Tuesday 21 November 2017

In My Opinion: Budget day will be a crucial time for our colleges and universities

Gary Redmond

The run-up to General Election 2011 was a unique time in Irish politics. The incumbent Government was discredited and people focused on the makeup of the new Government.

In the final week of the election campaign Labour education spokesperson Ruairí Quinn committed his party to ensuring that student supports would not be reduced and that college fees would not increase, by signing a USI pledge.

With over 200,000 students in higher education, plus the votes of their families and friends, it is probable that Labour owes its place in Government to those crucial thousands of votes that switched from Fine Gael to Labour on the basis of that pledge.

Labour ought to have known if they could deliver what they stated. Similarly, Fine Gael committed not to increase registration fees further. Claiming in a post-election environment that the situation is different from what they had been told is simply taking the Irish people for fools.

There is a myth that Irish students do not pay colleges fees. At €2,000, plus local college levies for sports and student facilities, Ireland has the second highest level of fees in Europe.

Only the UK has higher fees and with their participation rate not much more than half of what Ireland's is, it is easy to see what will happen if college fees increase yet again.

Loan schemes, graduate taxes and upfront fees have been implemented across the OECD and in almost every case they have been a disaster, with quality or participation rates declining dramatically, or the funding system needing to be bailed out with graduates turning to emigration to avoid costly repayments.

There has been debate surrounding our universities' position in world rankings, but rankings are not a guide to the quality of graduates. For a country with a population of 4.5 million people, our higher education system plays a central role on the international stage and we must not make any short-sighted decisions that may have long-term negative ramifications.

There does need to be a fundamental reform of higher education in Ireland. We need to embrace online learning. The size, number and variety of our institutions need to be re-examined. We need to increase the number of non-EU students studying here. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2020 lays out many of these objectives but these initiatives will take time to return on investment of resources.

Education has always been the cornerstone of our economy and we need to continue to invest in our future. Decimating our higher education system through increased fees is not the answer.

The country holds its breath in anticipation. Is this really a new era of politics, or less than nine months on, are we facing yet more broken promises? Minister Quinn and his cabinet colleagues will decide the fate of not only thousands of students on budget day but also the fate of our future prosperity.

Gary Redmond is president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)

Irish Independent

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