Sunday 26 May 2019

University chief calls for college fees to be doubled

€6,000-a-year charges could leave graduates in €24,000 debt

AT A PRICE: Jim Browne said idea of free fees was ‘naive’
AT A PRICE: Jim Browne said idea of free fees was ‘naive’

John Walshe

Nearly 100,000 students at Irish universities should pay tuition fees of up to €6,000 a year - twice the current charge - according to retiring NUI Galway president Dr Jim Browne who says the idea of free fees is simply "naive".

Higher fees should be accompanied by a new scheme of loans which students would start repaying once they reach a certain income threshold after graduation. This would mean students leaving college with debts of up to €24,000.

Third-level students in Ireland pay the second highest fees in Europe, according to a recent report by the European Commission.

However, that figure is misleading because nearly half of the country's third-level students have their €3,000 fees paid for by taxpayers if they qualify on means-testing grounds under the higher education grants scheme.

Dr Browne said students should continue to receive maintenance grants but free fees were a non-starter. "There is no such thing as 'free fees'; somebody pays - either the taxpayer or the student. It's better in my view if they both contribute," he said in an interview with the Sunday Independent.

Courses like arts and business could charge €5,000 a year but more expensive courses which need equipment could charge more. He said industry should subsidise science and engineering courses to ensure that fees are kept at the €5,000 level as the economy needs more STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and maths).

A loans scheme was proposed by the expert group on the future funding of higher education chaired by former ICTU boss Peter Cassells and is now being examined by an Oireachtas education committee whose report is due. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has set his face against students leaving college with massive debts as many do in the UK where universities charge tuition fees of £9,250 (€10,400) a year.

Much depends on how Fianna Fail responds to the Cassells proposal - party sources say it is not opposed to loans but has yet to be convinced of their merit.

However, universities say there is little point in introducing a loans scheme if the existing €3,000 charge is not raised as it will do nothing to improve their "dire" financial situation.

"I think that the funding model we are proposing is reasonable. We rightly aspire to high participation rates in higher education but the taxpayer cannot shoulder the full burden," said Dr Browne.

He believes that universities are the "forgotten child" of Irish education. "We have had to make cutbacks in important areas - on small group teaching, tutorials, allocations to laboratories and libraries. We are finding it challenging to attract and retain staff. We have no discretion on salaries, which are set by the State, but all the support areas have been reduced.

"Over the years, given our ability to bring in international students, our capacity to make do, the creativity and the adaptability of our staff, we have managed. I think now we are being penalised for success."

The number of high-paying international students is growing rapidly but, Dr Browne is concerned that universities, given the financial pressures on them, may develop this 'market' at the expense of Irish students. "For years the education of doctors has depended on the income from international fees. I don't want to see a similar model developing across other disciplines. Without a decision on funding, that's a real possibility," he added.

He argues that the quality of people in this country is one of the main attractions of Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment (FDI).

"We risk FDI, and particularly high-tech FDI, when we compromise on funding and therefore the long-term quality of our graduates.

"We are at a tipping point. We need a decision on the funding of higher education. We must stop kicking the can down the road. The political system, Government and opposition, needs to address the recommendations of the Cassells report which outlined the urgent need for a fee-based system. Our young people should not be short-changed."

The funding shortfall had taken up a lot of his time and energy as president since 2008, Dr Browne said. One of his regrets was that he didn't immediately appreciate the pressure on staff during the financial crisis. "Given the reality of the recession, cuts and the impact on individual lives, I might have had a greater understanding of the pressures people were under," he added.

His other major regret is that he did not address the equality and diversity agenda sooner - it's an issue which continues to dog him as he heads into retirement. Last week a Galway city councillor, Sinn Fein's Mark Lohan, questioned the council's decision to accord the retiring president a civic reception. He said it was not appropriate "given the inequality issues which arose at the university during Dr Browne's 10-year term of office".

The issue will also be back in the High Court shortly, with four female lecturers pursuing their long battle over promotion.

In response, Dr Browne acknowledged that "as our university progressed, we did not pay sufficient attention to gender equality in senior positions. I think we've come a long way in recent years. As of this year, 40pc of our senior lecturers are women. There's work to be done, but I'm confident the university is on the right path."

His successor is Galwegian Professor Ciaran O hOgartaigh who was principal and dean of the UCD College of Business.

Sunday Independent

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