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Fees… an impolite debate. May 27, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish Politics, The Left.
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An interesting, if dispiriting discussion on Irish Economy between Kevin Denny of the University of Kentucky (and associated, as it says on his paper with the Institute for Fiscal Studies) and Joanna Tuffy TD. Denny has written a piece on the impact of the free fees policy at university level.

I’d meant to address this paper because while interesting it struck me as opening up a number of questions. First up Denny restricts his focus to the Universities and from the data deduces that those in low-income groups have not increased their numbers there.

That’s true to a degree, although we’d probably need more data to be clear as to the position today (given that the data used by Denny appears to come from the mid 2000s and therefore may well have changed subsequently).

He argues that:

A priori, given the high level of excess demand (with the number of applicants around twice the number of places) a reform which would stimulate demand seems unlikely to be effective.
Moreover it achieves this by changing the relative price against the population who are under-represented. The reform also clearly generates a deadweight loss: individuals who were willing to pay for an investment now benefitted from the investment at the taxpayers’ expense. An argument in favour of the policy that has been made was that the fees acted as a barrier to individuals whose parents’ income was just above the threshold to qualify for the
Higher Education grant, largely from low income white-collar backgrounds. Raising the threshold would obviously have been a more efficient solution to this problem to the extent that it existed.

One could query the issue of ‘deadweight loss’, particularly given the reality that covenants (which he mentioned) functioned as a means of offering those who nominally were paying fees a means of no entirely circuitously avoiding payment of fees. But I don’t have the costings on that, so it’s difficult to know what the impact was [addendum, here’s some data on that…].

But it’s hard not to feel that the structures once prevailing were remarkable not for their efficiency, but for their complexity, a complexity that concealed considerable transfers from state to individuals in terms of both grants and tax reliefs. It’s far from anecdotal that there were egregious inequalities in terms of the application of both.

And that being the case isn’t there something just a little cosmetic about all this? Because if the we had a system in place that had barriers of entry, however diffuse, above and beyond the issue of exam results (and I’m not ignoring those, but suggesting that their part in this particular aspect of this debate is simply not as important) then surely removal of those barriers – yes at a cost, is in and of itself a positive outcome (obviously from my own perspective I would argue that there should be no barriers at all and that costs should be recouped from general taxation, but curiously that seems to be the least preferred option these days).

Denny points, rightly in part, to the situation in second level as a predicator of success and entry to third level:

On the basis of the results in Table 3 and Figure 1 one expects to find an SES [Socio economic status] gradient with respect to points. Column 1 of Table 4 shows the results of a simple linear regression using the same covariates as in Table 315. What is very striking is the size of the coefficients on father’s SES: the child of a professional can expect to get about 92 points (about .76 of a standard deviation) more Leaving Certificate points than the child of a manual worker. For the children of other non-manual workers the advantage is smaller, but sizeable, at around 47 points. The child of an unemployed man can expect to get about 30 points fewer. This clearly explains why, in Table 3, once one controls for Leaving Certificate points, the direct effect of SES essentially disappears.

But none of this is particularly surprising – surely? The issue of expectation and tradition enters the picture here. If there is no family tradition of attendance at third level then the premium on high levels of attainment at second level will be lower. Particularly if (and I deal with this later) the option of alternative – and more traditional – career paths is available.

The data on the probability of going to university is also of concern, one would think, to almost anyone.

The first three coefficients show the socio-economic gradient: a student whose father is a professional is about 30% (i.e. 30 percentage points) more likely to attend university than one who’s father is semi- or unskilled. For the child of a father in the “other white collar” category the probability of attending university is 11% higher. That such a gradient exists is not surprising since the higher attendance at university by those of higher SES has been documented exhaustively in a series of reports published by the Higher Education Authority and initially compiled by Patrick Clancy starting in 1982, see Clancy (1982,2001) for example and O’Connell et al (2004).

