Sixth Year Runner Up: Glen Kiely, St. Munchins College, Co. Limerick.
“Non scholae sed vitae discimus” - Seneca, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium. In English: We do not learn for school, but for life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman philosopher and statesman; he died in 65 AD. Almost two thousand years later, it is clear that this quote still remains true in society and in scholastic matters today. An education may make us learned, but more-so it liberates us. It offers us illimitable opportunity. It is for life. Therefore, before I get to the task at hand, I ask: Why would a government implement a system which inhibits the population from reaching their full potential?
Niamh Hourigan, Sociology Department Head at UCCork, states that student loans will make graduates flee and that tax is the best way to fund third-level education; I believe this to be true. As a foundation for this essay, I will reference the government’s review of international funding models for higher education, where many methods of funding are explored. In order to correspond with the discussion, I will consider the “student fees” and “taxpayer funding” models that were reviewed in detail, and reference the other models when necessary.
Although disguised as a “student contribution”, presently, Ireland basically has a “student fees” (with rebates for disadvantaged students) model in operation. This system, like all, has its own advantages and disadvantages. I will start by discussing the advantages and then the latter.
Student fees ensure that everybody pays their share. It is immediate income for the educational institution, in contrast to other existing arrangements such as fees with deferred repayments or a graduate tax. When compared to tax-funded education, they ensure that students from wealthy backgrounds contribute immediately and do not benefit from public subsidy, which would be a deadweight cost. Inversely, when coupled with rebates for the economically or socially disadvantaged students, we can recognise and account for the detrimental effects of imposed fees on the individual student. But herein lies a problem: We should not have a system which needs to be adapted in order to achieve social inclusion.
To elaborate on this, upfront fees mean that education is not free at the point of use for those who have to pay them. It is not readily available to everybody, so in order to make education available, fee forgiveness arrangements are introduced by the government. The review of international models uses England as an example; there, only about one-third of all students pay the full fee. This is counterproductive, causing administrative and financial consequences for the government.
Having discussed Ireland’s current system, I will now consider the “student fees with deferred repayment and income-contingent loans”, or “student loans” option. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to be seen. “The great advantage” and literally the only advantage put forward by the review is that it “maintains the principle of education free at the point of use.” Free: adverb without cost or payment. Sure, it may not cost a penny to the student at the start of their studies, but at the point of use of their education (when they get employed) they are saddled with immediate debt. Doesn’t sound free to me.
At least, this is the only “advantage” that would directly apply to prospective students. The review also proposes another virtue of this model, quite literally saying that another advantage “was said to be” that it took a lot of the financing of higher education off of the national balance sheet. It’s reasoning? “Loans to students was not counted as public borrowing to the extent that it could be claimed that it would be repaid”. I’m sure that Irish banks also expected that their loans would be repaid in 2008, but alas, imagine how the Irish economy could be performing now if the banks hadn’t borrowed all that money to finance property-backed loans. Maybe, then, we could have an economy capable of paying these proposed loans. I’m not suggesting that nobody would pay back the loans, just that some may still not find employment after completing their degree; not all repayments would be immediate, which may create a backlog of unpaid loans over time and subsequently unpaid Irish debt.
Hitherto, I have considered Ireland’s current student contribution system and also the proposed student loans system. It is obvious that the disadvantages of the latter model far outweigh the advantages that they somehow managed to procure. In consonance with Niamh Hourigan, I will now offer my opinions on why tax is the best way to fund third level.
Tax funding is simply the only way to provide third-level education which is free at the point of use and available to all. It proves intergenerational, intercultural and international transparency and equity. Meaning: Disadvantaged students won’t be deterred from participating in higher education by having to pay, and consequently, the advantages of higher education will be more widely realised and acknowledged. From this, the need for public investment will also be recognised; this method literally has the capability of proving itself to be a fair and sustainable source of funding.
The review of international methods describes little disadvantages to this method, one of which is that it is unfair that those who do not participate in higher education should pay the tax. But maybe this is because they currently can’t afford to do so on account of Ireland’s present model? The review also proposes the disadvantage that “an arrangement based exclusively on taxation ignores the private benefits obtained from higher education”.
The recurrent and almost dogmatic belief that higher education is a private service is counterproductive to our country's development and to its values. We do not learn for school, but for life.