University fees? Yes, Minister

Water Cube, Beijing; via TCD webiste.Whenever I hear discussions of the funding of universities, my thoughts turn first to a classic Yes Minister (BBC | imdb | wikipedia) episode (imdb | synopsis | wikipedia | YouTube) in which the worthies in Sir Humphrey’s Oxford College lobby him against the pernicious effects of government funding policies. Much of that sketch is relevant to the current debate in Ireland about third-level tuition fees (Irish Times | RTÉ News), where it seems to me that two separate issues have been conflated (or confused) in some quarters. Moreover, one of these issues needs to be resolved before any of the other elements of the current debate can be properly addressed.

In 1996, when the Government “abolished” third-level fees, what actually happened was a little more complicated. Before that, the Government set a basic fee for each Irish (and EU) student; it paid about two-thirds of that basic fee; and it required the student to pay the remaining third. In 1996, the Government decided no longer to require the student to pay even that amount. If the “return” of third-level fees is simply a matter of cost-cutting on the part of the Government, then it will simply require the student once again to pay some portion of the basic fee. And this seems to me to be where most of the debate is being conducted.

However, the Minister for Education has said that, although the current economic climate is a reason to examine the re-introduction of fees, the main justification being put forward at present is a different one. It is that the current funding to the university sector is inadequate, a point that has long been made by the university sector. But the main cause of this situation is that the basic fee is too low. This can be seen quite clearly in the difference between the basic fee currently set by the Government for Irish (and EU) students and the fee charged by the universities to – usually but not always welcome – international (ie, non-EU) students [part of the background to this case]. The international fee is about three times higher than the Government-set basic fee. In other words, when Irish students were paying fees, they were paying a sum about one-ninth of what international students were paying.

Now, one way to remedy the inadequacy of the basic fee would simply be for the government to increase it. Of course, that won’t happen: even when the exchequer was in good shape, the government was reducing that fee in real terms. To meet the third level funding inadequacies, the government will need to do more than re-introduce fees: it will need also to allow the universities set the fees. If it does not do that, if the government simply re-introduces the pre-1996 position, then there will be no change to the universities’ fee income. If the fee payable by the student continues to be the amount set by the government, the fee income received by the universities will remain inadequate, and all that will change is the source (students [at least in part], rather than government) of that inadequate income.

So, when the Irish Universities Association (following the OECD’s 2004 recommendation) call for the re-introduction of student fees and welcome (Irish Times | IUA press release) the Minister’s statement, they must be asking for two things. First, they want to be able to set the basic fee charged to students; that is to say, the universities want to be able to set the fee for Irish (and EU) students themselves, rather than having to accept the fee set by the Government (though they may settle for the government continuing to set it, provided that they can be involved in the process by which it is calculated and that the process does indeed result in a more adequate fee structure). And second, since this university-set fee is likely to be (much) higher than the current government-set fee, and since they accept that the government will not pay (all of) this higher fee, the universities want to be able to charge the students this higher fee.

If the government is simply concerned with reducing its payments to the universities, and if political calculations allow, then it will simply revert to some version of the pre-1995 position. However, if it is concerned with ensuring that the university sector is adequately funded, it will allow the universities a role in the setting of the fees charged to students. It is only after this basic decision of principle is taken that the issues currently being discussed (how much of the basic fee should be paid by the government and how much by the student; who should and who should not pay; what mechanism of ex post or ex ante payment should be used; whether and how student loans and/or graduate taxes might be part of the package; and so on) can be properly assessed. Moreover, the issue of student fees is not the full solution to the universities’ funding problems; it is only one element of a much more broad-ranging approach to the future funding of the Irish University Sector (see, for example, the CHIU 2003 report, pdf, and the RIA 2005 Report Cumhacht Feasa). For all of these reasons, therefore, the question of the return of fees should not be conflated with the much larger questions of adequate funding for the university sector.

Finally, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, in a blog-post welcoming the Minister’s initiative, express his

… admiration for the Minister for having the courage to raise an issue which, as a country, we really do need to address.

Whenever I hear the word “courage” applied to a Minister, my thoughts turn to another classic Yes Minister episode (imdb | synopsis | wikipedia | YouTube) in which the best way to damn a policy is to describe it as “courageous” (a trope to which the series returns several times thereafter).