Higher Level Tuition Fees

USI (Union of Students in Ireland) are planning a large scale march in Dublin tomorrow, at 12pm.

By Paddy Ryan, Editor TippNorth.com

Paddy spent 3 years on UCD Students’ Union Council, and was elected as UCD Students’ Union Campaigns & Communications Vice-President the same year current USI (Union of Students in Ireland) President, Gary Redmond was elected President of UCD Students’ Union.

On February 21st, then Labour Education Spokesperson, Ruairi Quinn, signed a pledge with USI (Union of Students’ in Ireland), where he committed, that if part of Government, tuition fees would be a red-line issue for the Labour Party. It would appear their once hard line stance has softened somewhat.

Video of Day of Action Against Fees Dublin February 4th 2009

In a Prime Time debate on Wednesday night on RTÉ 1, when confronted by Gary Redmond with the very pledge that he signed, Ruairi Quinn once again would not rule out the raising of the Student Contribution Charge or the potential re-introduction of third level tuition fees, even when faced with the very pledge which he signed.

In the Sunday Business Post from Sunday last, it was reported that Minister Quinn is now going to go one step further, and remove all financial support for students who wish to further their education to 4th level (Master’s Degree and PhD courses). Gary Redmond, President of USI (Union of Students in Ireland) stated “This proposal would mean that the number of students able to progress to Masters and PhD level would plummet, and higher education in Ireland would return to being the preserve of the wealthy elite,”.
The government is to abolish all financial support for new postgraduate students from next year, scrapping existing grants and maintenance support, The Sunday Business Post has learned” – Sunday Business Post -13/Nov/2011

This move will only generate €50 million for the Department of Finance per year, however the move will prevent many students from getting Masters Qualifications which they require to obtain an accredited degree, such as Engineering in University College Dublin.

As recently as October, THE (Times Higher Education) Rankings were published, where for the first time, there was no representation from an Irish third level institution in this prestigious list, with both UCD and Trinity falling from the top 100.

The Provost of Trinity, Paddy Prendergast, stated that Trinity’s fall down the rankings “reflect a high performing, world class university…let down by reduced income, falling staffing levels and a decreased staff student ratio”

Indeed, Dr Hugh Brady, President of UCD, echoed the same message claiming “We are working harder and longer with far less but it will be difficult for us and for all of the Irish universities to compete in the years ahead unless the nettle of higher education funding is grasped”.

While the heads of the various academic institutions feel that there is no alternative but to introduce tuition fees, ALL of the heads of universities have conceded that students are already paying tuition fees. In February 2010, the Joint Oireachtas Education Committee met with the seven presidents of the universities and representatives from the Higher Education Authority. At this meeting, UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady admitted that ‘fees exist in Ireland and [the student service charge] is a non-tuition fee’. Considering the government still maintain that we have “Free Fees” for Higher Education, such an admission by a senior figure like Dr Hugh Brady, confirms, that students do in fact pay tuition fees.

When the Student Contribution Charge was last increased, Government funding to third level institutions dropped by the almost the same amount. According to the OECD, Ireland invests 1.2% of its GDP in Higher Education compared to the OECD average of 1.5%. The percentage of our GDP being invested in Higher Education is continuing to drop, and this has led to the heads of various third level institutions calling for higher tuition fees.

Let’s consider the current “Student Contribution Charge”. Currently, students must pay just over €2,000 per year to attend third level education. In 15 years, the fee has risen almost 1,400% from the initial €150 at its inception. This €2,000 “Student Contribution Charge” is higher than our European counterparts. Only England charges a higher fee for its tuition, however, England have a student loan system already in place, so third level education is still free at the point of entry, thus ensuring that every student in second level education is assessed by their academic record, and not by their financial circumstances.

It is clear to see, students in Ireland are already paying above the European average for tuition fees. That coupled with the fact that we are currently investing below the OECD average for investment in Higher Education, makes the argument for raising the current fees all the more difficult.

During the General Election in February, the Labour Party and Fine Gael, both promised that there would be no increase in the “Student Contribution Fee”. Labour Education Spokesperson, Ruairi Quinn, signed a pledge with USI, stating that Higher Education Funding was a red line issue for his party. The signing of this pledge encouraged many students and their families to vote for the Labour Party, a move which has left many students furious at this dramatic u-turn.

