How are we going to pay for a Learning Society?

Slí Eile24/10/2009

Slí Eile: It is necessary to point out that no society anywhere in the world provides ‘free education’. Paying for teachers, other staff, materials, buildings etc comes from the public purse and households and businesses through various taxes, fees and levies. In some parts of the world, businesses contribute to vocational education through a corporate levy (e.g. through the chambers of commerce in Germany).

Generally, primary and secondary education are ‘free’. In practice, households – depending on their means – probably spend anything up to a third of what is spent by the State on various school-related costs (the precise amount is difficult to measure or compare across countries). In higher education, practice varies. From a relatively universal provision in the 1960-1990s many economically developed countries have moved back to arrangements for charging fees for higher education. Ireland moved in the opposite direction in the 1990s.

The issue of ‘free fees’ at third level came up in this country as an issue in 2003 but was quickly quashed for political reasons. Social equality has been cited by many critics of ‘free fees’ but this rationale is not entirely convincing given the track record of some of these critics on the wider social equality agenda. Some critics have pointed to the ‘funding crisis’ in third level as a reason to complement state funding with some higher level of household charges for tuition. A ‘Student Registration Fee’ is just a fee by another name (has anyone really quantified the costs of ‘tuition’ and other institutional costs in HE institutions?)

I believe that there is a strong moral case for a publicly-funded, universal, inclusive, democratically run public system of lifelong learning from early childhood through to adult learning and training. If society chooses to have such a system and to fund it through national or local taxes then it must be prepared to support a much higher tax-take than is presently the case. The claimed ‘unfairness’ of raising taxes from low-income households (many of whom never had the chance of going beyond primary or intermediate/group certificate) to pay for third level of education of well-off students in, for example, medicine is a serious concern. At the risk of over-simplifying, there are a number of ways of addressing this:

A General taxation to support all tuition costs (Labour Party, Green and Sinn Féin positions)
B Tax on graduates (Fine Gael position)
C Tuition fees for those who can afford it (Fianna Fáil position).

The problem with solution A – as it currently stands – is that it is not applied to every lifelong learner. So, for example, part-time students at third level do not generally avail of free tuition, full-time post-graduate students have to pay increasingly hefty fees, students from outside the EU (excluding the very rich ones!) have to pay very high fees and this is a barrier to student mobility and internationalisation where Irish HE needs to catch up with the rest of the English-speaking world. The other problem with A is that as the fiscal situation in Ireland continues to deteriorate (essentially the slash and burn strategy is not working and may be pushing borrowing up further) the need to re-prioritise public spending (if not to reduce it) arises. Why should the very well-off continue to enjoy free tuition at third level when others face pay cuts, welfare reductions, job losses etc.?

True, but the very same argument can be made about medical cards, ‘free travel’ for our seniors and child benefit for high-income households. The problem with universalism is that you will always have rich folks in the net and you can always point to this case and that case of subsidy. The alternative based on needs and means-testing is very well in theory but, in practice, leads to other anomalies (how do you assess income and wealth in a fair and transparent way when some occupational groups can effectively write-off all sorts of costs and capital allowances against income not to mention wealth if that were a criterion). One of the reasons behind free fees in the mid-1990s was (i) the unfair tax covenanting which free fees replaced and (ii) the unfairness faced by PAYEE people vis-à-vis self-employed, farmers and others when it came to income assessments. The improvement in participation by some social groups between 1998 and 2004 has been adduced as proof of the benefits of free fees. However, I do not think you can prove anything of this sort without looking at a whole range of other factors – something that has not been carried out by any researcher.

The problem with the graduate tax proposal (B above) is that it does not raise money in the medium term (if that is the main concern) and it doesn’t address the equality issue. The other very real concern is that such a proposal gives a strong incentive to those who will emigrate in the coming years stay abroad and skip the tax. Given the mobility of highly-skilled labour this is a very real concern and one that is not taken seriously by proponents of the loans or graduate tax approach either in recent times or in the 1980s when it first came up.

This leaves us with option C – getting more households to pay for third level education. While I think that the initial decision to introduce ‘free fees’ was not a wise one – in the context of continuing high costs for part-timers and households having to supplement inadequate funding of first and second level – I think that any proposal to simply abolish free fees and introduce tuition fees as a general rule (which will inevitably rise from year to year once started) would be a backward step. The experience of the UK and Australia suggests that the re-introduction of tuition fees, there, has done little to promote social equality. Indeed, one of the great leaps forward in human skill in the United States was associated with the provision of ‘free education’ to soldiers after WWII who had served their country. The provision of universal upper secondary education in the 1940s was followed, quickly, by rapid expansion in college and university education in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, the partial opening up of higher education to women and working class students in the UK helped to transform opportunities for millions.

In many ways the demise of the ancien régime at Stormont was the result of a better educated Catholic middle class gaining confidence to challenge discrimination. Catholics were badly discriminated against but had the benefits of the NHS and some managed to benefit from fee higher education.

If, as some argue, fees should be reintroduced for full-time undergraduates of EU nationality, why not extend fees to all post-compulsory education – as was suggested by some in the aftermath of the ESRI Tussing report in 1978? Why should post-compulsory education (senior cycle of second level) be ‘free’ for very wealthy families? I guess one answer to this is to say that almost everyone participates in second level education whereas third level is much more selective and socially discriminatory. However, there is huge variation in the extent of second level completion by locality, school and social group.
Advocates of reversing the third-level ‘free fees’ policy supposedly on equity grounds need to be consistent. Why should the line be drawn at third level?

