University fees are not only right, they are essential. Free university is neither fair nor efficient.

For example, I couldn’t have earned a crust as an economist over the years without having had both graduate and postgraduate degrees in the dismal science.

In fact, my first job at the Central Bank demanded a minimum of a masters degree. The point is that my earning capacity was directly related to an education that was almost free.

Like almost every other middleclass boy from the suburbs, my parents paid for college, but paid only a fraction of the real private cost. The rest was picked up by the state.

This means that someone else paid for it. So my earnings over the past 15 years have been subsidised by taxpayers from a much poorer background, as these taxpayers covered my college education.

(Thinkof a Blackrock College boy’s university fees being subsidised by a single mother and cleaner from Fatima Mansions.)

This is obviously unfair. We know that only a tiny proportion of kids from poorer backgrounds make it to college, and so the higher educational system is one of the single biggest propagators of class distinction in Ireland.

The purpose of the system should be to get as many kids from a variety of social backgrounds into college without compromising our standards. The promotion of intellectual elitism free from social elitism is (supposedly) the objective. To think that because education is a `right’, and so it should be free, is nonsense.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, food is a right, but it is not free. You don’t see punters demonstrating outside cafes demanding free food as of right! As with so much of the debate in this country of ours, slogans followed closely by sloganeering, have yet again elbowed out hard thinking.

Is there a need to pay for university? The answer is simple. If the universities are under-funded and say so, someone has to pay.

Students should cough up as they are the beneficiaries. The fee should not be exorbitantly high (as in the US), but around something like the amount the government is suggesting, up to e5,000.

There are many who argue that if students are working flat-out to pay for college, they will do no academic work and standards will fall. The last thing universities should allow is slipping standards; if anything, standards should be rising.Thus,we should facilitate a system of student loans (without parental guarantees) that not only covers tuition,but also allows students to live reasonably comfortably.

A government-sponsored but not subsidised comprehensive student loan scheme such as exists inAustralia would appear to be a logical progression. The loan is paid back over time, and the rate of payment can be related to post graduation income over a period of time.

The aim is to break the link between the student and the parent.This would avoid all the palaver about the middle classes being screwed, because it is not the parents who foot the bill but the student.

Of course,there will be parents who will pay the bill, but that’s life some parents choose to lavish money on their kids, fees or no fees.

Indeed, there will also be strapped parents who will tacitly guarantee the loan and make ends meet to make sure the loan doesn’t cripple `little’ Johnny, but that’s their choice governments cannot legislate for this.

The introduction of a loan system would eliminate up-front fees, making university free at the point of entry. It would free students from poverty, free parents from debt and free taxpayers from feeling that they have received nothing for their taxes.

It would get the government off the hook, and avoid the political minefield of means-testing, such that the silly question of whether it is e60,000 or e70,000 that means a parent is rich would be dispensed with.

All income-based means testing is subject to manipulation, sometimes to the point of irrelevance. For example, a self-employed person has much more flexibility to change declared incomes in any one year than does a PAYE person.

So the introduction of a fee and a comprehensive loan programme, mean the government won’t have to worry about its middle class constituencies and the tedious `PAYE versus the rest’ debates. It might deprive radio shows of talking points, but who cares?

Success in getting the best students from all backgrounds studying at the best universities has another much more insidious obstacle: ignorance. Kids from poorer areas do not often see the long-term value of education because it is not in the culture.

Those of us lucky enough (and it is only an accident of birth) to come from families where education is valued have a different set of academic expectations. We see nothing unusual about aiming to go to college. We knew what a CAO form is. We may have had parents, uncles or aunts who went to university.

This is a form of deep culture that is not necessarily penetrable solely by money, free fees or student loans. Yet it has to be made open to all not only for social fairness, but for future economic prosperity. How do you foster a culture in which Dad stays at home on Wednesday nights to help with little Mary’s homework rather than one where Dad pulls on his condom-like Celtic jersey and heads to the pub?

There are at least two ways to go here. One approach is to accept that that’s life, and people have to make choices for themselves and their kids. At the other extreme, libertarians argue that the state should give vouchers to taxpaying parents and they can choose to spend those vouchers on schools or not.

In this world, schooling is not compulsory at all and is entirely dependent on the parents.While it is logical to supplant the state with individual responsibility in most social and familial areas, I think mass education should be similar to the aspiration for clean air: it is essential.

Societies that do not educate their people and tolerate an uneducated rump or underclass should be re-garded with the same disdain as factories that spew toxins into the air.

There are compelling reasons to regard collective action on education in the same way as a countrywide vaccination programme against TB. The state has to prove itself here, and take up the reins with a massive information campaign to tell poorer kids that the way to go is via education.

In the US,the army does this by helping an enormous number of poor black kids to achieve basic educational qualifications. This can’t happen here, but what about exploring the idea of compulsory social service? Maybe the over-educated types could take a weekoff ayear to go into poorer areas to promote education.

This might sound fantastical, but it is based on the idea that we are all in this together, like it or not. The more we regard money and money alone as the main barrier to university, the more we allow ourselves to confuse this week’s class-based bleating and whinging with hard thinking about the future. 

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