The conclusion that Denny draws is intriguing:

The main purpose of this paper was to investigate the effect, if any, of the abolition of university fees in Ireland in the mid-1990s. This reform, and the possibility of reversing it, has come under renewed discussion in recent years partly because of financial pressures on the universities as well as a desire for greater financial autonomy by them. However a defence of the reform that is commonly offered is that, somehow, it lead to greater access by groups that have been traditionally under-represented in higher education in general and university in particular. On the face of it, this is highly unlikely to be true since prior to the reform many
low income students did not pay fees because they received a means tested grant covering both tuition costs and a contribution to their living expenses. In effect, the reform withdrew the one advantage that low income students had relative to high income students.

Of course the numbers are everything. Denny notes that in UCD prior to free fees 30% of students were in receipt of HE grants. Given the overall societal demography that is clearly a remarkably low number to be drawn from what he terms ‘low income’ groups. In other words the…

Defenders of the policy might to a general increase in access by low income group over-time. This is not serious evidence and ignores, in particular, the secular increase in the supply of places as universities and other higher education institutions expanded, see the numbers cited on page 5 above and Figure 1. Indeed while the absolute numbers from low SES groups rose, as a
share they remained constant17.

But that, to me at least, seems to indicate at least some level of success. Increased numbers from low SES groups, even if as a share of the overall total they remained constant (and the reference he uses dates back to the mid-2000s which would appear to be rather dated), means of necessity that more students from low income groups are experiencing third level at university level and that will provide a process of aculturation that should directly influence their own off-spring and more broadly increase the idea that that third level is a serious option for those from such groups. There’s another point which I am uncertain as to whether he has allowed for, which is that low SES groups are demographically speaking not immutable. They too are subject to growth or reduction in numbers and one could reasonably query what the impact of the economic boom of the past decade and a half had on those numbers and the consequence of that in terms of the numbers entering college from whatever category. One might hazard that in a boom rising wages and greater job opportunities might see some social mobility upwards thereby seeing a shift in numbers from one SES background to another. I don’t know though, to be honest, and haven’t had time to assess the data.

However, taking Higher Education as a whole numbers of those from low-income groups have increased significantly and this emphasis on universities may well be less important than he thinks (or indeed many of the contributors to the Irish Economy thread who seem to see this as explicit proof that free fees have not succeeded in their purpose).

Interestingly the ESRI, as early as 2004, noted the following:

The overall admission rate in higher education in Ireland has increased by an impressive 11% since 1998 and now lies at 55% of the relevant age cohort (17-19 year olds). This improvement has been shared by the various socio-economic groups with the rate for the Skilled Manual Group almost doubling to a range of 50-60% compared to 32% in 1998. The Semi and Unskilled Socio-Economic Group has improved from 23% to between 33-40% over the same period (Table 3.8). At 71%, Sligo is the county with the highest rate of admission to higher education and there has been a 13 percentage point increase in the rate of admission for Dublin (Table 5.4). Seven out of every 10 (68.3%) of those who sat the Leaving Certificate entered some form of higher education (Table 4.4a).

And quotes:

HEA Chairman Michael Kelly comments “This rise in participation is truly remarkable. In the space of a generation, participation has gone from 20% in 1980 to nearly three times that figure in 2004. Impressive progress has been made towards meeting targets set by the Government following the publication of the McNamara Report on Access in 2001 most notably the target for the unskilled group of 33% by 2006 has been surpassed – it is now between 33-40%; the number of mature entrants at 9.4% has almost reached the target of 10% set for 2006.”

In terms of raw data:

In relation to Dublin, there has been significant progress with eight postal districts having a rate above the national average compared to six in 1998. Dublin 1 (North Inner City) has gone up from 8.9% to 22.8%; Dublin 2 (South Inner City) up from 19.5% to 29.5%; Dublin 24 (Tallaght, Firhouse) up from 26.1% to 40%; and Dublin 17 (Priorswood, Darndale) up from 8.4% to 16.7%. Dublin 14 (Rathfarnham, Dundrum, Clonskeagh) at 86.5% has the highest rate of admission with Dublin 10 (Ballyfermot) at 11.7% having the lowest rate.

Even given increased places these figures seem quite convincing as indicative of some shift in terms of the perception of third level in general as a positive path and that the experience of HE at both university and IoT level is now much greater in the socio-economic groups where previously it was not.

And of course, selection of university or IoT may well be down to factors which his research cannot or does not take into account. Proximity to home, cost of attending when the university is far from home, nature of courses and so on and so forth.

