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At a time in which some in even the US are considering the removal of tuition fees, there’s a weary irony in the prospect of the return of fees being mooted again in Ireland. Fueled by the Irish Independent, which on past form has little ‘love lost’ between some of its correspondents and the public education sector, this morning’s reports centred around the University Presidents’ call for the funding crisis to be addressed. As figures from the Central Statistics Office show, the number of students in higher education increased by over 24% in the period 2003-2012 and the funding didn’t exactly keep pace, with a real terms cut of over 20% in funding per student in the same period.

As the Presidents argue, Ireland’s budget of €1.1billion euro needs to be increased by €500 million to keep up with the pressures from demographic change. That this is unlikely to be offered anytime soon by government leads (those whose views have been quoted in the debate thus far) to the suggestion that student fees need to return – or rather, that the ‘fee-in-everything-but-name’ student contribution needs to be increased significantly made feasible via a loans mechanism.

When asked about this on live radio this morning, having come in to discuss another matter, the Minister for Education stated that fees and a loans system (as has been proposed) would not be the easy fix that might be imagined “at a cocktail party or over dinner” since it would require a large upfront payment mechanism for the amount of the loan and that the experience of many other countries demonstrates clearly that default rates are high. Unfortunately, his proffered solution, though, was somewhat less impressive based around a comment that the ‘regional clustering,’ which we are now undergoing in the sector, will ultimately lead to efficiencies.

There is a funding crisis and it is compounded by the constraints of the ECF (Employment Control Framework), not just in its reduced staffing targets but the undifferentiated way in which those staffing cuts are happening across the board, with each almost random opportunity to abolish a post taken, making proper planning virtually impossible.

But the question as to how best to fund higher education is fundamentally one of values and whether you think that education represents an investment in all our futures, or a cost to the individual. And if you’re an advocate of the so-called knowledge economy, then who should be investing in that economy: the government or hard-pressed students and their families, despite knowing that a ‘knowledge economy’ is not one which is labour-intensive and that such ‘high end’ jobs are not to be had for significant numbers of graduates? When we moved to a system of mass higher education, and it became almost a natural expectation of school-leavers, then how fair is it to saddle them with massive debts they may well spend decades paying off, if at all? But can we afford, in this time of austerity, to spend more on education – well, as the old cliché goes, can we afford not to?

The question is, where’s the money going to come from. Well I’m sure there are a few possible sources that involve taxation, particularly for those at the high end, companies who benefit from the graduate supply and there’s a small matter of the unjust burdening of the citizenry of the country by the debts of the banks and the ‘unburnable’ bondholders and speculators. Though I suspect any justice on that front probably will take some time coming.

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