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By all means let’s have a public debate over university funding and fees but let’s first clear the ground of a tuft of oft-repeated nonsense. The notion that poor people are denied a university education because money goes to pay the fees of those who can afford it is silly.

Firstly, access for the poor is much more complex and deserves separate and serious thought and action.

Secondly, while there are people who can easily afford to pay fees, they are too few to make much difference and thoughts of sliding scales for the not so wealthy emphasise the point.

Thirdly, “afford” is not a simple, binary concept. There are those who might find the money but who can ill-afford to pay. Sure, “free fees” did not alter the class composition of students but it did lift a burden from many families who would otherwise strain to find the money. It is both cruel and dishonest to label these people as middle class and imply that they are whiners who are pretending that they cannot afford fees.

There is no painless “the-rich-will-pay” way to reintroduce fees. If significant money is to be raised through fees, most people will have to pay. Face this and debate the reintroduction of fees.



  1. Privaise the lot of them – UkkyDee included – and watch them bring in the bucks.

  2. Hm, Colum. The position you repeat here – which is my view – may in your opinion be wrong, but it sure as hell isn’t ‘silly’. In fact, it is obvious enough. You can’t use the same Euro twice: if you give it to someone wealthy, you can’t give it to someone poor.

    In the meantime, the state makes almost no contribution to access programmes; and the participation rate by the disadvantaged has hardly changed since ‘free fees’. There is plenty of evidence to support this ‘silly notion’, while there is no evidence of any kind to support your rebuttal of it.

    And there has been plenty of ‘serious thought and action’. DCU has put millions of Euro into its access programmes, for example, without state support.

    • colummccaffery
    • Posted September 11, 2010 at 11:22 pm
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    The point is that those who want the reintroduction of fees cannot continue to advance the idea that this will be a painless move affecting only those who can afford to pay.

    There are relatively few rich people and restricting payment to those on incomes of, say, in excess of 100k won’t bring in sufficient money.

    People on lower incomes – much lower incomes – but not poor will find the money as they did in the past but to say that they can afford to pay is a misuse of “afford”.

    I’ve no idea why you are tackling me re the unchanged participation rates of the poor or the lack of attention given to access. I agree with you and have said so many times.

    I most certainly was not having a go at DCU’s record on access. I can get quite emotional on the subject of Access; I teach on a UCD access course and have done so for, I don’t know how long – perhaps 15 years. It has changed the lives of quite a number of people. I’m very committed to it and it’s very rewarding; I guess it’s part of my way of giving something back because I am indebted. However, I know that substantial change affecting large numbers is beyond the efforts of a teacher, a course or a college because the problem is poverty.

  3. Colum, debate is always a good thing, and you make an important contribution with your blog, so no criticism in that sense. I suppose what bugs me sometimes is that too many people (not sure of this includes you) have some sort of emotional commitment to ‘free fees’, and this seems to prevent them from seeing its realities: asset stripping of HE, with scarce resources focused too much on the wealthy.

    I am always amazed at the support for this from people with a progressive outlook, despite the fact that free fees are a massive redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.

    The issue that we have both identified is the need to protect those in the middle ground. It would not be all that hard to achieve that, IMO.

    How much money you raise from the wealthy isn’t as telling a point as you suggest. It will be more than nothing. More than nothing is good.

    • colummccaffery
    • Posted September 12, 2010 at 11:54 pm
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    Thank you. I appreciate your kind comments.

    I’m a socialist. I support “free fees” not because I have some emotional commitment but because I remember the burden that Niamh’s B’s initiative lifted off many families of my acquaintance. These were not well off or middle class families but they weren’t poor either. Free fees reduced real hardship.

    Figures/estimates need to be presented.

    You say that “free fees” produced “a massive” transfer of resources to the “rich” but in your final sentence you suggest that making the “wealthy” pay fees will bring in very little: “more than nothing”. If “wealthy” = “rich”, there seems to be a contradiction.

  4. Colum, I do rather think you’ve got yourself in some sort of loop here… I didn’t suggest it would bring in ‘very little’ – I said it would be more than nothing. Even if only 15,000 students came from families earning more than the set threshold, and they paid 5k in fees each, it would produce 75 million. That would be a very substantial contribution indeed to solving our problems.

    And I’m afraid that I have never bought into the idea that you couldn’t reduce the burden on middle income earners without giving a big present to the wealthy. If that’s socialism, then good luck with that one!

    The removal of fees was perhaps the most disastrous event to hit Irish HE ever. Its consequences were widely (and accurately) predicted at the time.

  5. Mature students unfairly hit by changes to grant scheme

    • colummccaffery
    • Posted September 14, 2010 at 12:21 am
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    No, I’m not in any sort of loop. When you talked about free fees going TO the rich you described it as “a massive redistribution of resources from the poor “. However, when you talked about fees coming FROM the rich you described the amount as “more than nothing”. To avoid a contradiction the two must be equal.

    Your argument that fees can be reintroduced while avoiding hardship just doesn’t stand up. It doesn’t stand up because there are no details re target income from fees, level of fees and who would pay.

    I take it the figures in your previous post serve as an example – leaving the threshold blank – of what might be raised. However, if you have data to suggest that there would be 15,000 students from rich families above a proposed income threshold, state the threshold and let’s talk.

    There is absolutely no one who would advance the argument that reducing a financial burden on one group necessarily involves gifting the wealthy.

    By the way, I mentioned my socialism only because you expressed amazement that “progressives” favour “free fees”. I don’t like the term, “progressives” which is often used to force essentially incompatible views into one category and usually includes socialists. My point was that there’s nothing amazing about favouring free fees; they relieve hardship. You want to reintroduce them without re-introducing the hardship but you won’t say how or give details.

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