It may not be as toxic as abortion, but occasionally it comes a close enough second. In most countries, the left argues that the State should provide free education. Students and their families usually support that aspiration, though their view may change when the students graduate and become taxpayers. The right, putting economic imperatives before universal opportunity, argues that benefits accrued from a third-level education are enjoyed privately so the cost should be met privately. In our mixed-up, human way we try to take the best, or the least challenging, elements of each philosophy and end up with something pretty much like we have today. It may not quite be a horse designed by a committee — a camel — but it is hardly fit for purpose either. And all the while the sector cries out for more resources just to stand still. For more than a decade institutions have warned they cannot meet today’s needs, either in standards or capacity, without a significant increase in funding. Unsurprisingly, politicians kick the can ever further down the road.
Last week in Britain the issue made headlines again when Andrew Adonis, a former education minister, said tuition fees — they start at €10,000 a year — should be scrapped. He warned that they load £50,000 (€56,500) or more in debt on to graduates before they earn a penny. He accused his government of running a Ponzi scheme exploited by academics to increase pay. He warned that “debt levels for new graduates are so high that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates three-quarters of graduates will never pay it all back”. Adonis’s U-turn comes after a IFS report which revealed that students from the poorest households accrue debts of £57,000 (€64,500) by graduation and 77% would fail to pay off their debts even 30 years after leaving university. In a world where debt is almost our lifeblood this is a corralling too far.
The situation in America is even worse. HSBC’s 2016 report, The Value of Education estimated the average annual tuition fee at $33,215 — just under €30,000. Putting two or three children through four-year degree courses — remember, everyday costs are extra — seems beyond the reach of all but the most affluent. At top-tier US universities costs hit $60,000 per year. It is hard not to think that these impossibilities did not fuel the anger that swept President Trump to the White House, they are, after all, a more effective form of social engineering than any wall he might build along the Rio Grande.
Tomorrow, a Labour motion rejecting any income-contingent loan scheme will come before the Seanad. The motion is supported by students who want the Government to “plug the funding gap”. This is an important issue but it is a symptom of the malaise feeding the stasis in Irish life. We want services but will not pay for them. There are 570,000 people — more than 10% of the population ?— on hospital waiting lists; we have housing crises and many other pressing issues but we demand a low-tax economy. Unless we make the obvious connections and decide which world we want to live in our public services will struggle — as will all of us who depend on them.