If We’re Serious About Tackling Inequality in Education, We Should Consider Introducing Tuition Fees

Trinity | Ciarán Heelan

Funds that were once available for higher education were severely cut back during the austerity budgets of 2008, and this failure of our government to invest sufficient funds into third level institutions is seen as one of the primary factors in the decline of Irish universities in international rankings. The effects of these measures can already be observed, as our cash-strapped universities look for alternative funding, struggling to make up cash shortfalls by trying to attract more foreign students to pay higher fees and cutting the quality of education and services provided to students.

Recognising that these measures are not a long-term solution, the ‘Group on the Future Funding of Higher Education’ was set up in 2014 after being commissioned by the then-Minster for Education Ruari Quinn, to explore alternative solutions to sustainably fund increased investment in higher education in Ireland. The findings of the group report (officially, the Cassell report) were released in 2016. The report laid out three options: 1) The abolition of university fees, paid for by increased state funding, 2) The continuation of fees along with increased investment, 3) The introduction of an income-contingent loan scheme, whereby students would pay university fees by taking out a loan from a government fund, which would not be subject to normal interest rates, and would only begin paying it back once they graduated and their income reached a certain level. The latter solution would decrease the amount the state would subsidise universities directly, freeing up funds to invest in programs such as SUSI or even granting students from low-income backgrounds a full third-level education without having to pay any fees at all.

The problem with “free university education” is that it isn’t free education- it is government funded education

The third option was recommended by the group, however the government has yet to adopt any of the report’s options in full, partly because option three faced stiff opposition from the ‘Union of Students in Ireland’ (USI). Last year, the USI held a march in favour of an option one style system, calling for an entirely publicly funded education system like those that exist in Scandinavian countries. Stating his opposition to a loan system, USI president Michael Kerrigan made a press statement in which he urged students “not to be fooled by the propaganda of a student loan”, and accused proponents of the loan system of trying to saddle students with increased debt. This line of argument has been echoed by other groups such as SIPTU, the Youth Council of Ireland and the Labour party, who all assert that the abolition of fees will reduce the cost of pursuing a higher education path for students, and therefore remove barriers to higher education for working class people who may otherwise be discouraged by high fees. There is no evidence that abolishing fees encourages students from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue on to higher education. Despite the fact that university tuition fees have been “abolished” here in Ireland for over twenty years, a recent survey carried out by the Irish Times shows that third level attendance still ranges from 99% in middle class areas such as Dublin 6 to a mere 15% in working class areas such as Dublin 17.

The problem with “free university education” is that it isn’t free education- it is government funded education. This means that university fees are not paid by the students benefitting from the education or their families, but by the taxpayer, regardless of their income or whether they will ever attend university themselves. This wouldn’t be a problem if such funding increased the chances of lower income groups benefitting from this university education as well. But its failure to do so has left us in a situation where everyone, including working class people who are less likely to go to university, ends up paying blanket subsidies that mostly benefit middle and upper class students.

This failure to address inequality in higher education highlights a lack of understanding as to why different income groups tend to make different choices regarding higher education. A study by Selina McCoy and Delma Byrne of Maynooth University suggests that tuition fees were not the only factors that discouraged working class people from progressing to higher education, but that family history, negative experiences of education from lower quality primary and secondary schools and a lack of awareness of the benefits of higher education were all as important, if not more important in these decisions.

If we take an example of a country that has already converted to the option one style, fee free system, in egalitarian Norway where university is indeed free, only 14% of children whose parents did not go to college go themselves, compared to 58% from those whose parents did. This again demonstrates that free third level education fees do not necessarily incentivise those of a low socio-economic background to pursue a path in higher education. Furthermore, the Cassel report calculated that adopting the Norway model into an Irish context would require 700 million euros more worth of state funding than a loan model. When a state’s resources are limited, that is 700 million euros less that could go towards expanding the SUSI grant, building subsidised student accommodation to reduce living costs, or investing in Deis primary and secondary schools and career departments. Investing in these areas would give lower income groups a more positive perception of further education, instead of giving a large grant to people who could afford to pay for their education themselves if they had to.

In its defence, the USI is completely within its rights to oppose a loan system, given that a loan system would be less favourable in the immediate financial interests of its members compared to the Norway model. However, it is disingenuous for the Students’ Unions across Ireland to claim that they support the Norway model for the sake of disadvantaged students when there is no evidence that such a system helps these students at all, and quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the opposite is true.

Personally, what I would like to see from Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union is an acceptance that the majority of its current members and their families can afford to pay for their university education themselves. This could pave the way for a system whereby students who can afford to pay tuition fees would pay them with the help of government loans. In order for this system to work, pressure would have to be placed on the relevant authorities to ensure that the money saved is invested in policies that ensure that the more insidious barriers to educational mobility are removed. It would also be incredibly important that students and their unions remain vigilant in ensuring that these funds are not privatised and that their motive remains lending students the money they need, not maximising profits, which has led to the devastating level of student loan debt in America. This is a problem that can be avoided, and not an inherent problem of the loan system. For instance, countries that have introduced and carefully regulated loan systems such as England have seen an increase in working class participation in university, whereas systems that have maintained “fee free” such as Scotland have seen working class participation remain at constantly lower levels.

It would take a great deal of courage for the USI to change its position and try to convince its members that the personal cost they must bear is worth paying in order to solve one of the most fundamental roots of inequality in our society. However, from seeing the passion for social justice within the student population, I believe students would be willing to pay that price, and I think the USI should be too.

Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.

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