Fifth Year Runner Up: Ihinose Enebi, Villiers School, Co. Limerick
Education can be defined as the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process. That only leads to the next most crucial question; what is learning? Thankfully, I also have the answer to that question. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skill through study, experience or being taught. Naturally, given the nature of this argument, the next and apparently the most important question is: should students have to pay for their education?
Up until a certain level, the answer to this question is a firm no. In Ireland, every child is entitled to primary and secondary education. As the right to basic education is quite a big deal in this day and age, it does not come as a surprise that there is free primary and post primary education available to all children and teenagers in Ireland today. However, when it comes to tertiary, things get a bit more complicated. Third-level education is not covered by the canopy of the term ‘basic education’, so it is not treated accordingly. This is because, as I am sure we are all aware, acts such as removing delicate tumours from the nervous system just cannot be included under the blanket of ‘basic’. It is for this reason that I strongly disagree with the notion that tertiary education should be funded solely by either the government or the taxes of the populace.
As of today, one in six of the students who started university in 2015 did not progress to their second year. What really needs to be asked is “why did these students drop out?” What a lot of students do not realize when they are applying to university is that it is a far different ball game than secondary school. As a student in university, you will be expected to take responsibility for your own learning. Students who are not properly prepared for this will not be dragged along by their lecturers as they would have been in secondary school; instead, they will be left to fall behind. Gone will be the days of teachers who carefully planned their lesson outlines and spoon fed information to ensure that students succeed at the Leaving Certificate. In this way, university is a harsh reality check for many. Whatever reason a student has to drop out would have been thought through more thoroughly if they were to enter university with some sort of significant financial obligation.
There is the opposing argument that claims fees will make potential students flee. From a slightly more sound perspective, it can be seen that this is not completely a bad thing. Whether or not their education is free should not be a factor that contributes to the academic progression of a dedicated student. Therefore, if financial responsibilities cause youths to shy away from furthering their education, then they are not the sort of people who are needed on the university educated workforce. A student truly dedicated to academically furthering themselves will not allow fees to deter or hinder them from achieving their goals. Not only do fees separate the determined students from the unmotivated ones, it quite literally gives a value to education and ensures that students reach their full academic capacity as there will be a heightened awareness of what is at stake.
In Sweden, the government completely covers the cost of tuition for students and sponsors grants and loans to aid students with their living expenses. Due to all that financial aid offered by the government, it would be thought that a great number of people would go to university; however, just over 40 per cent of the Swedish population have attended university, and about 45 per cent of them drop out before completion. One of the ways in which the Swedish government support the education system is through heavy taxation, with the second highest tax burdens in the world. Most Swedes who earn over €40,000 annually pay between 49 and 60 per cent income tax. This is but one country where free education has inevitably led to financial strain for the recipient of this education later on in life; citizens of Germany and Finland are also likely to end up in this same position. This is not a fate we want future generations to suffer, all because they got a free education they might not even have wanted or appreciated. Between 2008 and 2013, the Irish government has cut their funding of universities by 29 per cent, and the staff to student ratio has reached an all-time high of 20:1. Everyone in secondary school is being pushed towards university, yet the government spending on education is not increasing, but steadily decreasing. In turn, the universities are not receiving significant enough financial assistance to keep up the standard of college courses as well as maintain their facilities, yet they are expected to facilitate more and more students each year. For this reason, I think that the abolition of university fees back in 1995 was actually counter-progressive. Right now in Ireland, it is important that education is looked at from the viewpoint of qualitative over quantitative. The focus should not be to make sure that everyone goes to university, but to ensure that everyone who wants to go to university can receive a good quality education.
In an ideal world, everybody would be highly educated and work exceptionally high paying jobs. However, the issue with this situation is that if the world was filled with people who could afford to live in mansions, then who would be left to build them? There is a need for balance. Not everyone can be a white-collar mogul; some people need to be the blue collared service providers. There is great importance in the work done by plumbers, electricians and vulcanizers. These are all occupations that are vital for day to day life, and the best way to learn these skills is through first hand experiences and under the guidance of a mentor. Even if university is not within the price range of some, that is not an excuse to sit at home and do nothing. Looking at the possibility of getting an apprenticeship in an occupation that plays an important role in society and will not only ensure that less people are left without education or income, but also that communities will be able to operate. The thing about these service-providing jobs is that is that they are crucial to the regular everyday life. People have grown so reliant on them yet so accustomed to them that it is often forgotten that they are there. What would the world come to if there was no longer anyone willing to do these jobs? There would be no one to fix cars when they broke down, no one to repair leaking pipes and no one to take away the garbage from homes. Maybe the world would be better educated, but it would look as though it was in a state of anarchy. This is not to say that anybody who cannot afford university should give up immediately. Scholarships, loans and grants are all possible ways of financing a third-level education. This will see to it that most of the people who cannot afford university fees in their totality will still have an opportunity to pursue their aspirations and succeed on the merit of their academic excellence.
