

To view university education as a birthright is at the best, naïve and at worst downright ignorant. The current fees being handed over to Ireland’s universities simply cannot ever hope to provide the standard of excellence expected by their students because they were never designed to.

The higher college attendance rates that the abolition of fees brought with it, has led to an unbearable and unforeseen strain on a structure bereft of its tuition fees and forced to accommodate greater numbers of students on less funding.

According to Charles Larkin and Dr Jacco Thijssen of Trinity College, “The sector is expected to educate almost 200,000 students; act as a centre of internationally renowned research and development; serve as custodian of teacher training; be pilot-man of innovation and high priest of the knowledge economy. No exchequer could fund such disparate demands”.

In a downturn, education provides a way out. As such, cutbacks ought to be unthinkable. At the same time it is clear that the public finances cannot support the increased funding needed to let our third level colleges perform. Free fees were politically popular – now it’s time for the government to be politically brave.

Provided any new tuition fee regime is fair and generous, this is a very principled move. It will be important however for the advisory board study to learn lessons from the failings of the old system which lead to the introduction of free fees in the first place. It would also be desirable for Minister O’Keeffe’s reforms to improve the way money is spent and he has indicated that this is his intention.

Stripped of government funding as the economy enters a slow-down not seen in more than a decade, third-level institutions simply cannot afford to provide education for free. Any expectation that they would do so is merely fantasy. On the bright side, the prospect of a major injection of funding could mean a major revitalisation of the Irish third level sector.