We need an educated workforce. Why are we penalising students with fees?

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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An educated workforce benefits society, but fees are a roadblock to unleashing the intellectual, creative and economic potential of the country.

Education gives people have the chance to reach their career goals, and a highly educated workforce attracts international investment. This is because skilled employees make businesses more competitive and productive.

Educated workers cost more too. But there is an upside to that – they pay more tax. Education also encourages entrepreneurship. It gives people the know-how to strike out on their own, creating jobs and adding value to the economy.

A well-educated workforce is the bedrock of economic growth. Given this, why should students have to pay for third-level education?

Addressing skills shortages

Since the economic recovery, there have been several reports that Ireland does not have enough skilled workers. One sector that is particularly suffering is construction. In 2007, the construction industry had 23,700 apprentices. In 2016, there were just 4,400.

Construction is not the only sector short of qualified workers. A 2017 report found that we don’t have enough computer programmers, data analysts, digital marketers and recruitment professionals to name a few.

To address the lack, there has been an increasing number of paid apprenticeships, and free Springboard+ courses are now available to a wider number of people. Both of these are great initiatives. However, the vast majority of students will attend fee paying institutions.

Apprenticeships are becoming a more attractive option for students

There is one hugely significant benefit to doing an apprenticeship – you earn while you learn.

You can do apprenticeships in a wide range of areas. These include traditional trades such as carpentry, plumbing and stonecutting. However, it is also possible to do apprenticeships in aircraft mechanics, engineering, as an accounting technician and in insurance practice.

Most apprenticeships offer Level 6 awards. However a few are available at Level 7 or even Level 8. These include the Level 7 Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng) in Industrial Electrical Engineering and the Level 8 International Financial Services Specialist apprenticeship.

In decades past, a university education was a passport into a well-paying profession. This is no longer necessarily true. In addition, qualified workers who learn through the apprenticeship route can earn high salaries.

Fees penalise all third-level students, but especially the poor

A recent report by the European Commission found that Irish students pay the second highest fees in Europe. Third-level fees average about €3,000 a year, and only the UK is more expensive.

More than 40 percent of Irish students receive means-tested grants. However, fees are not the only financial consideration. Students who study away from home face high rents too. The rental crisis is particularly acute in Dublin, but it has affected other urban areas too.

All of these expenses penalise students. This is particularly true for those from working class or lower-middle income backgrounds. Even with part-time jobs and summer work, third-level education is simply too expensive for many.

This is a waste of their potential. “Brain drain” doesn’t just happen when educated people leave the country; we allow it to happen when we don’t offer everyone the same educational opportunities. It almost also guarantees that people from low income backgrounds remain poor.

Higher education needs to be funded – but how is yet to be decided

Government funding for higher education is crucial. For years, student numbers were rising, but Irish third-level education was chronically underfunded to cope with the demand. The lack of funding has affected rankings, which in turn impacts an institute’s ability to attract academics and fee-paying foreign students.

Budget 2018 earmarked an extra €47.5 million in funding for higher and further education, along with €310 million by 2021 to address infrastructure needs.

Last year, the Cassells report examined higher education funding options. It outlined three options: a free State-funded system; an combination of State funding and fees; and finally a student loans scheme, plus government funding.

The Oireachtas Education Committee are examining these. It seems unlikely that a loan scheme will be approved. Most Opposition parties are opposed to the idea and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not keen. He has  argued that loan scheme, similar to what is available in the UK and US, would leave graduates being “saddled with enormous debts”.

He is not wrong. The introduction of student loans is also correlated with rising fees. In the US, the loan system resulted in spiralling university costs, leaving students in debt well into their thirties and forties. In 2017, British students at highly respected third-level institutions pay over £9,000 per academic year. Most graduate with debts of £50,000 or more.

The Irish higher education system may be very different to that in the States or the UK. However, given that we need a skilled workforce, asking young people to go into debt is not the answer.

Free (and cheap) education in Europe threatens Ireland’s economic well-being

While a great deal of undergraduate students pay €3,000 or so per year in Ireland, across Europe many pay no fees at all. First time undergraduate education is free in eleven countries, including Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Scotland and Sweden. Added to this, many charge less than €1,000 per year. In France, students pay only €184 per year, while in Austria fees are around €725 annually. In Denmark, students who live away from home receive monthly grants of €800 for living expenses.

Ireland attracts international investment and multinational organisations because of our attractive corporate tax rate. But it is not the only factor. Our educated workforce is the other part of that equation.

With low or no third-level fees, our European neighbours can offer global companies pools of skilled workers too. After all, many companies, especially those in STEM and financial services, already need to extend their recruitment efforts beyond our shores. There simply are not enough qualified people to fill the open roles.

Preventing Irish people from accessing higher education because of fees, ultimately threatens Ireland’s economic well-being. After all, it takes years to educate someone. It only takes a stoke of a pen to reduce a country’s corporate tax rate.

When Budget 2018 was announced Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe claimed that investment in education was “a priority for this government.” He further add that this was vital for the Irish economy. Let’s hope he means it.



Anne Sexton

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