I am not suggesting that fees be introduced at second level to restore the pre-
1968 situation. ‘Free education’ at second level was a milestone in Ireland history, socially and economically and in no small way paved the way for economic development in the 1990s onwards. However, a coherent and egalitarian approach to lifelong learning needs to be informed by the following principles:
* Public provision of education up the age of 18 to provide all young people with a good, rounded and vocationally-relevant preparation for life and work.
* Sharing of costs between public, private and household interests but with the vast bulk of costs undertaken by public sources in the early to mid-stages of education (roughly first and second level)
* Direction of scarce public resources to helping those least able to afford education to participate in further, higher and adult education.

The present funding formula is fragmented and biased in favour of those best able to avail of educational opportunities. Operating on the principle of ‘the more you have the more you get’ principle we have an inefficient and publicly wasteful system that militates against low-income households and discourages people from pursuing opportunities in the post-18 age bracket.

To put it another way, we have a rationing system whereby third level places (full-time undergraduate) are rationed out on the basis of success in one assessment or test known as the Leaving Certificate while another rationing system operates to allocate a fixed number of ‘post-leaving certificate’ places to a huge pool of young pool (and a growing number of adults) who wish to avail of second chance education but cannot in many cases.

Reflecting their middle-class audience, the serious media outlets obsess with ‘getting into college’ and measure success on this basis (including league-tabling of second level schools). The alternative measure of success is Leaving Cert points which determine third level entry. The ultimate metric is employment and income – especially that arising from the various careers from law to medicine to business. Frankly that is an empoverished notion of education. (I suggest two films for those interested in thinking about these issues:
Kess by Ken Loach
Educating Rita)

Yet, the roots of inequality are sown long before children reach school. Differences in income, health, parental education and associated cultural capital impart a huge difference in starting point to children as they start out their educational journey at junior infants. At each hurdle along the way from selective entry to second level to competition for places in medicine or some other highly prized path the children of disadvantaged households are left behind to experience poorer supports, less privately funded extra-curricular activities and immersion in schools and localities where the odds are stacked against them. Such is life in an unequal society. People learn, early on, that ‘this is the way things are’. One of the immense ironies of 'Christian ethos' (Catholic or Protestant) in Ireland as in many other countries is that, in practice, it served to reinforce social inequality and educate the elite for elite positions in business, civil service, the army and the church. Ever wonder where the heroes of our banking, public service, corporate and church systems were educated? (This is not to deny the equally valid point that some religious providers of education provided unique opportunities to the disadvantaged to realise their education and personal potential and a few have courageously and consistently challenged a fundamentally unjust and corrupt society).

On the funding of education, a solution needs to be found that addresses a number of issues together and not just in isolation from each other:

*Rebalancing of educational investment (time, money, effort, quality) towards the early years of childhood (roughly from birth to about 7) where language, social skills and self-confidence are established for life;
* Changing the way in which schools are run to open management to democratic community control and accountability – schools remain some of the most undemocratic institutions in society;
* Transforming the nature of the learning experience away from rote industrial-age training to a broader, more applied and learner centered experience;
* Provide a universal and publicly-funded system of education as a fundamental human right and privilege and not just as a commodity to be traded and invested in for personal gain only.

On the issue of ‘third level fees’ it is necessary to propose solutions that channel resources to those most in need while defending the social gains made so far.
I suggest a solution in regard to third level fees on the following lines (which does involve some level of fees for very wealthy households):
For all households above a particular threshold of income over a three-year period – introduce a cost-sharing scheme whereby the full economic cost of a course is divided between the household and the State (this might be on a 10:90 basis). The full economic cost of a course may be a multiple of nominal tuition fees. In fact, before ‘free fees’ the State effectively subsidised a large part of the total cost of provision. In a revised cost-sharing scheme the bulk of the total cost is still covered by the State (out of general taxation). However, a fixed ceiling (e.g. €3,000) and a 10% cost of total costs – whichever is the highest (normally no more than €1,000 per annum per student) could be set. This would replace the current registration fee. Costs average about €11,000 per annum but there is wide variation around this average with some scientific oriented courses costing a lot more than the average.

The real barrier to entry by disadvantaged households is living costs (for those who survive education to Leaving Cert level if they have not been already knocked out of the 'social tournament') – especially those ‘away from home’. If there were a way of channeling the proceeds of a cost-sharing arrangement (as above) towards enhanced living cost allowances for disadvantaged households then the fairness of a revised funding mechanism would be more apparent. All of this should be de-coupled from the other big issue of what overall level of funding is appropriate for each level of education and education as a whole.

One way to focus this debate is to set a national target that up to 10% of GDP is spent on lifelong learning of which HE is one element (shock, horror, what about Bord Snip!!). Other elements would include workplace training, schools and pre-school. Such a target would need to be included in an overall plan for the Learning Sector to bring about efficiencies and better combinations of resources and talent with the focus, more than ever, on the individual learner.

Look - the alternative to a rational, inclusive and ambitious Learning strategy is a dumbed-down non-smart economy, a sick society because unequal and an impaired democratic spirit because learning is the key to active and responsible engagement.

Lets think big and beyond the current narrow debates.

Posted in: Investment

Tagged with: Education


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