In my opinion: Graduate tax will push poorer students away from college
Fine Gael is proposing a radical rise in the charges for third-level education. Its manifesto states that its plan involves "a graduate contribution from students of roughly a third of the cost of their course.
"This contribution will be made by new entrants to publicly funded third-level institutions after the student graduates, enters employment and reaches a defined income threshold."
It goes on to state that "as the student-contribution model begins to return funds to the third-level sector, we will phase out the student registration fee as an up-front charge".
This means that the current up-front fee of €1,500 per annum is remaining for an unspecified time.
The current cost of a course for a student in the arts/social sciences and other non-laboratory subjects is approximately €8,000 per annum; the cost for laboratory-based courses, namely the sciences and cognate areas, is approximately €12,000 per annum.
Medicine costs more than twice what science costs. Currently students are required to pay a fee of €1,500 per annum unless they are exempted, due to very low income. The balance of €6,000 in the case of arts/social sciences and €10,000 in the sciences is paid by the exchequer.
Under the Fine Gael proposal arts and social science graduates will have an €8,000 debt when they leave college after a three-year degree. The situation in science is more serious as an honours degree in science takes four years. Honours science graduates would end up with a €16,000 debt.
While the new fees -- on top of the current €1,500 fee per annum -- will not have to be paid until after graduation, they will have to be paid eventually. The manifesto makes no mention of any concession to students from lower-income families in terms of paying back one-third of their fees.
Even those who are on low-enough incomes to get grants while in college will also have to pay back one-third of the cost of their degrees/diplomas when they leave.
While there is an equality case for a graduate tax related to income levels as a substitute for fees (depending on earnings -- paying back fees on a salary of €25,000 is very different to paying them back on €60,000), Fine Gael is proposing a graduate tax in addition to the existing third-level fee of €1,500 per annum for which its only new policy is to defer these charges by means of student loans.
This is short-sighted and counterproductive in educational terms. It is also grossly unjust to lower-income students, as it intensifies the financial incentive for them not to enter third-level education. The proposal does nothing to increase the maintenance grant or modify its conditions.
Its current maximum level of €3,250 is only a third of the cost of living away from home (approx 65% of students live away from home) and is only payable at this level to families with four dependent children and a maximum family income of €41,110.
For most families, then, the Fine Gael proposals will involve very substantial increases in charges, with little or no support from the grants system. It is deeply regressive both socially and educationally.