By FEE UCD
As has been well documented, when Labour became the balance of power under the Spring Tide, one of their lasting achievements was the abolishment of third level fees for all undergraduates. Next week, students of UCD will be asked whether or not they want to abandon this principle in favour of a more “realistic” option in the current economic climate. Most of us in the college have felt the crisis’ bite already, if it is needing welfare assistance or an increased reliance on the grant, an so it may seem reasonable to suggest that an alternative is needed, but how realistic are these alternatives?
Firstly, and most obviously, there is the reintroduction of full fees, paid upfront at the beginning of every year. Certainly this would relieve a great deal of stress from the Department of Finance, and yet it does nothing to help the vast majority of the population. Already, in the first few years of the recession, we have seen a great increase in the disparity between rich and poor in the nation, something that will only increase as it continues. If Universities were able to set their own prices on entry it would not be to the benefit of lower or even middle income applicants. Some will argue that this will increase the funding for third level but if we follow the current system and simply add the student contribution to what the state pays, there would be no increase in revenue, and probably a decrease as less people will attend college.
The other main alternative is referred to as the student loan system, its premise being that all the graduates will pay back a certain amount of their wages once they start earning. This is the system that has been in Australia since the late 1990s and is generally seen as a colossal failure. Many graduates simply emigrate as soon as they have finished their degree, never re-contributing or paying back their loans, causing the state to bail out the independent loan companies for millions of dollars. It has also come to light about how much the undergraduates suffer in trying to maintain a passable standard of living, working as many hours as they have classes, while 1 in 8 have been admitted to hospital for stress, malnutrition and fatigue.
Our own Student Union President is promoting the idea of a graduate tax, against the mandate currently in place in the college. What this means is that anyone with a bachelor’s degree will have to pay and extra form of taxation once they have reached a certain earning threshold. It seems to fail to take into account that this is still money taken from the exchequer initially, only to be removed from the economy later on, nothing will change. In any case, the facts show that anyone with a higher degree generally earns at the higher tax level already, you already pay for your degree once you start earning.
And so we return to the fully exchequer paid system. Since its introduction attendances have increased amongst all areas in society, and particularly amongst the middle class. Only a few years after its introduction, the number of highly trained graduates was one of the reasons that Ireland experienced a boom the likes of which it had never seen before. With a distorted healthcare system and a welfare system that has been slashed beyond all recognition, the education system could be the jewel in the Irish state, just like the NHS is in the UK.
We are not being asked in this “preferendum” what is realistic, what we are being asked is what we would prefer, what is ideal, and what should we strive towards? It took nearly forty years to achieve a partially state-funded system for undergraduates and if we let it go now, we will never get it back.