Free Fees (with every packet of cornflakes)

So Batty O’Keefe is flying kites in the run up to the Leaving Cert results. Nice one centurion. He has proposed the reintroduction of college fees for students from families where people are earning an “excellent” salary. He defines this as being somewhere to the north of “anybody on €100,000” and “millionaires”. Mr O’Keefe seems to be living in Vague City here, flying an amorphous kite in what appears to be a painfully non-fictional episode of Yes Minister.

Is it proposed that this will be the joint household income or the income of each earner in the family? What about a project manager in a utility company who is married to a civil servant at HEO level? Combined salaries here could encroach on the €100,000 level . These are not exactly high flying jobs however, particularly if you factor in costs related to commuting etc on top of normal day to day family costs.

What happens if you have a windfall in a given year (like old uncle Davy popping his clogs and leaving you his prize collection of original Beano comics)? Would such unforseen windfalls be included in the calculations?

What would the cost to the Exchequer be of administering the ‘Santa List’ of people who are Naughty (earn too much in Mr O’Keefe’s view) and Nice (earn what Mr O’Keefe thinks to be a reasonable salary)?

Would Universities be required to gather information on parents earnings before awarding students places (so they know who to charge what and when)? How would the costs of capturing, analysing and securely storing this information be met? (Yes, I know.. from fees).

Would families be able to earn full tax relief on the college fees paid (and if so, what would that cost the Exchequer and how would those costs be offset in the tax take)?

Would there be exemptions of a household had more than one child at 3rd level at any given time? In a household of 3 students, with fees costing approximately €5k per year (based on the current costs of Masters degrees) would the family pay a flat €5k for the 3, €7500, €10,000 or the full €15k? Would the minister be suggesting a “buy 2 get 1 free” for degrees?

When would this come into effect? Would families with students who started 3rd level last year or starting this year find themselves having to find a few grand more in the kitty in 2009 or 2010?

What exactly is the Minister expressing here (other than expressing a need to have his name in the headlines during a dull August and a need to be seen to be doing things?)

What Minister? What?

Yes, 3rd level education requires more funding. I know, I teach there from time to time, and I was taught there from time to time. I was one of the ‘transition’ students who started their college career paying fees back in the early 1990s and were then set free.

I’ll admit was skeptical about the Labour Party plan to bring in free fees and heartily opposed it as a student during debates in UCD – which lead to a few ‘discussions’ with my more left-wing friends. I felt at the time that there was bound to be a more equitable format which would not squeeze University funding unduly while still allowing for social equity and more open access to 3rd level for families from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But the human face of free fees for me was my brother. He was 2 years behind me and, but for free fees, would have had to face the choice of deferring his 3rd level education for 2 years until I had finished my degree. And if I’d gone on to post-graduate study, his chance to shine as a student might perhaps have been put off longer. Free fees meant my mother was able to send her two eldest sons to University at the same time, paving the way for el guapo (the Third) to follow a few years after.

Batt O’Keefe’s proposals (and it is worth noting that the Green Party are making it clear that this is NOT a government proposal, Mary Hanafin has likewise come out against it, as has the leader of the Progressive Democrats, Ciarán Cannon) have some merit if you look at the argument that those who can afford to spend thousands per year on private education at second level for their children might well be asked to foot the bill at 3rd level. However, one must as the question – why do people opt to send their children to fee paying private schools when there is competition for places at 3rd level? Might the apparent availability of better resources, teacher and student supports and other factors (like working toilets and roofs that don’t leak) when compared with state funded schools be a factor? Will the Minister’s proposals address those root causes?

If the logic for bringing back in fees is to extract funding from people on “excellent salaries” (and we are I must remind you that we are living in Vague City with that term) why not just levy a tax on high earners to create an “Education Fund” to support 3rd level and state funded 2nd Level and Primary sectors? This tax could be levied on all earners of “excellent salaries”, not just those who have children of University going age. The amount levied per year could be smaller (as the pool affected would be larger and over an indefinite period). However, the taxes so collected MUST be ringfenced for education spending only at each level – and not on vanity projects for Ministers but on fundamental tools and resources such as flushing toilets that don’t double as class rooms, and funding research on broad issues rather than focussed industry sponsored research projects.

The collection of this tax could be done through the normal taxation system (no additional costs). Exemptions could easily be given on grounds of social need through the existing system. Fees could be kept free; the 2008 equivalent of me and my brother would dodge the bullet and the guilt of one having to forego their place just because of costs.

Ultimately, this would be more equitable as all “millionaires” in the country would be asked to chip in to fund education and learning – the very education and learning that helped develop the economy which allowed them to make their money. Millionaires would not be discriminated against simply because of they have kid or two with delusions of ‘edumication and learning’.

Fairer for all, and certainly more structured than the vague and amporphous kite-like citizen of Vague City that Batt O’Keefe has floated on the rain-sodden air.

Ultimately – investment in the training, development and intellectual capital of our country is a key element in developing future productivity and capability. That has to start at Primary level, be continued to Secondary level and then capped off at 3rd level. Minister O’Keefe has an opportunity to take a considered and courageous stand on funding for education in a way that is of benefit to most rather than punitive to many.

Or he might bring down the government… either way a positive contribution.