Third-level dilemma: do we want best universities or the cheapest?
RAISING the cost of third-level fees is one of the most controversial decisions the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition has taken while in government.
The issue has been fought hard by all of the main parties involved – the Union of Students Ireland, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and the universities.
The argument for keeping costs down is simple. The 21st Century first-world phenomenon of massive student debt is a real evil.
In the US, a country whose universities are among the world's most expensive, it is common for graduates to leave college with debts in the six-figure territory.
Americans currently owe an outstanding balance of $1bn (€740m) on their student loans, a 6pc increase from 2012. These loans cannot be escaped, even through bankruptcy. Repeated studies have shown a direct link between this debt, accrued so early in life, and long-term financial and health problems – even suicide.
Unfortunately for proponents of keeping fees low, Ireland's third-level institutions just don't have enough money to allow them compete with the world's best. After years of austerity, the State is simply unable to find the funds for the type of research and world-class academics that earn international attention.
None of the country's largest universities makes the top 100 in the influential Times Higher Education world university rankings. Trinity comes closest at 110th.
Thus, despite hard lobbying and large protests in Dublin by students and parents, fees have slowly crept up over the past few years.
In 2014, it will cost a minimum of €2,850 a year for an Irish person to attend one of the country's universities. That charge consists of a student contribution charge, plus about €100 towards membership of the union of students Ireland, which most institutions set as mandatory.
Those charges still pale in comparison to the fees paid by foreign student coming to Ireland from abroad to study.
EU residents can expect to pay between €6,000 and €9,000 a year for an undergraduate degree at Trinity, while non-EU residents are looking at around €16,000 to €20,000.
So Irish residents have it pretty good, both in comparison to their fellow non-Irish students and in relation to students of other universities around the world. Even universities that perform much more poorly on the world rankings still charge much higher fees.
But it is clear that there is a trade-off – Irish students must be prepared to accept that their institutions will not be able to compete with the world's best if they want to hang on to low fees.