USI's stance on fees is too simplistic

Here's a hunch - Ruairi Quinn is bluffing big time and we're all falling for it. Reintroduce student fees? His slipperiness and generally non-committal tone when speaking about them this week is calculated. He's raising hackles, but that will ensure that a €500 top up of the student registration charge passes in the Budget with only sighs of relief at what could have been (worse.)

We've been here before. Precisely twelve months ago. With a motley Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.

In principle, the reintroduction of third level fees is something I struggle to have a problem with. Personal experience as a student, and conversations I've had with lecturers themselves, lead me to believe that a sizeable number of students (if not quite a majority) aren't intellectually or emotionally invested in their degree programmes. The results are plain to see in the number of tutorials and essay classes haunted by deathly silence and absenteeism. Perhaps we could dispel the mystique around third level education as a rite of passage if we stipulated personal financial investment?


Don't mistake my motives however - it's just that we're not seeing the influx of students from poorer backgrounds we thought free fees would permit. Targeted outreach programmes run by universities, in addition to fee waivers, are what work, such as the UCCPlus programme (to name but one). In any future scheme for reintroducing fees lower income families must be exempt from the fees and entitled to grant maintenance.

The rest, you could say, are the middle and upper class free-riders in the system. We can pay (sayeth I, a student from a comfortable middle class background) - we might have to make do without luxuries, but the middle class must prioritise and see third level education as something that ought to take precedence over a car replacement or artisan produce for the kitchen table.

However, the problems, to my mind, are (mainly) value for money-related.

Third level fees only reasonably improve outcomes in two ways. The first of those is that more money can't possibly all be wasted by the presidents of the colleges and it would trickle down. However, that's predicated on the assumption that the Government would not take the reintroduction of tuition fees as an excuse to welch on its portion of the university endowment currently paying 'free' fees. Does that sound like the Irish Government to you? There would be no net increase in the amount of money to invest in third level unless there was a huge hike in fees beyond current quoted prices; also a possibility.

However, that still is a question of the price, not of the necessity, of the transaction.

Furthermore, there's the problem of the 'knowledge economy' cant so favoured by college presidents. It's always read as code for science or engineering research. Humanities students, by far more numerous and in need of time heavy (and manpower intensive) tutorials cannot expect their fees to be ring-fenced for express investment in their relatively neglected sector of third level. It is unseemly, then, to ask history students to subsidise gleaming biotech labs while their facilities deteriorate.

Secondly, fees, if they do focus minds amongst some school-leavers, and make them consider more appropriate alternatives, will reduce intake and improve student-lecturer ratios. Those who do attend then get a more bespoke, attentive experience from their teachers. However, the risk is that the Irish government will again act true to form and set the parameters for financial assistance and fee waivers stingily. Not so meritocratic, then.

I will say one thing with confidence though: the USI's undifferentiated stance against any fees whatsoever is too simplistic and too much wishful thinking. It doesn't do these issues enough credit to focus only on Ruairi Quinn's reneging on a pre-election promise.


Image top: The Labour Party.