Indeed there’s a counter argument that as free fees came into play perceptions of IoT’s improved (not least due to the increasing number of degree course they provided) which may have skewed the situation.

A further point. I wonder if Denny (or indeed others writing in this area recently) is correct that the abolition of fees was centrally about the ‘university’ sector rather than HE in general. The ESRI report above, and indeed Niamh Bhreathnach in various articles, both reference increased participation in HE – not the universities (albeit everyone in this debate appears to use at times the terms university, college and undergraduate fees interchangeably).

Denny references the ‘abolition of undergraduate university fees for Irish and EU students in 1996’. But of course that wasn’t the reform. The reform was the abolition of undergraduate fees for Irish and EU students across the HE sector.

And if one looks at an article Bhreathnach wrote in Public Affairs Ireland in October 2008 she was explicit that the FF/Labour Party Programme for a Partnership Government, published in 1993 promised to assist entrance to higher education, not just universities.

On a further tangent, there’s a serious issue here about the manner in which IoTs are regarded. Personally having externed and taught in both a national institution and in IoTs (up to and including MA level) I have to say that my personal – entirely anecdotal – experience has been of a much stronger and rigorous engagement in the latter in terms of contact hours, project assessments and so forth. Of course that’s not necessarily true in every and all other areas, but it makes me a little dubious about the categorisation of various levels of HE.

There’s another obvious possibility too. As was noted on the Irish Economy thread, given that the Republic went through its most sustained economic boom the likelihood was that many who might otherwise have seen the benefit of third level education went straight into the commercial sector and in particular into areas that they would traditionally have gone to. It’s striking to me, both from my own experience of third level and less directly of PLCs that the uptake in the last two years has been significantly greater than at any time over the last decade. I don’t have a breakdown of income groupings, but – again, admittedly anecdotally – the premium on third level and continued education across all groupings appears to be increasing.

And here is an unashamed anecdote. Twelve years ago I participated in a jobs fair in the community school I attended in my teens. This consisted of sitting at a table in a hall filled with others who had graduated from the school for an evening and discussing the nature of our work with pupils. Almost without exception the attitude when they discovered the wages in the industry after five or ten years, and the [general] necessity to do a degree, was one of disbelief that I, or they, would do that when other more immediate options which would be hardly less remunerative (at least as they saw it) existed. Now that’s not just about fees as a barrier, but it is indicative of an attitude that there were shortcuts one could take at that point in time which would be more profitable, and in truth this mindset has always existed, a sense that one could have wages at 17 or 19 or in ones early 20s when others didn’t. That too is a function of class expectations.

Denny notes that there have been potential other effects ’18 There is anecdotal evidence that this increased the demand for fee paying secondary schools.’.

Well, perhaps, although one presumes that it is not beyond the wit of our political classes to deal with that through taxation or other mechanisms.

Let’s also note that barriers to entry, through means testing and such like, are proven to inhibit take up of place, even when free. There’s a well developed body of research literature that fairly comprehensively demonstrates how targeted/means tested services/benefits are less likely to be taken up by those that need them than universally available ones. Why fees would be any different escapes me.

One aspect of that that always puzzles me is the almost complete lack of understanding amongst some from a middle class background as to how such barriers operate (and it’s interesting how, for example Colm Harmon of UCD, of whom I have good things to say below in terms of his approach seems to be oddly sanguine about how ‘fees don’t matter’ in this piece here). In part I suspect that this is because they tend to have much fewer inhibitions themselves as regards utilising benefits where necessary – for example, the text of the Denny article notes that the covenant system whereby income tax could be set against college fees was used widely, and by definition used by those from better off income groups. That too was a subvention, and one that was closed down when fees were abolished.

Indeed it’s absolutely dispiriting in this debate to have no sense from almost all participating in it on the Irish Economy thread that in working class communities, like the one where I went to primary and community school, there has only been a slow, what I can only term, acculturation to the concept of HE (let alone universities – and as an academic myself teaching in a national institution I’m very very leery about the concentration on the ‘universities’) being a realistic option. The idea that such deeply embedded attitudes can be changed overnight or even within a decade – particularly a decade where the traditional first option of paid employment from the time one left school was never more easily accessible – seems wildly over-optimistic.

