Reintroducing college fees would be a disaster for Ireland

Minister Ruairi Quinn at Labour party conference (via Wikimedia Commons)

According to the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, taxation alone cannot cover the cost of free college education. A report will go to the Minister of Education later this summer, which may lead to the reintroduction of fees.

Without free college education, I would never have gone to university.

There’s no “you’d have found the money somehow” or “what about a scholarship”, I simply wouldn’t be here. My mother is a single parent who struggled financially for years to bring me up, and while I’m intelligent, I’m nowhere near smart enough to qualify for any kind of academic bursary. I would be back in a small town in North Cork, working in a shop if I was lucky, and dying a thousand soul-deaths.

I know Ireland needs to borrow a stupid amount of cash to keep functioning on a daily basis at the moment. I know the realities of our situation. I know it would be economic suicide for us to not make a few cutbacks. I even feel a little sorry for Minister Ruairi Quinn, who probably sincerely meant his pre-election promise not to bring in fees, and now feels he has little other choice. But cutting education, or reintroducing fees, is a foolish, foolish decision.

Students at the moment are struggling. Our ‘free fees’, that tautological phrase, haven’t been free for years. The registration fee is set currently at €2,250. Many middle-class families are struggling to put their kids through college. Students who are lucky enough to have found a job have coped with an average 12% cut in hours according to a recent survey by Mandate trade union.

Now, if you are on the bottom of the ladder, like I will freely admit my family are, you get this covered. I have encountered some resentment over the years for the amount I receive in my grant, as a result, I don’t like telling people how much I get. I know I owe the Irish state a lot. But I intend for their investment in me to pay off.

Education is a long-term investment. The introduction of free third-level education in the 1990s probably only rivals the introduction of free secondary education in 1966 as the bravest educational decision ever made in Ireland. Critics argue that the only benefactors were the middle-class, and working-class students still don’t make it to college. I agree to a certain extent, but the barriers standing in their way are no longer financial, they are social and emotional.

But let us look at the situation across the water before we go any further.

Britain, despite being the land of Shakespeare, Radio 4, and Speaker’s Corner, is sliding ever closer to an intellectual vacuum. I watched, for some bizarre reason, a bit of Britain’s Got More Talent recently. Three Oxford students were auditioning, and depressingly, the gurning idiot interviewing them acted like they had twenty heads each for having a back-up plan in case singing for the Queen on a single occasion didn’t lead to a lasting career. Is that what we want for Ireland? For educational achievement to be so rare that it becomes something odd?

A thing of the past for middle and low income earners? (via Wikimedia Commons)

Britain has a loan system in place for students, but it hardly matters, because there, going to college if your family hasn’t has turned into a rare event. I have a friend from the UK who is the only person out of her primary school class who went to third-level- because she moved to Ireland.

And this lack of investment in its youth has paid off Britain? Not quite. Children who can’t find England on a map, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe, and last summer’s riots. They all sound like Daily Mail headlines, but they’re the consequences of not investing in education, of not letting young people feel like they can have ambition, and showing them a narrow vision of their future.

We in Ireland did the right thing by abolishing fees for colleges. We were lucky that our class system largely was tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence. Our investment in education speaks for itself. Sure, things went belly-up, but our workforce is bright and qualified, and we are still a destination for foreign investment.

Now going to college is the done thing in Irish society, but if fees are reintroduced, that will change. And Ireland will suffer in the long run.

I wish I knew an alternative. I know there has to be cuts made. I’m no economist but I know that the ‘troika’ don’t give a rat’s ass where we make the savings, as long as we make them. In that case, why not cut TDs’ salaries, allowances, expenses? Let being a politician be a vocation, as it should be, and not a highly paid career. Whatever happens, let cuts to education and health, and the reintroduction of fees be a last resort. I don’t think we have hit the last resort yet. High profile tax exiles like Bono refuse to contribute to their native country with impunity. This is wrong. Everyone that can pay tax, should pay. These are the targets the government should be hitting, not students, who after their three or four years of education, will find themselves in a better position to contribute to the Irish economy.

My father is an intelligent man who never got the chance to even finish second level education. I hope and pray his grandchildren aren’t left in a similar situation.

This article appeared on on May 24 2012.  A correction to the original article which stated student workers faced a 12% cut in pay, that should read hours. 

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