Saturday, July 11, 2009

The thing about fees is...

My feelings towards the re-introduction of student fees were initially quite straightforward- a big NO. I felt that it would impact most on the lower-income students who were already struggling to cope with university registration fees and accomodation costs. I even spoke to Eamon Gilmore one night in the ‘Green Room’ (If you could call it that) of RTE’s Questions and Answers and urged him to oppose the re-introduction of college fees wholeheartedly. I said that it would stop people from disadvantaged areas going to college, using my own area of Crumlin/Walkinstown as an example. I told him that I was the only one of my group of seven childhood friends to go on to third-level education and that I was one of a handful of people my age in the area I knew who went to university.

Then, as I spent more time in DCU, I realised that it wasn’t all so simple. As it is, there are very few people from any sort of ‘disadvantaged’ areas going to college. DCU’s ‘Access’ programme, which allows ‘working class’ students to go to DCU, doesn’t seem to extend to the southside of our city. Where are all the Access students from Dolphin’s Barn? Jobstown? Ballyfermot? Killinarden? The majority of people in colleges come from at least a reasonably well-off background. As a result, it seems, the majority seem to be terribly relaxed towards their college degree. One lecturer in my course resigned recently after a series of (at least a little bit) unwarranted and exaggerated claims were made against her by my fellow students. College, to these people, is about ‘the buzz’ and ‘the craic’, not the degree.

My message to the Department of Education is this; bring back college fees through the Australian system of student loans. This system is where a student pays no registration fee or fee initially for their course, but instead repays their debt after they have graduated and reached a certain income threshold (which has not been specified). According to The Irish Times in this article, the system could yield e380 million once it is fully operational (although it will cost e75 million per year initially). The amount to be repaid- the loan- will be a minimum of e21,000, with the fee increasing depending on the field of study.

I am in favour of this scheme. Granted, if I was to be selfish I could oppose it, as it will cost students significantly more than a degree costs currently, but we have to look at things (as FF keep telling us) ‘in the wider plan’. The one thing I would advise is that any scheme must be means-tested. The higher your family’s income, the higher your loan should be. Maybe this would force the wealthier students out there into actually thinking before they select a course to study, and not just go to a course because of the ‘buzz’ in the particular university.

There should, however, be certain caveats in any such scheme (as Mark Coughlan points out in his excellent post here). There should, most definitely, be no freeze in third-level recruitment enforced through the loan scheme. The loan scheme must be adequately funded if it is to work correctly. Finally, the ‘Access’ programme, as seen in DCU, should be extended to all colleges (and funded by the institution itself, in combination with the local county council) and it should be correctly applied, not simply to areas that once had ‘a bad name’. It too should be means tested and open to all.

To my fellow students who oppose the introduction of third level fees in any form (the USI et al); the current system of free education for all is nice, but completely unsustainable. Look around you, everyone is being hit. We happen to be in the ‘safe’ zone of university, we must share the hurt with our working brethren who are not so lucky.

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