After speaking to a number of students currently in third level, it appears that a high proportion of students would be left with no alternative but to take a gap year to fund their continued education. One student from Co. Meath, Ciaran FitzGerald, was upset at the proposals to cut all funding for 4th level education. When asked what the proposals would mean for him and his continued education, he stated “I have to go to the bank to see if they’ll give me a loan, I’ll have to put my parents as the guarantors on this loan adding more pressure to our family… if the bank say no or my parents cannot help me fund the fees.. I’ll have to drop out.. ”

This is the harsh reality that is facing many students, should Labour and Fine Gael renege on their pre-election promises.

In light of these proposals, I contacted all the elected representatives in Tipperary North, my home constituency. Cllr. Séamus Morris was angered by yet another u-turn by both Labour and Fine Gael, citing firm pre-election promises made by Tipperary North TD, Alan Kelly of Labour. Cllr. Morris went on to say:
“I would encourage everyone who believes in an equitable and fair education to support this campaign. As we approach December’s budget the Government has already made clear that they intend to make sweeping cuts to a whole range of services. Education is the third highest spending department and there are fears that Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn will further increase the student contribution fee in a move that will have a significant impact on low and middle income families and mature students. This of course goes against the very same people that Labour purport to represent. It is a policy that is short sighted and will do nothing to kick start the economy. If registration fees increase and mature student grants abandoned, then a growing number of people will be forced out of college and onto the dole”.

When speaking to Deputy Michael Lowry, he was adamant that both parties should stand by their pre-election promise which stated that third level fees would not be increased and the student maintenance grant would not be cut, while also speaking out in opposition of proposed cuts to the Higher Education Grants Scheme for postgraduate students.

Deputy Lowry stated that;
“In the run up to the last general election both Fine Gael and Labour made staunch promises that under their Government students would not be unfairly hit. Labour promised that neither fees nor the student grant would change for the worse, while Fine Gael guaranteed that the registration fees for third level institutions would not be increased. The time has come to make good on this promise.”

When I questioned Deputy Lowry about the cuts to 4th level grants, he stated:
“Many students upon completing a degree have found it simply impossible to gain any meaningful employment. It is absolutely unconscionable to cut all the supports available to such people when they are seeking to further their prospects and the prospects of their families. It is absolutely essential for our future economic recovery that we, as a nation, can offer a dynamic, skilled and highly educated work force. Our students must be afforded every opportunity to further themselves through education. It is my belief, and it has been stated time and time again, that in order to move forward from our current economic difficulties we need a highly educated, skilled and diverse work force. We need a knowledge based economy to develop and grow as a nation. Despite this the current government are planning on making access to education increasingly more difficult. If the supports for postgraduate courses are cut we will find ourselves in a situation whereby postgraduate courses are only available to those who are well off”

Deputy Lowry concluded by saying, “I am therefore joining with the USI in lobbying the Government to ensure that these promises are delivered upon.”

Cllr. Jim Ryan of Thurles also spoke to me at great length about the government proposals. A clearly passionate Cllr. Ryan stated “This is a scandalous situation and cannot be allowed to happen. As a former third level student myself, I know how hard and expensive it is to attend college and I am fully behind the students on this issue. Education is the one area that needs investment and not cuts and it is shameful of this government to put obstacles in the way of people trying to further their education. We are only going to get out of this recession by producing highly educated and qualified young people so these proposals make no sense at all. I intend to raise this issue at our next council meeting where I will seek the support of my fellow councillors to write to the minister outlining our objections to these crazy proposals”.

Both Cllr. Morris and Cllr. Ryan are raising the issue at the next meeting of Tipperary North County Council, where it is expected a motion will be raised regarding opposition to raising of the “Student Contribution Charge” and any cuts to Higher Education Maintenance Grants.

I feel that it is somewhat unfortunate that the Government are performing a dramatic u-turn on the issue of funding for Higher Education. I also find it somewhat concerning that the government are taking a very one dimensional approach to funding third level education, but claiming increasing tuition fees is the answer. The net result of further increases in tuition fees, will be Irish students going to other EU countries to get their third level education, where it may be cheaper, or possibly free. This would be detrimental to the Irish Higher Education sector. We need a genuine debate looking into alternative ways of funding higher education in Ireland. Regardless of the outcome of any such debate, we as a society, and as a proud nation, must ensure that academic achievement is the standard by which students are assessed for admission to third level education, not their financial circumstances. It is for that reason, we must reject any further hike in the “Student Contribution Charge”, as students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will be the ones to lose out.


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