This intends to, perhaps as a contradiction in terms, set out how the free fees system has failed in its intention but also argues for a return to the free fees system again one day.
During the recent referendum on fees, a large number of students voted for other funding models because they felt that a free fees model was unattainable or impractical. I have grave concerns about this. I will be the first to admit that in (a far too frequent phase) the current economic crisis that lowering the registration fee is both unlikely and irresponsible, but to abandon the fight for the right to free education is even more irresponsible.
It is my belief that if we accept one of the other models we will never see free fees again even when our tiger economy is once again roaring. This model has helped broaden the access to university for thousands of students since it was first introduced by Niamh Bhreathnach in 1995. My father says that the best thing that you can do for a person is provide them with an education and this has been shown to be true throughout history.
Now let me tell you where free fees have failed. The Free Fees model has failed to achieve its goal of increased entry to third-level education from lower socio-economic groups. In fact since Free Fees was introduced, statistics say that there has been an increase in the number of middle class people attending third level.
This means that while education policy is often, in the minds of some, boiled down to merely the cost of the Registration Fee; we need to do more to bring about an equality of opportunity in Ireland. It means we need to get real about the provision of primary and secondary education in Ireland today.
Minister Quinn recently made the point when we were talking to him that one day he would have to justify the decisions he is making and he could not in good conscience turn around and say to some that he took money from a primary school to give to a university. I find this a difficult truth to argue with.
“Education is a right not a privilege” was the phrase coined by Irish students in the 1920s and this is true not only of third level but from junior infants right through to PhD. If we really want to see Ireland recover to the point of international pride again, we should start by having an education system that is able to produce the well educated workforce that we so often talk about. That means removing barriers and providing a real equality of opportunity.
Education can have such a profound change on society. It was access to education for young people like John Hume and Bernadette Devlin that spark the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement. It was James Meredith’s desire to receive an education that saw third level education in Mississippi integrated.
To quote President Bartlett from The West Wing: “Decision are made by those who show up”. So become involved, engaged and active, because education is a right worth fighting for.
Sean Rooney, Chairperson of DCU Labour and Vice-Chairperson of Labour Youth