Report strengthens third-level fees case

THE case for reintroducing third-level fees is strengthened by the latest OECD report on global education funding but the economic think-tank has also warned against up-front charges for students.

In its annual Education at a Glance report, the organisation pointed out that Finland and Sweden are the only other two developed countries where tuition fees are not charged.

The report of a higher education strategy review being considered by the Cabinet this month pushes for a student loan scheme under which graduates must repay the cost of their degrees when they start working, although the Government insists fees will not be brought back during its remaining term.

The OECD report shows that almost 14% of Ireland’s 2007 budget for third level went towards grants and other supports to help students attend higher education, but in 17 other countries student loans were used and accounted for 9% of higher education spending.

The aim of abolishing fees in the mid-1990s was to widen third level access but the OECD said Ireland is one of just a few countries where, despite low financial barriers to entering third level (this was before student service charges rose to €1,500), average participation levels and Government spending per student are relatively low.

“While high tuition fees can raise potential barriers to student participation, this suggests that the absence of tuition fees... does not necessarily ensure high levels of access and quality of third level education,” the report states.

OECD secretary general Angel Gurría pointed out, nonetheless, that public investment in university education pays off handsomely through additional taxes.

A man with a third-level degree in the average OECD country generates €93,000 more over his life than someone with just a second level education and even when public investment in their third-level education is removed, an average €67,500 accrues to the average developed nation.

But, Mr Gurría said, citizens and employers expect education systems to reduce barriers to entry, including up-front fees, and ensure a variety of pathways for entry.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) said, however, the report reveals the Government’s debate on third level fees as a red herring that diverts attention from a decade of gross under-investment in higher education.

“It clearly illustrates that the Government’s commitment to education and the creation of a smart economy is all talk and no substance,” said USI president Gary Redmond.

Meanwhile, University College Cork has jumped 23 places to 184th and NUI Galway is 11 places higher at 232nd in the latest edition of a league table of the world’s best universities. UCC president Dr Michael Murphy said annual rises from 386th in the QS World University Rankings in 2006 are a credit to the entire college community.

Dr James Browne, president of NUIG, said the jump of 252 places in three years shows Irish universities are competing in a global market. But, he said, further investment in teaching and research is needed to continue to enhance Ireland’s global higher education position.


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