Opinion Article published In UCD’s Observer Newspaper November 2014

To fee or not to fee, that is the question.

With the possible re-introduction of third level fees on the horizon, Deirdre Dunne examines how Ireland’s approach compares to that of other countries.

Minister Ruairi Quinn has not ruled out the possibility of reintroducing third level fees in the near future. This has lead to widespread restlessness among current and impending students. What way does our third level education system operate presently and why does it need to be altered at all?
Universities in Ireland are state-funded, but otherwise are generally independent. Most undergraduate students attending publicly funded third level courses in Ireland therefore, do not have to pay tuition fees. Under the terms of the Free Fees Initiative, the Department of Education and Skills pay the fees to the colleges. Professor Ger Casey of UCD argues that our third level education system should not be referred to as “free” however given that undergraduates do hand over a sum of money to register for their third level courses every year. Who is this money paid to, if it is not paid to the government and what is it used for?


The charge in question is imposed by the colleges and is an annual student contribution, formerly called the Student Services Charge. It is also widely known as a registration fee and its purpose is to cover the cost of student services and examinations. The fee, which was introduced following the abolition of third-level fees in 1996, has since undergone a 780 per cent hike. The amount of the contribution currently varies from one institution to another. However, the maximum rate of the student contribution for the year 2011/2012 is set at €2,000.
The government’s approach to the current fees arrangement is likely to be shaped by a forthcoming report on third-level funding by the Higher Education Authority. Mr Quinn has commissioned the HEA to examine the funding crisis ahead of expected Cabinet discussions later in the year on possible new charges. Experts anticipate that the authority’s report will conclude that the current funding model is unsustainable. The Hunt report released earlier this year indicated that the average cost of educating a full-time undergraduate student amounts to roughly €10,000 per annum, a cost too high for a state that is already, severely in debt.
Professor Ger Casey illustrated that the cost of running UCD every year reaches up to 200 million euro. He explained that UCD raises about a third of that money externally through grants and research, which leaves a shortfall of 140 million euro. Professor Casey pointed out that this deficit is not being met. “We’re not getting that from the government, we’re not getting that from the students, where the hell is the money supposed to come from?” He believes that the system has already been “cut to the bone”, with cuts already taken in salaries, he himself having taken a cut of 27 per cent. In addition to salary cuts, reductions have also been made to staff, perhaps all that is left to attend to now is the fees. “All of the juice in the orange has been squeezed. So what are you going to do? You have to make a decision, somebody’s got to pay. Either the government picks up the tab or the students pick up the tab or there’s a combination in between but the real costs of education have to be met.”

Aengus Ó Maoláin, education officer with USI believes that our current fees model is sustainable. He considers that third level education should be funded through the “public purse” and that third level education should be prioritised by the government. Mr. Ó Maoláin does not agree that charging students higher fees is the only avenue left to pursue. He feels that, if you take in to consideration the budget of UCD for example, over 75 per cent of the budget allocated by the state goes on salaries in comparison to our counterparts in the U.K, where it is closer to 50 per cent that is spent on salaries. He believes that by asking students to pay higher fees, we would only be “continuing this cycle of counter-productive investments in education,” and that it is instead the salaries that need to be addressed.
Earlier this year, the Hunt report established that annual funding for higher education would require an increase of €500 million a year, from €1.3 billion to €1.8 billion by 2020, if academic quality and the full range of student services were to be maintained. This would suggest that the current fees system, if maintained, might be limiting the quality of the education that we can offer. Professor Ger Casey believes that this is the case and feels if anyone requires proof; all that is needed is a quick glance at the ratings, “we’re basically going through the floor.” In the latest QS World University rankings, Trinity College Dublin is 65th in the rankings, a fall of 13 places, while UCD dropped 20 places to 134th. Professor Casey indicated that one of the most important factors in calculating a university’s world ranking is its staff-student ratio. He explained that in recent times, staff numbers in UCD had fallen by 6-7 per cent, whereas student numbers had risen by 12 per cent. However, some Irish colleges did reasonably well in the latest rankings with Dublin City University recording an increase in its ranking from 330 in 2010 to 326 for 2011. University College Cork also saw a rise to 184 from 181 last year. UCC is also the first Irish university to achieve a five-star rating in the latest rankings.
Aengus Ó Maoláin believes that the idea that our current fees system hampers the quality of our education is a “blinkered” outlook. He does not think that it is “in anyone’s interest to be saying that we need students to pay more fees, therefore our quality will get better.” This begs the question, what kind of alternatives are there? How do other countries operate their third level fees system and can we take inspiration from them?