Perhaps this is special pleading, but I think it might be interesting to give this just a little longer before we come to any clear conclusions. From my own experience in third level and that of those teaching on PLCs it is evident that since the economic downturn both areas of education are now heavily subscribed as jobs thin out and the alternative of further or improved education gains a premium.

Denny argues though that,

The policy implication that one can draw from this, and a theme that is emerging generally in the literature, is the importance of early interventions: disadvantage sets in early in life. Quite how early is unclear with some authors, notably James Heckman and co-authors, pointing to the necessity of very early interventions in life, see Doyle et al (2009) for an overview. So while this paper demonstrates that performance at the final secondary school exam is the
proximate explanation for the SES gradient with respect to university it is not able to pinpoint the ultimate explanation i.e. what accounts for the differential performance at secondary level. It may be due to the differential effects of secondary schools however this cannot be assumed. It could, for that matter, be due to differences in primary schooling. Students from higher SES backgrounds make greater use of private tuition in preparing for the Leaving Certificate but, paradoxically, it appears to have no beneficial effect, see Smyth (2009).
Perhaps it has nothing to do with schools at all but evolve from the home environment and parental investment in particular. Most likely, it is a combination of these. So while this paper can help rule out some explanations, it cannot pinpoint exactly where the disadvantage sets in. One would need much better data for this.

Indeed, and of course, there must be increased emphasis on primary and secondary levels. But that doesn’t in and of itself mean that the abolition of undergraduate fees was a mistake. What it does imply is that no single policy will deal with all the problematic issues that arise.

It’s interesting to read David McWilliams piece in the Independent where he argues from this research that:

In fact, the abolition of university fees 15 years ago did not improve the chances of poorer children getting into university. The paper also explains why this is the case. There was and still is a shortage of places in university, not a shortage of students. The poorer kids who did manage to get the points were normally on the grant anyway so they didn’t pay in the first place. The middle-class children and their families just got a subsidy for an expense that they were planning to make all along.
The most important thing is how the children do in the Leaving Cert. Poor children do badly in the Leaving full stop. For example, after 15 years of free university it is the case that if your father is a professional, you will, on average, get about 90 points more than if your father is a manual worker.

But it’s only by limiting our focus to the universities (where numbers did in fact go up albeit from all social groups more or less equally) and ignoring the non-university HE sector where numbers from lower-income groups went up significantly that he can make an argument that once more reifies universities over all other parts of the HE. More accurately we could say that the abolition of undergraduate fees clearly did nothing to block the entry of low income SES students to third level. Would I like there to be more people from lower-income groups in universities. I would indeed but I think the overall picture is still better than is being presented here.

But… it also strikes me as an odd argument to suggest that by underscoring or emphasising social distinctiveness through grants and suchlike that one will somehow improve a situation that – given the historical record – had an evident lack of success, across many decades of the fees and grant system, in enabling social mobility and access to third level.

Therefore it seems curious that the current system would be so easily dismissed after little more than a decade in place – and during, arguably, one of the most volatile and anomalous periods in Irish socio-economic history – and that a rising and rather vociferous chorus should be seeking a return, albeit with [usually] unstated modification (although as seen above Denny himself argues that increasing thresholds on HE grants would ameliorate that, though what ‘efficiency’ that measure would bring to the system is questionable), to the status quo ante.

Still, we’ll get no light from this if we are to take the following exchange from the Irish Economy thread as characteristic.

