University students seem to be unanimously keen on keeping third-level education as it is – free and ‘accessible to all’. There is no selfishness in their desire to keep education this way, as it proves that we live in an egalitarian society, and that the system provides equal opportunities to those from different socio-economic backgrounds. Upon the introduction of the ‘free fees’ initiative in 1996, The Department of Education and Science declared, “These decisions are a major step forward in the promotion of equality. They remove important financial and psychological barriers to participation at third level.”
This belief is a desirable one – the education equivalent of believing Band Aid made a difference, or that your clothes aren’t made by children. In other words, it is a myth. College educated people, more than ever, prove to predominantly come from middle to upper-class backgrounds. They come from homes which could generally have afforded fees, had they not invested so much money in providing a private secondary education for their children instead.
In an Irish Times article in November 2010, it was reported that the progression rate of schools in south Dublin to third level education was “more or less 100%”, while many schools from poorer areas of Dublin showed a progression of rate of less than 10%, and that these rates of entry “have hardly changed at all over the 15 years of ‘free fees’”. These statistics make complete sense. The introduction of free third-level education made little difference to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they have always been entitled to receive free or partially funded third-level education through grant systems. Thus, the introduction of free third-level education essentially made it free for those who could already afford it – the middle and upper-classes.
Naturally, the introduction of free third-level education also changed priorities within the secondary school system. In Ireland, entry into university is based entirely upon Leaving Certificate results. Therefore, families from higher socio-economic backgrounds who no longer had to worry about paying for third-level education, could now pour cash into ensuring that their children would get the best possible secondary education, thus improving their chances of getting into the best courses in University, and placing those from working-class backgrounds at a greater disadvantage than they had been before. It is estimated that up to 70% of Leaving Certificate students take grinds. Grind schools do not provide education – they provide training in how to answer questions in the Leaving Certificate. Schools such as The Institute – which has seen no drop in numbers since the beginning of the recession – teach their students the best way to achieve high points, and thus enter university, rather than trying to actually educate them for the sake of education. Although attempts have been made to change the education system so as to avoid this learning-by-rote system perpetuated by grind schools, not much has been achieved. As a result of all this, those who can afford a better secondary education are more likely to get into college while, prior to the introduction of free third-level education, those with money spent it on University, while those who couldn’t would receive a grant. This ensured that most students would receive the same free second-level education – an education which awarded a student’s natural ability and merit, rather than their ability to learn passages written by clever grind-school teachers by heart. Further proof of this pattern in education comes from the shocking statistic that not a single student entering a course in pharmacy or medicine in 2008/9 came from an unskilled background (i.e. from parents who had not been educated at third-level themselves).
Not only have free fees helped only those who could already afford fees, and created a greater divide in educational advantages at a secondary level, but they have also proved detrimental to those unable to afford university, through a depleted grant system. Government funds go to maintaining free fees, therefore forcing cuts in the grant system. This means that those who have already struggled to make it to third-level, are now unable to receive sufficient financial assistance to attend university. This year, the non-adjacent rate has been changed from living 24 kilometres from your university, to 45, making an enormous amount of commuting students unable to afford travel expenses. Also, the actual requirements to be eligible for a grant have become more extreme. This leaves students at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum without the means to attend their hard-earned places in university, inevitably causing an even greater disparity between the economic classes in education.
It is for these reasons, amongst others, that the notion of free fees being an equalising initiative is a myth, which has proven over the fifteen years since its introduction, to have only hindered rather than assisted the less wealthy of Ireland’s citizens in achieving a better education.