Sunday, August 17, 2008

Analysis of discussion on reintroducing third level fees!

Are we unduly focusing on Government funded education without positioning it amongst wider budgetary constraints?

The discussion on reintroducing third level fees has certainly begun. But has the debate gone wide enough? Are we unduly focusing in on third level education funding without orientating the debate amongst wider budgetary issues?

The discussion on reintroducing third level fees has certainly begun. Over the weekend, Noel Whelan of the Irish Times writes;

'It was also argued then and can be argued even more justifiably now that free third-level education is socially regressive because it requires all taxpayers to subsidise a level of educational attainment which by its very nature will always be enjoyed disproportionately by the wealthier classes'

Colm argued that third level education is disproportionately enjoyed by wealthier classes but we must acknowledge too they disproportionately fund education. Similarly Mark Coleman from the Independent laments that the present system unfairly favours the middle and wealthier classes.

'But the main indictment of abolishing fees was that it never achieved what it was supposed to -- getting young people from low- income backgrounds into college. Ten years after abolition, the profile of third-level students remains strongly middle class.' (Coleman, 2008)

Essentially, back in 1993, restructuring of third level funding away from individual college goers and their families towards the general taxation system took place. Thus now, education is funded through the myriad of taxation mechanisms aimed at individuals and businesses. The 1993 move by the labour party was welcomed as 'visionary' by some, both in terms of lessening the financial burden and additionally in terms of removing the associated psychological barriers which particularly affect lower income categories. It has been deemed a success abeit arguably at the cost of underfunded universities and colleges. Though underfunding can arguably prompt lean, more efficient operations (particularly in terms of bureaucracy), it has been argued that research departments and the standards of undergraduate education have suffered in Irish colleges. There remains, it seems, much room for streamlining and efficiency of Irish educational institutions.

Given recent focus on third level fees, the overriding question remains; how do we ensure optimal equality and access to high quality third level education at the least possible cost? At present, college/university funding largely entails a mixture of 'registration fees', 'local authority grants', government funding on fees, 'inflated' foreign student fees, as well as university fund-raising and philanthropy. From a pragmatic stance we must ask; whether the present system is the most efficent and equitable means of funding third level education? or should we seriously consider a move to individualisation (individualisation being a somewhat hidden political agenda of the FF/PD partnership over the past 10 years, 'indirect taxes' or 'stealth taxes' etc.)? It has been suggested that such a move could draw more money from those on the upper-middle to high income bracket, thus improving university funding and the funding of those from lower income categories. Such a move may entail directly seeking fees from families at a certain income threshold, or implementing a student loan system. Two examples of which include the UK and the Australian systems.

Reflecting on the situation in the UK, it seems to me that there is the real danger (given a move to individualisation) of manifesting new invisible inequalities on certain members classed as middle income households. For example, those classed as upper-middle income, but who possess little discretionary income, may become unfairly burdened by the move. We must also reflect on how the 'idea' or 'notion' of 'free third level education' affects teenagers envisioning further education? In otherwards, there is the suspicion that abolition of fees has eased associated psychological barriers, primarily entailing the pressure to commit to a career path and the financial burden attached. Thus, there is for some, a psychological barrier to entering third-level education attached to the individualisation of university funding. Little to no research exists which attempts to quantify and understand how abolition of fees affects entry levels, such insights should be welcomed prior to a move to fees.

We must also question the real benefit and added costs involved in implementing 'reform'. Colm Harmon, UCD professor of economics and director of the UCD Geary Research Institute, calculates at best raising 100 million from high earners paying fees. A real danger too is that, being a political move; the annual 2bn euro education budget may seriously diminish as a result, with perhaps no transparency in its reallocation. The government currently pays third level fees to the tune of 250 million. Thus, what guarantees do we have with regard to how savings made from the abolition of government funded fees are reallocated? Should we expect increased funding for primary/secondary level? In otherwards, emphasising the long term, will this money remain ring-fensed in education? The reality is that government coffers are being heavily squeezed with ongoing pressure for cuts and savings in all government departments as a result of the well acknowledged economic downturn. O'Keefe (who in some ways instigated a rather brilliant but hard-ball political move) may be rightly focusing national attention on education funding, but we must acknowledge that many government departments currently face funding pressures and shortfalls.

In sum, the debate concerning education needs to be orientated around government finances overall. Thus, if we wish to draw money from wealthier individuals and households in view of financial pressures coming from various government departments (not just education), should we not debate increasing the higher 41% tax band? increasing corporation taxes? Or considering 'individualisation' measures in the form of 'stealth taxes'? Should focus and emphasis not lie instead on stimulating the economy and developing strategies to ensure sound long term fundamentals and a desirable revenue stream? (thus, lowering instead of increasing taxes might be the appropriate policy) Would such measures better benefit education funding and other government funding requirements in the long run? Overall, it seems pertinent to question what are the alternatives to reintroducing fees, which can serve to avoid the political unpleasantaries for all involved?

Importantly, by instigating this debate, discussion on related issues has followed; such that granting better third level access to lower income and disadvantaged groups requires increased emphasis and funding for primary and secondary level education. Scrutiny of the efficency and operations of third level institutions has also resulted from ongoing dialogue.

Finally, the issue is not just one of pragmatics (which some would wish you to believe ) in terms of quantifiable access levels to education and reducing inequality. It is also one of 'percieved' and 'real'; flexibility, choice and freedom in ones education. It is also about theunquantifiable benefits to Irish society as a whole. O'Keefe rightly instigated a debate. Lets just hope such a debate is thourough, insightful and fruitful!

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

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