Joanna Tuffy Says: 
May 25th, 2010 at 10:52 pm
The question which should be considered and is not in the paper by Kevin Denny is this: Which socio economic groups were being dettered from going to college by tuition fees?
According to studies by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) between 1980 and 1992, the children of all but three social groups out of 11 improved their participation rate in college. The three social groups were the Lower Professional, Salaried Employees, Intermediate Non-Manual workers – all low-to-middle-income PAYE workers. The participation rate of children from the three social groups concerned not only did not improve but worsened from the years 1986 to 1992. According to the study of entrants in 1998 by the HEA ‘Who went to College in 1998′, that trend was reversed and their participation increased further in the years that followed. Some of those in those three groups would have qualified for a grant and many of them would have been above the income limits for grants.
According to the HEA in its most recent study of all entrants to third level ‘Who Went to College in 2004′ groups that increased participation rates between 1998 and 2004 included “the Skilled Manual Group almost doubling to a range of 50-60% compared to 32% in 1998. The Semi and Unskilled Socio-Economic Group has improved from 23% to between 33-40% over the same period (Table 3.8).”
(Who Went to College in 2004? A National Survey of New Entrants to Higher Education
By Philip O’Connell (ESRI), David Clancy (Fitzpatrick Associates) and Selina McCoy (ESRI). Published by The Higher Education Authority.)
It may well be that the HEA are due to publish a study in 2012 in relation to 2010 college entrants as its pattern has been to carry out these studies every six years and such a study will give a far more comprehensive picture of who goes to college and from what socio economic background,s than Kevin’s paper possibly can. But contrary to what he, and the people who have commented above, seem to have deduced from his paper, the abolition of fees has meant that many socio economic groups that were previously less likely to send their kids to college prior to the abolition of fees, were more likely to do so subsequent to the abolition of fees.
Joanna Tuffy T.D.
Labour

Denny unfortunately does not respond in the most positive way. Indeed – and I say this as someone who works in academia and in research – he displays a curious (that word again) attitude given that this is a matter of public policy and that he’s engaging with a public representative.

@Joanna,I don’t have much to add to Colm Harmon’s. Having said that.. my guess is that you are not familiar with the methodology behind my study and indeed all serious work in this area. Thats why you have completely misunderstood it and its relationship to the HEA reports. Did it not occur to you that you need to know what you are talking about if you are going to contradict, in public, professionals who work in this area & on an important national topic? Would you feel equally free, say, about contradicting an oncologist who produced some research on cancer? Or are we to accept lower standards of evidence? I can only infer that political expediency rather than a desire to understand the truth is behind your comment. Maybe you should consult a taxi driver.
Those HEA reports, which are invaluable & which I cite, do not allow one to identify the effect of the reform. Consequently they do not support your case. Nor do they contradict it. So you are simply unambiguously wrong as a matter of fact in inferring that the HEA reports supports your position. The O’Connell et al piece actually specifically talks about the merits of the kind of multivariate analysis that I carried out. They understand, you do not.

I hold no brief for Tuffy, or the Labour Party – in fact we’ve been fairly critical of them over the years on the CLR. But the very least he could do Tuffy, and indeed all of us others who are not gifted with his insight, the courtesy of explaining in clear terms the methodology that he uses and why he believes it to be correct. He might also explain why he feels the concentration on one sector of HE provides us with an argument sufficient to jettison the concept of free access to HE. That’s pretty basic, but it’s also the right and courteous thing to do.

It is uninspiring to see such a dismissive approach. Tuffy may be wrong, he may be right, or it may be that as with most things that the truth lies somewhere between the two, but he does his case no justice at all by simply wrapping himself in an unexplained cloak of supposed expertise. These are indeed technical matters, but they’re matters that are relatively easily explained.

Moreover, the idea that research in a social science, which indeed my own academic interests lie within albeit in a different area of it, is directly comparable with medical research, particularly when such a comparison is made seemingly in order to respond to dissent is highly unconvincing.

But given that he brings in political expediency, worth noting once more the fact that he is, as it notes on the paper, associated with the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Now no harm there, but it’s worth, as they say, noting that the IFS is regarded by some – no doubt entirely mischievously – as an effectively pro-Conservative think tank – hard to credit for an organisation founded as a direct result of, and in opposition to, the introduction of Capital Gains Tax amongst others by the UK Labour government of the late 1960s – eh? 🙂 ).

And let me give an example of what I consider a more positive discourse… Denny himself references Colm Harmon’s response to Tuffy. Here is that response.