In the U.K, universities are not state funded and the fees are significantly higher. For example, the University of Cambridge and The University of Nottingham will be charging new U.K and EU students tuition fees of £9,000 per year for all undergraduate courses in 2012. Rather than pay the tuition fees up front or while studying at these universities, students can take out a government student loan for tuition, and defer payment until they have left the university and are earning a minimum salary, which currently stands at £21,000 per year. Canada’s system functions in a similar fashion. The student is enabled to obtain a student loan to fund their third-level tuition. In their official election policy, Fine Gael proposed a student loans scheme, similar to the one that operates in the U.K as a possible solution to the problems posed by the current fees structure.
If the U.K approach, favoured by Fine Gael was adopted, would the Irish government also follow the U.K’s strategy in wavering fees for specific skills or medical based courses? For example, in the U.K, a health based course that is partnered with the NHS can be undertaken free of charge on the basis that the student completes unpaid work placements during the course. This work placement is essentially classed as training but many students view the training as payment for the course. The U.K also offer generous support packages for other skills based courses such as teaching. Could the Irish government provide this?
In France, like Ireland, higher education is funded by the state. The undergraduate tuition fees are generally a lot lower than in Ireland however, with tuition costs varying from €150 to €700 depending on the university and the different levels of education. Professor Casey does not think that we could afford to imitate the countries on the continent where the fees are “massively government subsidised, almost extravagantly so.”

Would the reintroduction of fees be detrimental socially and cause a large proportion of students to be excluded from education? Professor Casey feels that this need not be the case if the correct methods are employed. He favours the U.S model of education, which incorporates some subsidies in the state universities but largely, the money is provided by the students. He also elucidated that the majority of universities in the U.S run extensive support programmes for students who can’t afford to pay college fees. “What they do is they charge a premium, if you like, on what they charge the other students, so let’s say the fees are set at 7 thousand for the student, well, if you charge everyone 7500, then the extra money that you generate allows the university to provide the support, that’s how it works”.

Aengus Ó Maoláin believes that a reintroduction of fees at the same level as the U.K would have a “disastrous” impact within society. He mentioned since fees have been brought back in the U.K, there has been a significant decrease in social inclusion in higher education. “Already, some colleges who initially decided that they were going to charge £9000 have realised the serious limitations that was having on their applications and are now, in fact revising down.” He deduces that, “very simply, fees damage who goes to college. The higher the fees, the higher the social cohort of the people who go to college.”

During the election campaign, Mr Quinn signed a Union of Students in Ireland pledge to reassure students that Labour would not reintroduce third-level fees when in government, or support an increase in the Student Services Charge. It would appear however that the safeguarding of this pledge is becoming more and more unlikely. Aengus Ó Maoláin speculates that we really don’t know whether the reinitiating of fees is likely or not because “the current administration of the Department of Education has proven itself much more adept at keeping secrets than the previous one.”
Allan McKee, from Canada, who is currently studying History in UCD, provides an interesting perspective from his experiences of growing up in country where full-fees are the custom. He stressed that he was quite lucky to have parents who were devoted to ensuring he progressed to university and that the same was not the case for many of his peers. “It’s really kind of luck of the draw whether your parents have planned for it (third level education) or not.” If full-fees are restored here, perhaps the opportunity for the next generation’s further education will lie primarily in the hands of their parents and whether or not they have premeditated that as their path.
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