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Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is at it again in  The Irish Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2010. He argues that there is no way adequately to fund universities without the reintroduction of fees. That may be so but it is long past time to hear his argument stripped of nonsense.

Something needs to be said at the outset: There is no connection between fees and the fact that poor people don’t go to college. Poverty determines one’s level of ambition and educational attainment, and keeps the poor away from third level education in any significant numbers. Apart from, let’s call them, access interventions which seek to increase the number of exceptions who get to college from poor backgrounds, any real change will require a systematic assault on poverty.  

Ferdinand offers a strange view that ‘free fees’ has undermined public understanding of inequality. Firstly, he seems to think that “many people” are beguiled by the absence of university fees into thinking “that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means.” I have never come across anyone who has so lost their grip on reality as to think like this. Secondly, he argues that the position of the deprived has “in some ways” been made worse “because some well-meaning people thought that ‘free fees’ had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed.” As before, I doubt that anyone thinks like this.

“What changed in the 1990s”, he says, “was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.” This is partially true but distracts attention from the fundamental improvement that has been ‘free fees’. Certainly rich people, even fabulously rich people, no longer pay fees. However, truth disappears in draining the word, “afford” of all meaning. My recollection of the days of paying fees has as typical, say, a technician on or slightly above the average industrial wage struggling hard to find fees to send a son or daughter to college. In some cases there was a need to find the money for fees for more than one family member. It is downright wrong to speak of such people being able to afford fees. The truth is that the removal of fees relieved many families of a dreadful burden.

Finally, Ferdinand says, “It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.” This is a plainly bizarre claim. I assume that it is based on the hope or possibility that the fees money which the rich and the likes of the struggling technician would have paid might have gone to the poor.

In the Irish blogosphere I’ve pursued Ferdinand on this issue. He steadfastly refuses to confer meaning on his notion of “afford”, to say who should pay fees. His is an argument of an all too familiar type which offers that simple solution: the rich will pay and all will be well for everyone else. The truth is that unless the majority of students pay fees, the income will be small and, no matter who pays what, the poor will still be excluded.

Ferdinand’s blog is here:



  1. Hm, Colum – just because you say something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t true! You absolutely cannot spend the same Euro twice. If you are paying money to subsidise the kids from Foxrock you cannot pay the same money to support socio-economically disadvantaged people in Finglas. Right now we are prioritising the Foxrock people, because access programmes are starved of public money.

    Can I suggest, gently, that your argument is weak when you throw all sorts of insults at me (‘nonsense’, ‘bizarre’ etc) while not actually repudiating anything I say with facts or data. You accuse me (wrongly, as I have offered lots) of not providing details, while you don’t give any whatsoever yourself.

    • Colum McCaffery
    • Posted November 11, 2010 at 12:39 am
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Thank you for your comment.

    I had no intention of being insulting to you.

    You possibly have a compelling argument that there is no feasible alternative to fees. Instead you offer reasons why the payment of fees would be good and would be a fairly painless solution. I’e addressed these reasons and explained in all cases what is wrong with them.

    I haven’t said that something is untrue without saying why. You, however, have simply claimed that public understanding of inequality and the state of the poor has been undermined by “free fees”. I find these claims extraordinary as I’ve never met anyone who was confused in this way.

    You are proposing the reintroduction of fees. I am asking you for details of who will pay. You refuse to answer but accuse me of failing to give details. This makes no sense to me.

    The claim that “free fees” constitutes a major redistribution from the poor to the rich is indeed bizarre. You would have us believe that the state money which effectively pays the fees of the rich would have been spent on access programmes for poor students. Of course, as you say, the same Euro can’t be spent twice but your claim is no more sensible than, say, “Letting the rich off fees is a major redistribution from state pensioners to the rich.” or “Letting the rich off fees is a major redistribution from nurses to the rich.” You can make this kind of claim about any public expenditure, e.g. “Money spent on flower beds in public parks could be spent on university access programmes.”

  2. Colum, you say: ‘your claim is no more sensible than, say, “Letting the rich off fees is a major redistribution from state pensioners to the rich.” or “Letting the rich off fees is a major redistribution from nurses to the rich.” You can make this kind of claim about any public expenditure, e.g. “Money spent on flower beds in public parks could be spent on university access programmes.”’

    No, it’s not the same at all. Pensioners are not paid out of the same Estimates vote as access propgrammes. Free fees are. That’s the point.

  3. Ferdinand,
    I take it then that your argument is that any decision which allocates an amount of money a)from from a larger amount which has been separately voted during Estimates, and b)which is not directed at the poor is “a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.”

  4. Colum, maybe so as to get you out of the loop you’ve got yourself into, could you answer the following questions:

    1. Do you think HE in Ireland is adequately funded today?

    2. (a) If you think the answer to 1 is ‘yes’, then how should patterns of expenditure be improved? ‘Paying fewer bonuses to senior staff’ or the like is not a good answer, since even at the worst point in the recent past that only accounted for less than 0.5% of, say, UCD’s annual budget – less still in the other universities, 0% in DCU.
    (b) If the answer is ‘no’, then how should the additional money be raised,and who should pay for it? If your answer is ‘higher taxation’, then you will have to say how any party will be able to promise this and win an election, and how it can be guaranteed that any additional revenue from taxation will be paid to the universities (since revenue ringfencing is not currently possible).

