Never Mind the Neoliberalism: Free Fees is the Only Sensible Option

This article was originally written for Trinity News:

There have been many comments made about the outcome of the USI special congress, criticising the continued free-fees stance as being unrealistic given the current economic climate. My question to these self-professed realists is this, what other outcome could you expect? How could a union morally and ethically accept a stance which would be to the financial detriment of its members? To accept any other stance would be to sign the death warrant of student representation in Irish life.

Furthermore, all available information points to the fact that 100% Exchequer-funded education is the only sensible option. Subsequent events have proven that the union was right in maintaining this stance. The new HEA report claims that students will have to be charged €5,000 or more to plug the higher education funding gap. If the USI had backed the student contribution charge, which was the second most popular option, it would have been less able to oppose this upcoming challenge. It would have been a vote for fees by the back door.

While the high levels of support in Trinity College for the student contribution charge shows a widespread acceptance that students must foot a certain amount of the bill, the rejection of tuition fees shows that this must be within reasonable bounds. On a pragmatic level, it makes a lot more sense to support free fees as a means of warning the government that excessive increases will be unpopular.

What’s more, neither of the other options seem workable. The student loan scheme would simply leave young people in debt before they even start working. The Graduate tax would have a similar impact. Both schemes are rife with perverse incentives: graduates would be encouraged to emigrate to avoid payment. Given Ireland’s history of emigration, the effects of this cannot be underestimated. Why would the government back such a flawed structure?

100% Upfront-fees is obviously a non-starter, especially at a time when most families have seen a substantial drop in their incomes. It would also be economically suicidal, given that we are trying to bolster our high-tech sector, which demands a highly skilled workforce.

When all due consideration is given, the 100% Exchequer-funded option in fact seems to have the best chance of working, although the measures required to make it work are politically unpalatable. Yet we must acknowledge the fact that if we want to have a well funded higher education system, we must be willing to pay more taxes.

The opposition to what would be a worthwhile investment seems quite odd, given the fact that both a loan scheme and graduate tax are deemed to be worth consideration. Both are effectively additional taxes on income, and both will take some time to completely plug the funding gap (another point against them). In contrast, increasing income tax itself could plug the funding gap within a year.

No matter how great the odds stacked against us are, we must never aspire to mediocrity. We are citizens of this country, and it is our right to demand the best, even when it seems unlikely that we will get it. Thus while a fully exchequer funded model appears politically impossible in the short to medium term, we must still ask ourselves how other European countries manage to make it work. Is our problem one of impracticality, or an excess of neoliberal values?

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