@Joanna
Thoughtful comment but….
1. Denny work is about the University sector – the HEA report covers all HE institutions. The Denny work excluding the IoTs is correct for the task he is undertaking. IoTs students largely faced no fees due to structural fund money (indeed many received a stipend while in HE). So the fee regime change created a discontinuity for the Uni sector which is what Kevin exploits.
2. In absolute terms there are more students, and therefore more low SES students in HE, but we still have a situation where the relative share in University is largely unchanged. That is what the fee regime change was meant to change – it didn’t (and that is true of many countries as is the reverse – introducing does not lower participation – see Oz)
3. Dropouts are much higher in IoTs so who goes to college is a different question to who finishes college!
4. The Denny analysis is not a HEA report. It is a regression model, multivariate, controlling for many factors at the same time. That he finds such strong results is all the more depressing.

That’s the way to do it. That opens up the debate for further questions, some of which I try to engage with above. And that is the way to have a serious discussion free from personalisation or dubious claims of special expertise (by the way kudos to Liam Delaney of Irish Economy for very nuanced moderation and exquisite tact).

And finally, and this is crucial. There’s a notion abroad that there are absolute certainties in all these socio-economic discussions, that logic points to a single sustainable conclusion in all matters. I’m deeply distrustful of that. Indeed I’d suggest that while the data may provide certain results this does not mean that it is unamenable to interpretation. And to think otherwise is – on occasion – as self-deceiving as it self-serving.

Comments»

1. Pidge - May 27, 2010

An interesting point was made in the comments of that page, which ties in with what you were saying. In the period Denny looks at, unemployment rates were (generally) incredibly low. Why go to college when there’s a job waiting for you? As the construction industry grew, the incentive to take up an apprenticeship grew, and the arguments for going on to formal higher education became more abstract.

Removing fees, to my mind, removed one of the barriers to participation in higher ed. The fact that it hasn’t made a massive difference is not evidence that the policy has failed, but merely that there are more barriers yet to be removed.

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WorldbyStorm - May 27, 2010

Pidge, that’s precisely my opinion on this too. What I found a bit sad, as I mention above, is that few seemed to even comprehend that it was a barrier – not the only one, but one of them.

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2. CMK - May 27, 2010

Thanks for this post WbS.

For me it’s an emotive issue having gone from unskilled manual labourer to PhD via an IoT and three different universities. As both you and Pidge note, and this is THE crucial point in the debate, because there hasn’t been a surge of working class students into universities as a result of ‘free fees’ doesn’t mean the policy isn’t working and won’t in the future lead to much greater involvment. ‘Free fees’ has created a beachhead for children from working class backgrounds to attend what are, for the most part, excellent universities.

What depresses me about this whole debate, which is gathering momentum for a return to fees, is the ‘tone deaf’ nature of middle class discourse on non-traditional participation in universities. As you alluded to with your discussion of means testing and how that is interpreted and understood according to one’s social class, the middle class here just don’t ‘get’ it; by universalising services, stigmas are removed, those from non-traditional backgrounds are empowered and equity is advanced. And as has been noted here time and again, universalising services and entitlements is more efficient. Of course, a right wing economist with time on his hands will surely pick holes in universal provision, but that’s what right wing economists with time on their do, it’s a fact of life like Icelandic volcanoes.

Also, many middle class people have no understanding, whatsoever, that for working class people universities can be, and are, deeply forbidding places. That’s lessened somewhat now, but it remains for those of my parents generation. It will take generations to unmake these institutions from the bastions of middle class privilege they currently into class-less, equitable and open places. Regardless of all the touchy-feely widening access speak at work in universities, any audit of the class backgrounds of academics would make crystal clear that it’s as narrow a social world as medicine or law, or Irish corporate life.

Alas, I think the real agenda here is that those who control the universities can see that if ‘Free Fees’ remain in place for 40-50 years, then the Irish class system as it’s currently structured will be fundamentally altered and a dynamic meritocracy may emerge. Denny’s report provides useful ammunition to the effect “well, we tried; we scrapped fees and participation from non-traditional groups only rose marginally; so, the experiment didn’t work. Let’s bring back fees and forget it ever happened.” The middle class it thinking strategically and to the future, and one clear way to buttress it’s position is to close off the dangers posed by ‘Free fees’. Denny’s supercillious response to Tuffy, on my reading, is a flash of the anxiety generated by ‘free fees’.

