The issue of third level fees in Ireland has been controversial for well over a decade now. I have a long history in this debate; as far back as 2002, I was one of a group of students who occupied the boardroom of the Department of Education in Marlborough Street, after then-Minister Noel Dempsey (Fianna Fáil) suggested he was considering the idea.

Look! I had hair!

2002 is a long time ago, and I’ve changed my mind on a lot of political positions since then – but not this. My opinion has only been reinforced by my experience working in UK universities, particularly where I am now in England.

Since I was a student in Ireland, fees have not been introduced as such – but the registration fee, which I think was £150 when I started (yes, pre-€), is now up to €3,000 per year. While lower than the level of fees in England, it’s paid upfront in full, which the English fees are not – so in some ways it’s even worse.

Now, the Government has asked the Oireachtas Education Committee to review the options for the future funding of third-level education outlined in the Cassells Report. Three options are on the table: maintaining the status quo; free fees; or a student loan scheme, with students repaying the cost of fees once they are earning over a minimum threshold. This is the system currently in operation in England.

I want to make the case for why Ireland should absolutely not copy England’s approach. To do that, I’ll first give a bit of the history to show how the English system has changed over the past couple of decades and where they are now. I’ll then talk about some of the consequences of the current system in England with respect to the reasons people usually argue in favour of fees; and then discuss some unintended consequences. I’ll bring it back to Ireland at the end.

Third-level in England

Over the past quarter century, higher education in England has changed significantly. In 1992, the polytechnics were upgraded, creating 35 new universities overnight. In 1997, the Dearing Report recommended that students should pay, in part, the cost of university education through income-dependent loans repayable after graduation. The government rejected this at first, instead introducing a means-tested up-front student contribution to tuition fees in 1998, capped at £1,000. However, they later changed their mind, introducing fees up to £3,000 from 2006, accompanied by a student loan system to delay fee repayment, in addition to the pre-existing maintenance loan.

This level of student fees didn’t cover the whole cost, with the government still making a big contribution. However, in 2010, the Browne Review recommended the ending of the government contribution to higher education funding for most students. This was implemented later that year by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government, with the first full fees paid (again, through student loans), by 2012 entrants.

The ending of direct government support for university fees was a mainly ideological change, based on the belief that the benefits of a university education principally represent a private good for students as individuals; rather than a public good benefiting the entire country, the previous rationale for the funding of higher education by the government since 1960. Recent policy, continued by the conservative governments after the coalition, regards students as consumers, and has even brought students within the Consumer Rights Act.

This approach still has wide political support, with some advocating for the removal of the cap on tuition fees (currently £9,250), and even further increased marketisation in higher education, for example to include for-profit universities. However, others have noted significant negative effects of the changes.

How it hasn’t worked

Aside from the purely ideological argument, proponents of student contributions to fees generally argue based on two main points: saving money for the government and taxpayers, and increasing access to third level education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The fees system in England has failed both of these objectives.

The Government pays the fees upfront, with students repaying once they are earning over £21,000 per annum, and any outstanding debt is cancelled after a period of 30 years. In fact, the level of repayment is so low that third level is still costing the government exactly the same as before.

Nor has there been any increase in access to higher-tier institutions to those students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. UCAS admissions data shows that that lower class and state school students are still far more likely to apply to non-Russell Group (the elite) universities, and remain less likely to be accepted to Russell Group universities even when as academically qualified as other applicants.

Unforseen consequences

More damaging, though, is the massive change in student attitudes, to a consumer-oriented focus, particularly since the raising of the tuition fee ceiling to £9,000. The students-as-consumers approach cemented in the Browne Review has fundamentally changed Higher Education in England, including the reasons students attend university, student programme and module choices, the attitude of students towards staff, and the attitude of students towards learning. There is a huge amount of academic literature on the topic; ask me if you’re interested.

In one study, Kaye and Bates (2017) found that while students attend university for a variety of reasons mostly unrelated to learning – including avoidance of full-time work, delaying leaving full-time education, seeking recognition within families, cultural expectations, and job prospects, since the rise in fees, job prospects have been the overwhelming main motivator, with university attendance often seen as a ‘safe option’. One of their participants said:

It seemed like the thing to do. It seemed safe … like … so further on in life, if ever … if you went straight into a job from sixth form, if ever that went wrong, you’d have like a degree, as like a back-up.

Students have also become more demanding of staff time and attention, have vastly increased expectations, seeking to be spoon-fed rather than work themselves, and engage primarily in passive surficial learning. Students seek to ‘have a degree’, rather than to learn.

These changes are highly damaging for students themselves. Studies have conclusively shown that the more consumerist students are, the worse they do. Worryingly, studies also show this consumerist attitude is overwhelmingly present in current students. For example, take this quote from a study by Nixon and colleagues in 2016:

A lot of work that’s not worth very much is the worst combination ever…We were on a field trip and we had to do this thing…and I said to [the lecturer] ‘I don’t understand why mine’s gone wrong, like I’ve followed all the steps’. And he said ‘Oh, you’ll have to redo it’ and I was like ‘Oh, what? I’ve been here for two hours…Is this marked?’ and he was like ‘No’ and I was like ‘Oh, well I’m not doing it then’. And he said ‘With that attitude you should just go home now’ and I was like ‘I’m in the Lake District, I’m not going anywhere, I’m physically stuck here’. To me if it’s not marked and I hate it, I’m just not going to do it, I might as well turn my attention to something where it’s credited…So I was just like whatever, I don’t need to do it, it isn’t important to me.

Students often show little or no subject engagement, show a shocking lack of motivation, and are disinterested in learning. Many are grade-focused to extremes, often ignoring work which is not directly assessed, regardless of how useful it is for learning or for future assessed work. Many don’t do any reading or independent work outside scheduled lectures. Of course this directly leads to poor results in coursework and exams, because the fundamental knowledge is not present, and skills haven’t been practiced.

They also show an extreme sense of entitlement, frequently demanding staff attention, often sending emails late in the evenings and on weekends seeking immediate responses, including to ask questions for which the answers are clearly given in module handbooks, assignment instructions, etc.

I don’t just know this from academic studies; and it’s not just me. I am yet to meet a colleague working in an English university who doesn’t say exactly the same.

Is this what we want for Ireland?

So, loan-based fees mean students do worse, don’t increase access for disadvantaged students, and don’t save the taxpayer any money. The only winners in all of this are the universities, who are charging more in fees from students than they used to get from the Government. That’s literally the only positive – and I haven’t even talked about the impact on students after they leave, with typical student loan debt of nearly £40,000.

Ireland has a problem with disadvantaged students being far less likely to go on to third level education. It has the problem that third level is expensive for the Government. It also has the problem that the universities are underfunded – there’s a reason I work in the UK, there’s no jobs going at home. Staffing levels haven’t recovered since the recession, with many departments under massive pressure, because they have too few staff to cover all the modules. Research suffers massively as well, because staff lecturing too many modules don’t have the time.

Loan-based fees will solve only maybe one of those problems.

Continuing the status quo will solve none of those problems.

Instead, I suggest that the government reduce the registration fee considerably, to say €250, and cover the remaining fees out of taxes. That will ensure consumerist attitudes don’t develop. However, I also propose that to save money, the government reduce the number of students. As I’ve written here before, not everyone needs to go to university. The government should significantly increase support for alternative post-school options, and let school-leavers choose the option which is best for them, rather than just going to university because it’s what you do.

This graphic is a little out of date, and has a couple of small errors, but it gets the point across:

Most European countries don’t charge much in fees. If they can do it, so can we.


Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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