Every few years this old chestnut comes up for debate again. With particularly suspicious timing the debate on third level fees is back on the agenda again. What I can say for sure is that the system we have now is fundamentally flawed, and that change is badly needed. Re-introducing fees could either make things better or worse, depending on how it was done. It is certainly no silver bullet to just make everything better.

Lets start by looking at the system we have now. The government decide how much money a student’s tuition is worth, and pay the Universities depending on their registration numbers. There is a registration fee which the student has to pay which theoretically covers administration costs. The amount paid per undergraduate student is the same in all universities as it’s set by the government. None of this applies to post-graduate courses where the universities each set their own fees.

This may have worked well for a while, but some serious cracks are now showing themselves. At the root of the problems is that fact that the government is not paying the universities enough per student, so they’ve had to start making up the balance in other ways. All they can do is jack up the registration fee, and the fees for postgraduates, so that’s what they’ve done.

The registration fee started off as insignificant, I believe it was about £40 when I was in first year, perhaps a little more but certainly less than £100. It is now well over €800! All students pay it, regardless of means or whether or not they are in receipt of a grant. Before “free” third-level education students on grants didn’t have to worry about fees, now they have a huge “registration fee” to pay which causes real problems for the poorer segments of society, erecting a barrier to entry that wasn’t there before. Pretty ironic really, considering the whole point was to lower the barrier to entry! This is bad for the country as a whole, which is totally dependent on our education system. Our only natural resource is our educated work force, and the government in it’s ever-shorter-sightedness is jeopardising that.

The same goes for postgraduate fees. When I started the fees were about £1,250 or there-abouts. Now they are well over €6,000. The reasons are the same, because the government are not paying enough per undergraduate student, the universities have to get their money in other ways, and in this case postgraduate students are it! Many postgraduate students get their fees paid by funding agencies, but for those who don’t get that very scarce money are totally shafted. Again, badly harming our knowledge economy.

So, under the current system the universities are underfunded, the poorest students are forced to pay an extortionary “registration fee”, and postgraduate studies are prohibitively expensive for all but the very best at sitting exams. The system is clearly broken! A very persuasive argument can be made that it is wrong for the government to pay for the education of the sons and daughters of millionaires. Hence the argument for bringing back fees, but only for the very rich.

If this is done right it could work, but if it’s done wrong it won’t make any difference at all, or even make things worse! Lets start by looking at how it could be done badly. Fees never left, they are just currently paid by the government (who set the price), rather than by the parents. As long as the government are paying fees for anyone, they are hardly likely to surrender that control. The problem is the fee is too low, so changing who pays it won’t help the universities at all, it will just save the government money. There would be no extra money in the actual universities and the registration fee and the postgraduate fees would continue to rise. This is what I expect our incompetent government to try to. It’s an attractive idea to a government in panic over public expenditure. In the short-term it lets them save public money and claim a victory in aid of helping save the economy. The long-term results will be disastrous, but in the short term it will look good, and governments are insanely short-term thinkers unfortunately.

So how could it be done right? I see three things being needed:
1) The abolition of the registration fee
2) A dramatic increase in the amount universities get per-student
3) only high income families should have to pay fees
4) government expenditure on third level education should not be reduced in real terms, the money coming from the rich families should be EXTRA money for third level, money which is desperately needs!

I believe it’s important for our country that we have a strong education system. An investment in education is an investment in the very future of our economy and our nation. It is not a waste of money, and, like healthcare, not an area that should suffer cutbacks or be neglected. What really matters is that universities are properly funded, and that they are easily accessible to every young person in our society, regardless of the wealth of their parents. I don’t care how that goal is achieved, I just care that it is achieved!