Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Level Fees

Listening to Batt O'Keeffe on radio today it now seems a definite that third level fees are set to return in some form or other. Batt says, that if you can afford to pay, then you should pay. And I agree with him. Where we would probably diverge somewhat in our agreement might be on who he thinks can pay, and who I think can!

Sure! The likes of Bono or Denis O'Brien or (heaven forbid) Sean Fitzpatrick and their ilk can and should be paying for their children to go to third level education. I certainly don't think its fair or reasonable to expect the state i.e. the tax payer (and there is now a realisation that the state paying, IS us paying) should be footing the bill for well-heeled parents who can afford not just to pay fees, but probably could afford to buy the whole college their beloved offspring aspires to!

But gauging by past history, the income level will be set where it bests suits the government, not the tax-payer and that means that it will be set low enough that they will get a meaningful wad of cash from it. If it's too high, it would not yield enough money. Not enough people would be paying it.

So the chances are, that it will be set low enough to capture a substantial section of people. People like most of us who end up paying for eveything. Every Doctor's visit; every prescription; every dentists visit; every bill; every exam fee; every book; every uniform; every license; every levy etc. etc. and who, at the end of the day probably end up with less disposable income left over than those with substantailly lower incomes. I am aware of some people who live on welfare who seem to have a lot more money for holidays and weekends on the beer than I currently enjoy.

Anyone who has applied for a third level grant will know how ridiculously low the income thresholds are set. PAYE workers on very modest incomes are excluded - often by very little indeed. And whereas you might be €1,000 over the grant limit, it is estimated to cost around €5-7,000 per year to keep a student in third level especially away from home. How can this be fair? This is exactly the kind of thing that keeps many marginalised and lower income earners out of third level. How many times have you heard recently about the 'working poor'?

Now add to that a possible extra €5,000 in fees. And don't forget that the wholly falacious charge of a 'registration fee' will remain - currently around €900 rising to €1,500 (ish) next autumn. This charge was introduced by the Government as fees by the backdoor. And now that fees are about to be re-introduced shouldn't it be abolished?

Add to this, that the University or Institute your child will attend is already underfunded by the Department of Education and they are announcing extra imposed cuts almost by the day - from a base of investment that is already lower than the international average (even when we were awash with money).

And remember that every penny of fee's you pay to the college of your choice, the government will simply deduct that money from what they give them in the first place. So the only winners in the equation are the government themselves. Anyone who thinks that the extra income raised will be ploughed back into third level education (and I could almost stomach it if that was the case) is living in cloud cuckoo land. You might aswell be paying this money directly into the Department coffers.

Whatever guise fees are re-introduced under, be it student loans or whatever, parents will stretch to - because that is what you do for your children. You want to give them every possible advantage so you will stretch and scrape and do without, in order to get them through. But not everyone will be able to, even with personal and family sacrifices. It will cause extreme hardship for some and some will most likely have to drop out.

I am pleading with the Minister to be realistic in the income levels and not to replicate the grant level income limits. Make sure that people are not penalised for working. Make sure that people are rewarded for paying their way. We cannot put all our eggs - enterprise wise - in the hi-tech, knowledge economy basket and then exclude people from being able to be part of that 'highly educated workforce' that we boast about.

If the Minister is intent on doing this - and it seems that he is, then it needs to be fair. Otherwise it will go the way of the over 70's medical card and most of the other ill-thought-out measures introduced in last years disastrous budget which has cost the Government so much of its credibility.

If they make a pigs ear out of this issue and the extra budget on April 7th, then I predict that they are for the chop. No bad thing in my book as, in my opinion they have no mandate to govern under these conditions anyway - having lied their way through the last election. (See earlier blog: From Poster Boy to Economic Basket Case, Who Knew?)

Whatever happens, the next few weeks are crucial. Crucial to you and indeed, crucial to me as I have a daughter who will in a short few years be seeking, please God, to go to college. We cannot sacrifice their futures. Already, she is asking me do I think the recession will be over by the time she's looking for work. What can I say? I sure hope so. But I'm not so sure!

The Government seems to be making it up as they go along. Every day I look for signs that they are on top of it. That they have lost the dazed expressions. That they are capable of formulating a strategy to get us through and out if this. So far I haven't seen any promising signs. It's like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion before your eyes - like watching your child fall but knowing that no matter what you do, you won't reach them on time to catch them. I'll keep watching but as I said already I'm not so sure.

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