The Rising Cost of Education
It is 2017, 21 years since university fees were scrapped in Ireland. This landmark event was supposed to herald a new era in the education industry where parents and students could finally enjoy the benefits of third level education sans the high cost of putting a child through university. However, the situation on the ground is nothing close to it as the cost of education in Ireland is still high and is steadily rising each year.
It would seem to be a good thing to abolish tuition fees and one would expect that, over the years, the diversity in Irish schools would increase as the barriers to entry for students from lower income backgrounds were lifted. However, this is not the case. While there has been an increase in the participation of students from a low income background, it still lags far behind that of students from a high income background while the overall participation is now among the highest ones in the OECD.
Of particular importance is the increasing strain caused by the increasing enrollment on institutional resources coupled by the inadequate funding coming from government sources. The administration fee administered on students for registration, services and other administrative facilities has risen from 200 Euros per student each year to more than 3000 Euros per student per year. That puts Ireland at number 8 in terms of highest third level education fees per student according to an OECD report. But it doesn’t end there…
Student contributions aren’t the only expense to be considered. Rental rates in Ireland are experiencing inflation at a rate of 10% per year, a rate that even the employed are complaining about as they are a far cry from expectations, considering average income. The cheapest accommodation in Dublin, for example, costs over 300 Euros per month (A shared room) while a one bedroom apartment will cost north of 1000 Euros.
Travel expenses will cost over 1200 Euros per year while books and mobile phones combined will cost an extra 1000 Euros. Depending on whether the student is still living at home or away from home, annual costs can range anywhere from 5,000 Euros to 8,000 Euros while total costs for the duration of third level education can escalate up to 30,000 Euros.
Before 1993, the third level education system was subsidized by a grants system. However, a report commissioned by then labour minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, concluded that the largest beneficiaries of the system were farmers and other self employed citizens. Due to a very low income threshold, PAYE workers found themselves shut out of the system while the self employed, whose income was much harder to determine, could simply game the system by claiming various losses. The report author, Donal de Buitleir, recommended a remedy to the problem that took into consideration actual assets so that wealthy but self employed citizens were excluded from the system. This proposal was, however, vetoed by Fine Gael, the dominant party at the time, as well as now. An additional problem pointed out in the report was the allocation of costs by high income parents to their children’s fees which lowered their income tax liability.
Tuition fees were abolished on the strength of the Donal de Buitleir report in a move that, in the estimation of Niamh Bhreathnach, would lower barriers to entry for students from low income households. Many have come to question this decision as the only problem with the grants system at the time, which paid fees anyway for the poor students who won grants, was that the threshold was unfairly low for PAYE families. One interesting offshoot of the free tuition regime is that well off parents are simply appropriating the money they would have spent on third level fees to pay for expensive private school tuition for their children for primary school and second level. This is evident in the Department of Education Figures which show that a growing number of parents are turning to private schools to educate their children. The result: increasing private school fees. So not only are costs high at third level despite free tuition, but free tuition is actually causing a trickledown effect and leading to higher fees at lower levels.
There have been many proposed solutions to the problem: Professor Sean Byrne from DIT, for example, proposes a return to tuition fees and a more equitable grant system while others are suggesting a student loan system to cover fees. A comparison with USA, however, shows that defaults would be a serious problem if the student loans weren’t efficiently administered; almost on the same level as the subprime mortgages in the financial meltdown of 2008. Whatever solutions are suggested, everyone agrees that Ireland’s escalating costs of education are a serious problem that needs to be looked into. A good solution will ensure that parents who can afford to pay their children’s tuition do so while deserving students get unfettered access to third level education.