University fees are looking inevitable

TCD Phil logo, via their site.The question of the return of university fees has been a concern of this blog for some time (see, eg, here, here, here). Via the invaluable Ninth Level Ireland, I learn of three stories this morning on the issue. Cumulatively, they seem to suggest that university fees are looking inevitable (which, I suspect, means that the Minister for Education has managed this debate very well indeed, initially trailing an idea for discussion, then preparing the public for them, and now sitting back while the debate is broadly about what form they should take). The first of today’s stories is from today’s Irish Indpendent, by John Walshe, Education Editor:

Crisis-hit university chiefs demand the return of fees

Three university presidents yesterday stepped up their campaign for the early return of tuition fees. And one warned that unless fees for all were reintroduced, Irish universities would face a “disaster” within two years.

The warning from the presidents of Trinity College, Dublin City University and University College Cork came as some colleges sank deeper into debt amid fears of further cuts before the end of the year. The president of University College Cork, Dr Michael Murphy, said everyone was on the frontline, with neither students nor academic staff immune to cutbacks.

Dr Murphy’s views are alarming, but not, I think, alarmist. It is the inevitable consequence of public sector cutbacks in the education sector. This may mean not only the return of student fees and pay cuts for academics, but other things as well: the reduction in staff numbers, the merger of colleges, departments or courses, and so on. There are rough times ahead. There is more on the comments of the Provost of TCD and President of DCU from today’s Irish Times, by Pamela Newman

TCD provost says return of third-level fees inevitable

A greater student contribution to third-level funding is inevitable, the provost of Trinity College Dublin has said. Speaking at a TCD Philosophical Society [logo above] debate entitled “Students should bear the cost of the crisis in university funding”, John Hegarty said universities needed more funding if they were to maintain their level of performance and excellence. …

Bartley Rock, education officer with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) [who formerly held a similar role in the TCD Students Union], argued against the reintroduction of fees, saying they would cause students a lot of financial distress … He said the free fees initiative had helped to lower barriers and sustain a high level of students going through third-level education in Ireland.

A post this morning from A University Blog, the diary of Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, President of DCU, who was also speaking at that debate, explains what the return of fees ought to mean:

Debating fees

… Right now, the key issue for me is that, whatever we might say are the principles of the matter, higher education is about to face dramatic and potentially lethal funding cuts in the current state of the public finances, unless we adopt some form of user payment for those who can afford it. … Given the comments recently by the Minister for Education, I suspect that fees will be introduced, but I still fear that the framework will not be ideal or even appropriate. The system of tuition fees must satisfy several objectives: it must be provide for sufficient resources to make Irish universities internationally competitive; it must not just replace public money; it must be easy to administer; it must ensure that everyone, regardless of income, will be able to study at third level if suitably qualified. None of these things are assured, and I shall develop them a little in future posts on this blog.

I am not sanguine that this will be the case. The return of fees is being thought of in political terms as simply a way of transferring the current costs from the Government to the students. I suspect that we will see fees return from 2010-2011 academic year (it is probably too late in the current Leaving Certificate/CAO cycle for them to return in time for the 2009-2010 academic year beginning next September, but I could be wrong). I think that Michael Murphy, John Hegarty, Ferdinand von Prondzynski and their counterparts in other universities must all be hoping that even if the short run position won’t change, they will be better off in the long run: in particular, if fees come back now, even if set by the government, then the universities can lobby later for the right to set them themselves. But I doubt the success of this strategy, and I fear that we (the universities, their employees, the students, and their parents) will all be worse off as a consequence.