Nov 15, 2011

We need to decide what we want from third level before we decide how to fund it

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski
Almost every country with a mature system of higher education is struggling right now to work out how to fund it. The global economic crisis of the past two or three years has created major problems in public finances, and this in turn has prompted public expenditure cuts from which universities have not escaped. In that setting tuition fees have often seemed to be the only way to escape from the effects.
In Ireland, for now, the commitment to retain the so-called ‘free fees’ system remains, but the reality is that fees have been phased in by stealth and are set to grow. The ‘student registration charge’, first introduced in the late 1990s to provide some very minor student contribution to non-tuition costs, has grown over the years and now stands at €2,000. Along the way its formal title changed from ‘student registration charge’ to ‘student contribution charge’ (2010 Budget), so that the pretense that it was only funding non-tuition services was quietly dropped.So what will be next? During the term of office of the Last Fianna Fáil government successive Ministers for Education toyed with the idea of reintroducing tuition fees. The two who pursued the idea most energetically were Noel Dempsey and Batt O’Keeffe; in the end neither of them got enough cabinet support to proceed. The current Minister, Ruairi Quinn, signed a USI pledge in February of this year, during the general election campaign, which committed him ‘not to re-introduce third level fees, to protect students supports and to tackle the graduate emigration crisis.’The trouble is that the government is facing a major dilemma. Irish universities are sliding down the world rankings, and it is acknowledged that the major reason is the scale of the funding cuts they have suffered. Given the country’s economic circumstances, the government does not have the resources to restore adequate funding. At the same time, a very significant part of public money paid to higher education is paying for better off students, while potential students from disadvantaged communities are being seriously neglected. Is this a sustainable position?

In England the British government has more or less stopped funding university teaching and has set a maximum fee that institutions are allowed to charge. It is a kind of ‘market’ according to some commentators, but if so it is one in which the government is attempting to control supply and demand and pricing, and is doing so in a less than sure-footed way. There is also a fair amount of evidence that the universities themselves have not understood their role in this at all, and have taken pricing decisions within the permitted range, or rather at the top of it, that demonstrate a lack of familiarity with business decision-making and a curious detachment from the actual educational consequences of their decisions.

In Scotland the government remains committed to the idea of the ‘democratic intellect’ (explored originally in a book in 1961 by George Elder Davie) and a distinct social and cultural approach to education, and in this spirit has committed itself to retaining free higher education for Scottish students. However, the government has allowed universities to set fees for students from the rest of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), up to a maximum of €9,000 per annum, and it is looking at ways in which a registration charge could be introduced that would not affect Scottish students.


Notwithstanding some of the campaigns being waged, there is no such thing as ‘free’ higher education. Someone always has to pay for it, and the question is who that should be and how that will shape our universities and colleges. ‘Free fees’ failed in one of its most significant aims: to include the disadvantaged. The percentage of people from deprived families going to third level is hardly different now from when free fees were introduced. This represents one of the great scandals of Irish higher education.

Each society needs to decide what it wants to do with higher education and how it wants to resource it. This should be the starting point, before fees are addressed. The problem with the traditional public education model is that it has neglected lower socio-economic groups while pretending to support them. But at least there was some philosophical underpinning, if not always well applied. In Ireland enough funding was not made available to secure the principle of free education, even in good times. The new English model seems to represent no real view of the value and values of education. The Scottish model is much clearer in nature and purpose, but can look vulnerable in the context of public funding pressures.

None of these things will be done well unless we, as a society, are much clearer about what we want from higher education, and what we are prepared to so to support it. That clarity needs to be found, or our systems of higher education will decline, as is already happening. There is not much time to lose.

Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
Former President of DCU

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