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«KEEPING THE GATES OPEN Keeping the gates open.The case for free third-level education Jan O’Sullivan TD Spokesperson on Education May, 2003 ...»

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Keeping the gates open

…The case for free third-level education

Jan O’Sullivan TD

Spokesperson on Education

May, 2003




1. Introduction

What is third level education for? More importantly, who is it for?

The answers to these questions, and to the question of how third level education should be funded, depend on our vision of society, of the obligations of the state to its citizens and of the obligations of citizens to the state.

First things first. The current debate about the possible re-introduction of fees for third level education has absolutely nothing to do with investment in third level education, improving access to third level education, or providing better education at first and second level. It is simply a revenue raising device, first mooted at a time when the Government is intent on raising indirect taxes and user charges for a whole range of Government services. The intention is simply to plug a gap in the Government finances. It has nothing whatever to do with enhancing access to third level for anyone. It is a regressive, not a progressive, measure.

The case for free third level education is part of the overall case for free education. When Niamh Bhreathnach abolished fees for third level education, part of her reasoning was that all education should be free and accessible and provide every citizen with the opportunity to realise their full potential. That was also the reasoning behind many of the other mould- breaking initiatives she introduced, the Breaking the Cycle and Early Start programmes, the significant reductions in class sizes in all schools and the dramatic reductions in class sizes in schools in disadvantaged areas. And all this was done before the boom years of the Celtic Tiger.

Why should third level education be free in Ireland? Why should we aim to establish it as a right?

For these reasons:

• Education is the single most important investment any community can make in its own future. It should not be begrudged.

• Third level education transforms society.

• It increases the potential of every citizen – to grow, develop, and contribute. (In his

Great Society speech, Lyndon Johnson quoted Woodrow Wilson as having said:

“Every man sent out from his university should be a man of his Nation as well as a man of his time.”)

• It enhances competitiveness and strengthens the economy.

• In the great majority of European countries free or very modest fees are the norm, because education at every level is considered an intrinsic part of the social citizenship model deeply embedded in European society.

• Free third level education has already increased participation significantly. We need to do more, not less.

• Charging for education doesn’t improve access. That’s a fact.

• Loan schemes don’t work, and they are neither just nor practical.

• Despite our wealth, we lag behind most of the OECD countries in the amount we invest in education already. And our investment in education hasn’t even kept pace with the growth in our national wealth. Asking people who want to go to third level education to subsidise first level education through the imposition of fees is no answer to that situation.

The argument for fees is largely presented as a pragmatic resource priority issue. But as in so many cases with issues presented in this way, it is actually suffused with fundamental questions of values.


2. A Social Democratic Vision We in The Labour Party believe that a civilised society is one that is organised to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to fulfil their human potential to the full. R.H Tawney

argued that:

‘A society is free in so far and only so far… as its institutions and policies are such as to enable all members to grow to their full stature’ All too often, however, individuals are constrained from developing their potential by arbitrary restrictions. We believe that the role of the state is to tackle these arbitrary restraints on the individual, which include class, gender and racial discrimination, and family income. Where society puts arbitrary or discriminatory barriers in the way of individual development, it is the function of the state to tackle those barriers in the interest of the individual. This requires social citizenship, which represents the extension of the liberal doctrine of political equality into the social and economic spheres and provides the opportunity for everyone to fulfil their potential.

Citizenship can be thought of as the relationship between individuals and the broader community of which they are part, usually defined in terms of the state. It has at its heart a central notion of equality i.e. that every individual in the community should enjoy, as of right, a defined set of individual freedoms, an equal role in the collective governance of the community, and access to a basic set of services. But citizenship also entails the concept of reciprocity i.e. that just as citizens have rights, so they also have obligations. As they have civic and political rights, they must exercise them responsibly and respect the rights of others.

And as they are entitled to certain services, so they must contribute to the cost of those services.

Education is a key element in the process of personal development. That is why social democrats have always been passionate about education. Education is so fundamental to personal development and the fulfilment of individual potential, that it is seen by social democrats as an integral part of the social democratic concept of social citizenship.

Thus access to education to the highest level is at the heart of the project of social citizenship. This raises the important question as to how best to provide access to education and in this case third level education. Education forms part of the core of welfare provision.

Over the last sixty years a variety of models have developed in advanced countries for welfare provision, not just in education, but in health, childcare, unemployment entitlement, recreation and a range of other activities that form part of social citizenship in order to enhance the welfare of every citizen.

3. Three models of social citizenship organisation

The development of the welfare state involved a significant development of the concept of citizenship. The state developed new roles in supplying services to its citizens, who in turn were required to contribute to the cost of those services. Broadly speaking, this relationship has been developed using three different models. These are the universalistic welfare model, the insurance-based model, and the targeted-residual model.