  5. Colum, as for your last comment, the situation is perfectly simple: prior to ‘free fees’, a much higher proportion of public expenditure on HE went to support the disadvantaged than now. It’s as simple as that.

  6. Sorry, I omitted question 3 above:

    3. If ‘free fees’ are to continue, and if no additional taxation is raised, then how can the state adequately support access programmes while also shovelling money at the rich?

  7. Ferdinand,
    I think this is the third time you’ve referred to me as being in a loop. I’ve no idea what it means. I presume you are referring to some form of circular argument and I’m certainly not there.

    I’ve no difficulty answering your questions and I will. However, I want to make two points before that. Firstly, you are asking questions of me but when I asked you direct questions on your blog, you ignored them. Secondly, the questions you ask do not refer directly to the problems I have with your argument: There is no painless way out of this and the reintroduction of fees is certainly not the painless, the-rich-can-pay prospect which you portray.

    1. No, I don’t think Irish HE is adequately funded.

    2 a. Though my answer to 1 was ‘no’, I want to comment on 2a. I’m really annoyed that you assume that I would answer by reference to bonus payments. I realise fully that the amounts involved would not significantly change anything. I would remind you, however, that when I pursued you on the fact that having only the rich pay fees would bring in very little money, you replied that even a small amount would help.

    2b. You tell me that increased taxation is out of the question because anyone suggesting it will lose an election. That’s just not true. All Parties are in favour of increased taxation; public controversy now is about how tax income will be spent.

    Because I think that HE is underfunded,it doesn’t necessarily follow that I think state funding should be increased. HE funding will have to be argued and will have to take its place in an argument which is essentially about national priorities. Moreover, it would be quite wrong – indeed undemocratic – to ringfence money for education, just as it would be quite wrong to ringfence money for any other area.

    3. Wow, what away to load a question! I’ll deal with it anyway. I would argue strongly for access programmes. I’ve been teaching on one for, I don’t know, maybe 15 yrs. They change lives but the numbers are small.

    There is a problem with your “shovelling money at the rich”. I asked you time and again to say what you meant by rich. I went as far as putting down income bands and asking you to comment or state your own income bands and then comment. Some time ago I defined rich as an income above €100k; you accepted that such a cut-off point for fee payment would bring in very little money but that any amount would help. If this is true, either you cannot talk about shoveling money at the rich, or you must define rich at a point much lower than €100k and recalculate. The problem is that in order to bring in significant amounts of money, you’ll have to go quite low. Indeed, realistically you’re talking about having a situation like that before fees were abolished and this will recreate the misery which I’ve been accusing you of ignoring.

    Your last post but one introduced a new claim.
    Claim 1. “’free fees’ have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.”
    Claim 2. “prior to ‘free fees’, a much higher proportion of public expenditure on HE went to support the disadvantaged than now.”
    Can I take it that you’ve abandoned claim 1? Can you give me the percentages to support claim 2 because they might provide the basis for an argument to restore the older proportion?

    Incidentally, I was at a public meeting tonight on Education generally. When it came to the matter of fees, it was clear that from the perspective of someone paying them, they ARE a tax!

  8. Hi Colum – being ‘in a loop’ doesn’t mean a circular argument, it means that you keep coming back to the same claims and questions, no matter how often they are dealt with or refuted! You keep claiming I haven’t answered your questions, when in fact I have answered them dozens of times! Not liking my answer is not the same thing as not receiving an answer…

    I have no idea why you think that what you describe as my ‘claim 1’ is incompatible with ‘claim 2’ – they are two sides of the same coin.

    The taxpayer, can only afford a certain amount of money for HE. Before free fees, about 20 per cent of that went specifically to support the disadvantaged (grants); after free fees, that sum went down to about 8 per cent, over a period of about 10 years. You may not like it, but this has been a redistribution of resources to the wealthy. I know it’s not what was intended, but it *is* the effect. The only way you could restore the previous distribution would be either by a massive funding increase or by abandoning free fees.

    You keep claiming that unless the threshold for fees is very high there would be very little money. That’s wholly untrue. Even a threshold of €200,000 would bring in around €25 million, which would make a *very* substantial difference right now.

    I simply do not agree with your argument, which in its essence is that the principle of free fees is more important than adequate HE funding, and that a more modestly funded system is a price we need to be prepared to pay.

    As for the last paragraph of your response, I have no idea what point you are trying to make there.

    I suspect that the ultimate difference between us is that I do not believe that HE can be funded and developed any more as a universal benefit. It is simply too expensive, and the moment you under-fund it (as is now happening) you make it elitist, because places have to be rationed, and at that point, regardless of whether there are fees or not, the privileged dominate it.

