On the first option, Ireland once had free tuition fees. They were introduced during the 1994 – 1997 “Rainbow Government” made up of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The then Minister for Education and Labour TD for Dún Laoghaire, Niamh Bhreathnach, made this sweeping reform, much to the delight of her left-leaning colleagues.
Free education sounds like a great thing and now that everyone had access to it, surely that meant more people will go to college from all walks of life? No, that was not the consequence.
The reality was that this was just a tax credit for middle class and rich parents who could now send their children to college without the burden of the costs. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and deprived areas did not increase their participation in higher education as some might have thought.
The reasons for this are numerous including young people simply not being encouraged to attend and that it might not even be on their radar in the first place as no one else in the home went to college.
The other option would be to introduce a student loan scheme that would mean students would have to repay debt once they graduate from their respective courses. This brings us to our next question – should those who benefit from third level education have to pay a premium for it? It is my firm and strongly held belief that yes they should.
The Union of Students in Ireland commissioned a working paper by the Nevin Economic Research Institute in 2014 and it stated that a person who has achieved a third level qualification will, on average, earn 75% more over their lifetime than someone who did not.
That is an incredible advantage to have and indeed a substantial economic boost for any person. Therefore, why is unfair to ask that they contribute to the costs of giving them that economic boost to ensure that the third level sector is sufficiently resourced for our children?
Those who benefit from third level should contribute for the future generations – it’s fair and just that they do so. But is a student loan scheme the best option? No, it’s not as it leaves a debt burden and is open to substantial manipulation by market forces.
A better and fairer way is to introduce a Graduate Tax. A Graduate Tax allows access to third level to be free at the point of entry, allowing all socio-economic backgrounds to enter without fear of immediate payments. It would also mean that when a person graduates and secures employment, they would pay a nominally higher rate of PRSI until a sufficient balance of the cost of education is paid off.
It is fair because you don’t start paying until you gain employment, it can be adjustable allowing you to repay the full amount or a minimal amount according to your specific circumstances, and it ensures that third level education has a sufficient flow of income to meet the needs of the future.
It’s all well and good to say things should be free, but we need to be honest with ourselves and realise that education standards in Ireland are falling and we need to do something about it. Year after year we read that our top universities are falling in the world rankings. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys and I would rather attend a world-class third level institution than a zoo with lecture theatres.
Those who earn the most should pay the most; it’s a basic principal that I firmly believe in. Those who propose that we introduce free fees say taxing the rich can pay it for. The rich already pay their fair share. The top 1% of earners pay 20% of all income tax, the top 5% pay 40% of all income tax and the top 20% pay 77% of all income tax.
The Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) have said that Ireland has the most progressive taxation system in Europe. Saying that the rich don’t pay their way is a complete and utter nonsense purported by the left to make their arguments sound credible.
However, as I have stated, those who attain degrees earn 75% more than those who don’t. It is only fair and just that we ask them to make a contribution to ensure that the education they received is as good, if not better, for the generations coming down the line.
Free education does not tackle our societal problem of getting people from poorer backgrounds to third level. The way we do that is by changing attitudes and minds to show people that going to college can be a really positive decision on their lives, if it is given a chance.
When you hear later on in the year from our student leadership of the desire to have free fees, just think about whether that is really a fair approach? Should those who earn the most not pay the most? Should those who never went to college subsidise those who eventually benefit greatly from it?