The university fees conversation

Taidgh Beahan

Credit: The Journal.ie

Many students will be familiar with the process of applying for a grant from Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). It is a long process which demands attention and various details of the student and their families finances. Many students find it a confusing process. 

Although, not just for students it seems. An “administrative oversight” has resulted in Trinity College undercharging students by €1.7 million in fees over the last three years, which they mistakenly believed were being covered by Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). There are reportedly 509 students and graduates affected by this, with some owing as much as €9,000, who Trinity will now be looking to recover the money from.

While questions will be asked in the coming weeks about how such a mistake was made, the big picture issue of how best to fund third-level education must also be considered. Should we stick with SUSI or is there some better, more efficient way of helping students finance their degrees?

This of course directly links to the funding of Irish universities themselves, which have been under significant financial pressure lately. An extra €600 million a year is needed to be made available by 2021, according to a report on future funding for higher education in 2016.

The possibility of introducing a student loan scheme has been touted for some time. This would see the removal of the grant system and the burden of contribution fees put on students, resulting in yet more financial strain to go along with rent and living costs. However, this was ruled out under the current government last year as the Department of Education set about examining its options. In other words, throwing the political hot potato as high in the air as possible and worrying about it later.

For years the strain these loans place on students and graduates has been clear, nowhere more so than in the US where federal student loan debt has reached $1.4 trillion as of 2018. That is second to mortgages, and this, along with rising interest rates, continues to force students to work more and study less.

The UK’s loan system has not fared much better, student debt has inflated due to increased tuition fees and higher repayment thresholds once they start earning. The probability that many graduates will be unable to repay these loans has forced the UK to view them partly as government expenditure, which loosely translated will leave them about £12 billion out of pocket, according to the Office for National Statistics.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the option of having at least some third-level education be fully government funded. The most notable example of this is Germany, where tuition fees were removed from public universities in 2014. This has made it a popular destination for international students and been mostly hailed as a success. However, it is questionable whether the Irish economy would be able to support this or even something similar, given that the required funding would need to be drained from somewhere else.

Perhaps some middle-of-the-road solution will be worked out as the Department of Education deliberates on what to do next, or perhaps they’ll stick with the SUSI status quo. Perhaps they will find a way to fund Irish universities through entirely public means, or perhaps they will pass the problem on to the students themselves. The hot potato is on the way back down.

Taidgh Beahan

Image Credit: The Journal