In the first model, society supplies goods and services to all citizens who fulfil certain criteria, and the cost is re-couped through general taxation. In the insurance-based model, citizens make insurance contributions to a state-fund and receive benefits in return when certain contingencies arise. In the targeted-residual model, minimal state services and benefits are supplied only to those in the most need, on the basis of a means test or similar procedure Elements of each of these models are present in the Irish welfare state. The system of


unemployment insurance and state pensions is, notionally at least, organised around a compulsory insurance model, where those in employment make PRSI contributions and receive non-means tested benefits in return. At the same time, there is also a social assistance system, which provides means-tested benefits to those in the poorest circumstances. There are also some elements of the universal model, most notably in the case of child benefit. In the case of the medical card scheme, a universal approach is applied to those over 70, while a heavily means-tested approach applies to the rest of the population. In general, however, the Irish welfare state leans more heavily on the targetedresidual model than most other European countries. The range of services provided is narrower than in most European countries, giving Ireland one of the least developed models of social citizenship.

In deciding on the appropriate model to apply in any particular instance, it is important to have regard to a number of factors or principles. These include efficiency and equity, but also social solidarity and reciprocity.

4. Universalism versus Means-Testing The relative merits of universalistic and means-tested structures have formed the main basis of the debate on ‘free fees’1. In the case of the universalistic model, citizens enjoy access to services as of right, which are funded through general taxation. This approach is particularly suited to the provision of services which the community feels should be available to all on an equal basis. Reciprocity is achieved through the tax system. Thus, everyone has the right to a service, and everyone pays through the tax system. This type of structure relies on a sense of community, and the realisation that acting together we can achieve more than we can as individuals. Often, the community as a whole benefits from the provision of the service.

Hence, in the case of education, it is now well understood that a modern economy requires skilled people, and that the community as a whole benefits from education. The common good is best served when there is universal access to, and take up of, education at all levels.

Universal systems have the further advantage that everyone in society comes to have a stake in their success. This is in contrast to means-tested structures, where the majority often feel that they have no stake in the service provided, and may resent any taxation they perceive to be directed at its funding. Means-tested systems essentially divide recipients and non-recipients against each other.

Means-tested or residual systems encourage a cheese-paring approach, where there is a constant tendency to under-resourcing. Weakly funded public provision is continuously contrasted in disparaging tones with well-funded private systems. Indeed so pervasive is this view in Irish social and political discourse that the word ‘private’ is continuously used to denote ‘superior’ in much general commentary. It is a use of language that does not form part of social and political debate or even part of the lexicon of the chattering classes in many European countries. Most policy and managerial effort in means-tested systems is devoted to keeping a semblance of service intact, continuous penny pinching and minor adjustments rather than providing quality service.

Ireland is well noted as having poorly developed service provision in a range of areas of social policy. The countries with the most developed universal free entitlement systems in education, health and a range of other services are the Scandinavian countries. They always rank at the top or near the top of the UN annual survey on equality/ inequality in developed countries. Ireland on the other hand is always located at the other end of the spectrum, close to the US, among the most unequal societies in the developed world. In our choice of social policy the FF/PD government continuously shifts social policy towards the ‘Boston’ model.

1 1 The insurance-based model has not featured. This is probably because insurance-based models depend on individuals being in a position to make contributions (usually for several years) to a designated fund before a benefit is payable.


5. Universalism in Third Level Education For those who can benefit from it, a third level education offers an enormous opportunity for personal development. Because of its importance in determining life-chances in a whole range of areas, third level education should be available as of right to all citizens. Making that right a meaningful one, means making third level education free to all who can benefit from it.

Failing to do so means preserving another arbitrary barrier to individual development and progress. It means telling people of all ages that their talent, ability, drive and energy must be frustrated because they were born into a low-income family, or because they cannot afford to pay for a second chance at third level education. Apart from the loss to the economy and to society from this wasted potential, it is profoundly unjust. Yet this was exactly the position which prevailed in Ireland for many years, and which has not yet been fully resolved.

Providing third level education as a right also has a powerful symbolic significance. It has the effect of making our third level institutions, with all of their symbolic importance, emblems of an egalitarian society. Rather than symbolising privilege and elitism, they can make an important statement about how we see ourselves as a society. Our third level institutions should be places which are colour-blind, gender-blind, age-blind and class-blind. The only test we should want to apply to applicants for third level is ‘what is your potential’, and can you benefit from being here.

6. Free third level fees and the international context

It is often implied or assumed that fees are the way forward and that most countries are moving in this direction. This is not the case. In most European countries free fees or very modest fees are the norm. Third level education is considered an intrinsic part of the social citizenship model so deeply embedded in European society.

In the Scandinavian countries, France and Germany there are no fees. Belgium charges fees of €500. The only countries introducing or significantly increasing fees are Austria, Portugal and the UK. In Austria fees were abolished in 1972 by The Social Democrats. They were reintroduced in 2001 by the right of centre Peoples Party in coalition with the right wing Freedom Party of Jorgan Haider. The annual fee is now €725. Prior to their reintroduction there was a student registration fee of €12.

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