College Fees

“Incoming students in the 2009/2010 academic year should now be on notice that in the event of a Government decision to introduce a new form of student contribution from a future point in time, any such arrangements are liable to apply, from that time, to students who enter higher education this year.” (Tom Boland quoted in today’s Irish Times)

The reintroduction of college fees has been a feature of the policy landscape for the last year in particular. As yet it is not clear from reading the debate what is likely to be proposed. A number of issues arise from an economics and an education point of view around firstly whether fees should be reintroduced and secondly what type of mechanism should be used if they are to be reintroduced. Proponents of the reintroduction of fees argue that it will increase available finance and perhaps autonomy to the third level system and also that it will remove a subsidy that accrues to a greater extent to the better off (particularly if scholarships based on means-tests are brought forward in parallel). Opponents point to potential discouragement of people in middle-income categories, potential financial hardship for students, and also poor timing in the sense that graduates in the next number of years will face a very depressed labour market.

There are a number of other questions about the details of any reintroduction that haven’t been debated in the media. I’m sure people will have many more issues. But to start with, we do not have a sense yet whether this is being proposed only for the universities or for the IOT’s also. The extent to which a family income threshold will be used has been floated in many articles but what is the appropriate level and does it make sense to tell an 18 year old that their entitlement to state support depends on their household income? The extent to which fees will be used as a replacement for existing college funding sources as opposed to an extension may seem somewhat obvious now but still has not been discussed much in public.

This IFS document analysing the British case is useful background reading for what I’m sure will be a purely evidence-based debate. According to the Times, a 100 page document will be circulated by the Minister for Education to his cabinet colleagues next month. He should make it publicly available also – it really wouldn’t hurt to have a debate about such a deeply important issue.