My final point, I’m beginning to find it nauseating to listen to certain, exceptionally wealthy, commentators opine in favour of the return of fees. 5, 10, 15 grand a year for an undergraduate degree will be nothing to them; it’ll be a minor-ish challenge for most of the middle classes; for the millions who live on or below the average industrial wage, well, I’m sure even Dr. Denny of the University of Tennesse could, eh, ‘do the math’.

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3. sonofstan - May 27, 2010

Thanks for this post WbS.

For me it’s an emotive issue having gone from unskilled manual labourer to PhD via an IoT and three different universities.

Close enough for me too, except without the IoT and I still do a fair bit of the unskilled manual labour. I did my undergrad degree part-time and paid for it myself, as I did my MA (not in Ireland) – PhD was paid for via a research grant: so it probably balances.

Depressingly, and this may be one place where labour in power might make a small difference, but otherwise, I can see not just a return to fees, but differential fees, as in the UK model – UCD and TCD are desperate to pull away from the bunch and advance their international reps as heavyweight research universities. And because the -relatively few – voices of people from non-traditional academic backgrounds will be drowned in the ‘tone deaf’ bleating of the middle-classes entitled.

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4. BH - May 27, 2010

The excuse will be used that it is the only way to secure further funding for the university sector, just as at any job interview you are now asked how you, the candidate, will attract funding for the university, your employer.

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sonofstan - May 27, 2010

Exactly.

It’s really worth keeping an eye on the UK here- maybe a few years further down that line from us.

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5. CMK - May 27, 2010

SoS, that’s another dimension to the fees debate that’s rarely covered.

As you note, UCD (and to lesser degree TCD) are desperate to emulate Harvard. And that means cultivating it’s ‘brand’; it’s mean ‘prestige’; it means cultivating a sense of ‘exclusivity’. One can’t do that while simultaneously admitting ever greater numbers of working class students who may be first, or at best, second generation university entrants and who, horror of horrors!, are paying nothing. They may get the points and so, UCD and TCD have to admit them, but if they don’t have the cash, well: problem sorted. Ergo, re-introduce fees and regardless of points attainment, significant numbers of working class won’t enter university or at least UCD and TCD.

Regarding differential fees: it’s clear, to me anyway, that both UCD and TCD will charge serious money if fees are re-introduced. And they’ll target the Chinese ‘market’ and Asian ‘market’ to supply a good proportion of undergraduates. It’d be a hard sell trying to convince a Chinese Communist Party cadre to part with 20 grand a year if the university to which their little darling is going, will be overrun by the sorts of helots who know their place in China. They know that won’t be the case in Harvard and Oxbridge, so TCD/UCD will have to be get over that little obstacle, and huge fees are an obvious solution. So, a re-introduction of fees will be one way to ‘secure the brand, going forward in a competitive global marketplace’.

I hope you’re right about Labour; but I think the cohort who pushed for the abolition of fees in the 90’s have very few analogues in today’s party. We’ll see.

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alastair - May 28, 2010

Harvard is free for students from families with household incomes under 60 grand. About half the students are grant-aided or on bursaries of one sort or another.

Whatever about having to mix with ‘herlots’ in Belfield, it would appear that Harvard is not the best place if you just want to mix in the ‘right’ circles.

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Garibaldy - May 28, 2010

Bursaries aren’t restricted to low-income households. You also have the issue of legacies, and the question of class divisions within the student body. The key word there is “just”, which is being used to alter the terms of the discussion. If you want to mix in the “right” circles, there is no better place to do it. It’s just that you might come across some people who aren’t from the “right” circles if you do. Although a lot of that will depend on where you live, access to fraternities etc.

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alastair - May 28, 2010

It puts the lie to the notion that the Harvard ‘exclusivity’ brand is down to the wealth of it’s student intake. Harvard are (along with MIT and, to a lesser degree afaik, Princeton) pretty good on focusing on academic merit rather than cash in their intake strategy. No doubt nepotism, cliques, and the strategic use of bursaries play a role in admittance as well, but they’re pretty meritocratic as an institute when compared to other ivy league schools.

I’m not really buying the notion that there’s a special working class sensitivity about academic grant aid either. I certainly didn’t have a problem with applying for, and receiving any grants for third level study – including the awfully Dickensian sounding ‘hardship fund’.

