Summer is the season in Ireland in which the chatterati gather in rural locations to indulge in speculation, political kite-flying and cultural introspection. So it’s little surprise that well worn ‘ideas’ are once more lobbed out into the media for a bit of juggling in the hope that one or two politicians on their recess might catch the ball. Today’s is courtesy of the Provost of Trinity College and it’s the question of university fees, as if such didn’t already exist by virtue of the ‘student contribution’ (the ex ‘registration charge’) and the associated costs of living for three or four years. Of course, the argument goes “I see plenty of wealthy students around the place and isn’t it only right to get them to pay towards their education, particularly since they’ll also be high earners on graduation?” Or perhaps its the other tack that’s taken to woo popular support, “Why should people who have no children, or whose children are not going to university, have to pay the fees of the children of the wealthy?”
And in the “logic” of both of those lies the flaw in so much of the Irish social contract, or whatever passes for such here. Universalism, progressive taxation and, dare I say it, the notion of the “common weal,” don’t get enough of an outing in routine political discourse here for the ideas to have really bedded down. Sneering about ‘socialism’ (outside of the US, Ireland is one of the few other countries where this can be used as a slur by a large proportion of the educated population, rather than a badge of honour, or at least of failed promise) and a world view distorted by decades of social provision being the realm of ‘charity’ rather than the obligation of the state have all played their part, I suppose.
Yes, universities are struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, just to make the basic costs of keeping the doors open and the lights on, even though the classrooms are filled to the brim. But it’s not a ‘zero sum game’, to use that horrible, cliche. The institutions, as with schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, museums and more besides, are part of the broader public, social fabric for which we have an economy and taxation system in the first place. The modern, twisted form of polity in which we live is inverted, with the public serving the needs of ‘the economy’ instead. Those social goods which we still hold are, one by one, being transformed into commodities, prices attached, compared against others in arguments about affordability and cost. Each is isolated and expected to pay its own way. No cross-subsidies allowed, diversification of income-streams is the name of the game and the question of proper, fair, just taxation and a curbing of excessive profits are off limits. The stuff of a summer school perhaps? No, not even there. They are too tied up in the ‘manufacture of consent.’
But I sympathise with the Presidents and Provosts, the Bursars and the Registrars, but most of all of course, with those who can’t avail of access to all that higher education can offer for whatever reason. Where’s the money going to come from, if government is unwilling, as one financial year staggers into another with reduced budgets? But wouldn’t it be closer to the intellectual tradition to come up with a more critical, more imaginative and more radical solution? One which challenges assumptions and asks serious questions about what kind of a society we want to live in and which isn’t afraid to ‘speak truth to power’? I know, it won’t plug the gap in next month’s spreadsheet but demanding increased fees (we have them already) will contribute one more brutal tear to the already frayed social fabric that some of us were hoping to weave into a new, more just, more human future.