    • Colum McCaffery
    • Posted November 14, 2010 at 12:31 am
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    If that is your definition of being in a loop, it applies to you and not all to me. You have other similar devices that you use regularly. You falsely accuse me of simple assertions as in, “Because you say something is true, that doesn’t mean it is true.” The truth is that I’ve always provided an argument. Then you say that because I don’t like your answers, I accuse you of not answering. That is quite simply not the case. The reason I keep asking essentially one question is that your replies NEVER address the question.

    No citizen can reasonably be expected to make a decision on a matter of public controversy without knowing the consequences of what is proposed. You propose the reintroduction of college fees but you refuse to state – even roughly – the income levels at which full fees would be payable and the income levels at which part fees would be payable. (The suggestion re part fees was introduced by you as a response to one of my early ignored requests that you state the income level for fees.) I’m asking you this yet again for a reason. You see, while you refer in your last post to a €25m income in fees from families with incomes above €200k, I take it that that is not your proposal, an objective of €25m. by way of student fees but only from families on this high income. (To be accurate, you don’t say whether you are referring to family income or personal income.)

    Because it might open up a different and progressive issue, I am very interested in the info. you provide on the decline in the proportion of HE funding directed to grants but I’m not at all clear what you are telling me. Is there a separate grants budget that was allowed to decline as a proportion of the overall while the overall amount for HE increased, or was the amount for grants cut, or is it a matter of not spending the full allocation on grants? You know well that you cannot claim a cause/effect relationship here without showing that there was a decision to take money from grants to pay fees. If you can show cause and effect,then on this I have issue only with your hyperbole about the size of the transfer.

    Incidentally, I’m not happy that from time to time you gratuitously insert, “you might not like it”. This suggests that I would be dishonest and ignore data.

    I have NEVER argued from principle on the issue of fees. I’ve no idea what gave you this impression. You asked me direct questions about the source of funding and I suggested that in these times extra funding may not be available.

    My main difference with you – and this is why I keep asking you at what level of income do you propose fees begin? – is that you seem to have no appreciation of the strain that existed before fees were abolished. You propose fees for “the rich” (Sometimes you say “middle classes”.) and more money for Access and now grants. Do you mean the rich only? On your blog you ignored my question on income bands. On this blog you ignored the example of the technician on the average industrial wage or just above and whether or not your proposal would see him/her paying fees for a son or daughter to go to university. Without details of the income levels of those who would be charged fees, your proposal has to be categorised along with so many which refuse to engage with reality and hide in the cosy form of “the rich will pay”.

    • Colum
      It is me who he barred from his blog which is read and responded by a handful as far as I know. Looking from 2008, I counted how many total responses, a handful at the most. I have not lost anything, and all he will get now is anodine “yes men and women”. If the blog owner does not engage with you in discussion, the blog’s purpose is lost.

      You asked me to look at your blog while I was posting in Ferdinand’s blog. I can now see that this is an excellent blog, and I wasted my time in trying to argue with Ferdinand when he lashed out at Browne report, and at the same time has been “fence-sitting” and would not argue what should Scottish universities do. He comes as some one who is out of out of touch with English universities, particularly does not know the RG who were responsible for driving Browne report.

      I can see Ferdinand is the habit of accusing every one who do not agree with him as being insulting and rude,and making assertions whilst, he does the same. You are right in asking him to say at what income level, and your “Without details of the income levels of those who would be charged fees, your proposal has to be categorised along with so many which refuse to engage with reality and hide in the cosy form of “the rich will pay” is spot on. I can say that he is shying away because what he says will be held against him when he becomes VC at RGU. He is swamping his postings here, but unlike him, you have replied with excellent clarity. I would rather debate with you, I may not agree with your strongly-held views, but respect it as you are very forthright in articulating it without being ” wishy washy”, and with full confidence.

      I have no problem in revealing my name ( you can see it in e-mail) as I am now retired and does not answer to any one. This moniker I chose because in my secondary school days, I read a lot about Copernicus., and admire him.

      Delete this posting from me, if you consider this to be appropriate. As I said, I respect those who hold clear views completely different from mine and have no time for “fence sitters” and those who simply think that we make assertions while they are making it all the time.

  9. For fees to be considered “free” no student should pay any form of fees. Students have to pay registration fees that seem to be increasing annually. The statement “Education is a right not a privilege” is mistyped. Education, it seems, is a privilege as students are categorised into local, EU and non-EU. Now by local I mean if you are a citizen of that country. Depending on what category you belong to, you pay different amounts. This is a form of price discrimination whereby you’re making those who want to study in Europe pay a higher price.
    When it comes to the rich, they do not care either way. It doesn’t really affect them as they pay minute amounts to send their kids into college. If their child decided not to go to college, s/he is still better off than the poor student in the country as the rich kid is able to live off their parents are long as s/he wishes. Whereas the poor kid would have to work. Considering the Irish economy’s downfall, this seems highly unlikely. The poor student won’t be able to go abroad either as s/he cannot afford it. Then what? Well the only option is to go into the black market.
    Now, wouldn’t that increase the costs of going to college for the government?

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