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Fifth Year Runner Up: Aoife Twomey Villiers School, Co. Limerick

Fifth Year Runner Up: Aoife Twomey Villiers School, Co. Limerick

Whether or not you agree with state funding in third level depends largely on your politics and your financial situation. Either way, we must reverse the decline in standards of third-level education in Ireland. On pondering this topic, the first question that came to mind was: Is education of benefit to society? If yes, then society should fund it. If education is not of benefit to society, then why spend money on an education system at all? However, it would seem illogical to argue that society does not benefit from education since we all benefit from the education given to doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Education has social and economic value. An investment in knowledge pays long-term dividends. As Robin Cook says ‘Education is more than a luxury; it is a responsibility that society owes to itself’.

Education is undoubtedly a dominant factor in the success of many Irish men and women and influences their earning potential. In order to generate the best quality graduates who are competitive on a global scale, higher education institutions need adequate funding. I agree with Hourigan that it is worth investing taxpayers’ money in an educated population, who in turn contribute to the economic and social development of the country. In other words, there is good pay-back on state investment in education. Education and skills support advanced industries that pay higher salaries and, therefore, return higher taxes to the government over the working life of an educated employee.

It could be argued that when something has a cost, it is appreciated and valued more. However, that depends on your disposable income. Could ordinary families shoulder five-figure loans when they have already been battered by recession? No. Students will seek work abroad rather than stay to repay unmanageable loans. In my opinion, student loans are intended to prop up the shortfall in funding from the government, and those least well off will be most affected. Ireland has been insidiously introducing tuition fees by the name of ‘registration fees’. I agree with Hourigan in arguing that these fees are a retrograde step in education.

The funding circle needs to be squared, but fees are not the best solution. Despite the introduction of registration fees, all Irish universities, including Trinity, have been steadily declining on a global benchmark in recent years. The universities argue that this decline is due to the reduction in funding and resources available. It is evident, therefore, that the introduction of fees has not helped our universities as it is argued fees would do. We need to develop a feasible solution, not a fees solution, to declining education standards.

It is a basic principle of economics that increasing the price of goods or services makes them available to fewer people. The burden of fees will deter students, and the cycle of poverty will persist. Student loans must be repaid. Less well-off families cannot afford to take on another bill. So inevitably, we would end up with a two-tiered education system where rich families who can afford university will thrive and students from low-income families will be left debt-ridden and unable to progress in society. There is overwhelming evidence that for low-income families, saddling them with debt and fear of failure would lead to mental health problems and stress which cost the government on healthcare. By placing a financial barrier on education, society will lose out. To invest in its own success, society needs to invest in education.

It would be interesting to determine if countries who invest more money in education, spend more or less on crime management and prison systems. In the United States of America, where fees are attached to the education system. The prison population in the USA is 0.91% of the adult population of the country. Additionally, 1 in 15 adults are on probation. In European countries, including Ireland, which invest state money in education, the prison population is a smaller percentage of the total population at 79: 100,000 or .079%. Could fees be a factor in crime? Maybe Victor Hugo had a point when he said, ‘He who opens a school door, closes a prison’.

It is often argued that university is not for everyone. By introducing student loans, we could reduce the numbers who progress to higher education and thereby the cost to the taxpayer. This is a strong argument if the brightest people continued to university. Unfortunately, it is the wealthiest, not necessarily the brightest. A recent survey by the Higher Education Authority of those in receipt of state grants illustrates that few people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds progress to the top universities. It is economic status primarily that determines who performs best in the Leaving Certificate and who dominates the higher professions in elite universities.

I can hear the opposition in my head as I type: ‘Where’s the money supposed to come from?’. This question irritates me.  Ireland had the money to waste on unsuccessful electronic voting machines and a water charge scheme that isn’t working. There are endless examples of wasted money and unsuccessful schemes, but no money for education. It seems to me that the Irish solution to every problem is to charge the ordinary Irish people. We must ask ourselves, if not to education, where are our taxes going?

‘Why should the rich pay to educate the poor?’ one might ask. To me, the answer is straightforward. Everyone benefits from an educated society and the cycle of socio-economic disadvantage is broken. Writing in the Economy section of The Irish Times on March 10th 2015, John Fitzgerald confirmed that ‘the benefits of rising educational attainment are highlighted in the recent employment figures published by the Central Statistics Office. They show that, since the recovery in employment began at the beginning of 2012, a majority of the net jobs created have been for graduates’. This supports my opening assertion that education is not just of personal benefit but of wider social benefit. Therefore, I support Hourigan’s view that general taxation, not fees, should fund third level.