Generally, in the world, there are two forms of education: formal and informal. Formal education is the type that takes place in the classroom; it has a set structure, rules and guidelines that must be adhered to. In these ways, formal learning is associated with university education. Informal education cannot be taught in any school. As cliché as it may sound, informal education is comprised of lessons that can only be taught by life, experiences and observations. There should not be a situation whereby there is a conflict of formal versus informal education, but a case where both of them coexist harmoniously. What is not realized by enough people is that informal and formal education are equally important. They are both ways in which knowledge is acquired. Today, too much emphasis is put on education, but not enough is put on learning. Regardless of the form it comes in, education is education, and all means of obtaining it are equally valid. It should be that not everyone feels the need to go to university, but that people go because they want to. As both forms of education are equally legitimate and important for a functional society, the product of the two ought to be equally respected. The implementation of fees in itself will teach a priceless life lesson to the students who are faced with the responsibility of either paying for them or paying them off. It will direct the youth in how to properly manage money through budgeting, planning and saving and cause them to value the education they are receiving that much more by the virtue of the fact that they had to pay for it out of their own pockets. In this way, even in the quest of formal education, informal life lessons will be instilled in these scholars.
In Nigeria for instance, no form of education is truly free. There is always some sort of fee associated with education, right from primary school, and a vast majority of people cannot afford it. Unlike in Ireland, the Nigerian government provides no form of social welfare scheme for people who are out of work, and there is no option of collecting a monthly allowance for the benefit of one’s child. However, people still find a way to go to school if that is what they desire. They work and they take out loans, the students who are determined to go to school do not give up just because of a lack of funds. There is also no shaming of those who choose a path that does not involve formal education past secondary school. In Nigeria, the people within society realize that there is a need for people who run small shops, pump flat tires, clean homes and drive public transportation vehicles. The people who do these jobs are respected and valued members of society who play key roles in the day to day lives of many.
One of the reasons that this argument came to be is that there are a lot of potential undergraduates in Ireland who possibly cannot afford a university education. The question that nobody really seems to be asking them is whether they are going to university because it is truly what they want or if they are going because they feel the need to and fear the alternative. A way to remedy this problem and prevent it in the future is to destigmatize forms of post-secondary education that do not involve a classroom setting or formal learning. In a way, imposing school fees will open doors of opportunity to students in unexpected ways. It will guide them in following their passions, not just going to university because it seemed like the only option. The students who advance into tertiary education will be the ones who are devoted to their studies and they will have every opportunity to excel in an atmosphere of like-minded, determined peers. Those who decide to go down the route of experience-based learning or apprenticeship will be a part of a growing workforce that is quite relevant in society and most likely always will be.
In writing this, it took me a while to find a definition of education that really embodied what it meant. Everything I came across somehow managed to mention either education having to do with third level or education as a means of securing what is viewed as a ‘good job’. The introduction of school fees will hopefully cause more prospective undergraduates to think circumspectly before they make any major decisions about the avenue they intend to take after secondary school. The establishment of fees at tertiary level just might be what today’s society needs to remind them that long before education was viewed as a means to securing a job, it was an instructive and enlightening process through which knowledge or skills were acquired.
 Dylan Scully. (2016). Is it time for Ireland to reintroduce fees?. Available: http://trinitynews.ie/is-it-time-for-ireland-to-reintroduce-fees/. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017
 Abby Jackson. (2015). 'Free' college in Europe isn't really free. Available: http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-do-european-countries-afford-free-college-2015-6?r=US&IR=T. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017.
Sean Melly. (2016). The abolition of fees for third level was a regressive step. Available: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/the-abolition-of-fees-for-third-level-was-a-regressive-step-1.2610894. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017.