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6. Niall - May 27, 2010

This argument tends to annoy me. It’s a little like saying “Giving women the right to vote hasn’t resulted in equal representation in an equal number of TD, let’s re-introduce gender based discrimination in the area of voting rights”.

Equality of opportunity is an important end in itself (not that we have equality of opportunity now, it’s just that one barrier to it was removed when fees were abolished).

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7. sonofstan - May 27, 2010

As you note, UCD (and to lesser degree TCD) are desperate to emulate Harvard

Thing is, of course, neither of them are anywhere near that yet-nor will ever be – but, instead of honestly working to get better, in UCD management anyway, there seems to be a belief that simply getting the ‘optics’ right will get you there just as well and much faster.

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8. WorldbyStorm - May 28, 2010

I’m very heartened to see I’m not alone. I think Niall’s comment cuts to the core of this debate. Equality of opportunity is the core issue here, as it is across a myriad of areas in terms of social provision, and it’s disturbing to see that we may yet have to depend, as sonofstan notes, on Labour returning to power to prevent what now seems to be a concerted effort to see fees return. BH, that’s a central point as well. I work, some of the time, in a national institution and I can see how the curriculum is being reworked to incorporate the ‘more profitable’ post grad sector with little regard for whether that makes sense or how we deal with undergrads. I think CMK’s points lock right into that as well. And also the point CMK makes about how Labour itself may not have an appetite for this.

Can I add that this is also an emotive issue for me, albeit or perhaps because, I come from a background where my parents were both involved in education at national and secondary level [I’m slightly self-censoring on the details to protect the guilty – wbs]. I saw in my own education how class determined outcomes all along the way and how barriers prevented positive outcomes. I and my friends were lucky. We went to a community school where we were pushed and pushed and pushed (and another aspect of that was social mixing which was central – at a reunion in Greendale five or so years back I kept hearing from people who I’d been there with that the one thing was that we all were encouraged to do as well as we could, whether that was third level, apprenticeships, whatever. But the point was that we were pushed to achieve in a positive way. That’s great, but it’s not enough, and others didn’t have that advantage. If our socialism means anything it has to mean that we remove those barriers, all of them.

The idea that we would return to a situation, even in modified form, that produced profoundly inequitable outcomes, seems farcical. At best.

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9. sonofstan - May 28, 2010

I can see how the curriculum is being reworked to incorporate the ‘more profitable’ post grad sector with little regard for whether that makes sense or how we deal with undergrads.

Yeah – I meant to make this point above. It is my fixed belief that as third level education approaches the point of being ‘mass education’ the undergraduate experience is getting much worse – and, as you noted in your original post, maybe worse in universities than in IoTs.

Also, Alastair is right to point out that Harvard is actually a fairer place in many ways than any Irish university. And, in most US colleges, you will only be accepted as a post-grad student if you can also get funding, or if they accept you, they ill also fund you: put at it’s crudest, you can’t ‘buy’ a PhD with your own or your parents’ money, although, of course, the luxury of being able to spend the much longer time it takes there still discriminates against those who need to be earning – in other words, unlike here, there isn’t the same incentive to stuff the place with fee-paying postgrads: instead, PGs cost the university money. Which is why, incidentally, a lot of Americans come here to do one year Masters degrees, as such things are a rarity there.

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10. Tomboktu - May 28, 2010

The broader debate (that is, not specifically the comments on irisheconomy.ie) on this is quite dirty. The HEA commissioned the ESRI to research what level grants should be at to support a student (the maintenance grant has not kept pace with inflation for many years). The Department of Education and Science did not want the research published, and a few months ago when the HEA and ESRI ‘defied’ the Dept and decided to do a ‘low key’ launch through an invited seminar, a week or so before that seminar some selected bits of the research were leaked to the press that deal with how much students spent on alcohol.

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11. Tomboktu - May 28, 2010

Perhaps this is special pleading, but I think it might be interesting to give this just a little longer before we come to any clear conclusions. From my own experience in third level and that of those teaching on PLCs it is evident that since the economic downturn both areas of education are now heavily subscribed as jobs thin out and the alternative of further or improved education gains a premium.

It is worse than that. The Department of Education and Science (DES) is applying for funding from the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF) to fund higher education. The EGF was created to support workers who lose their job because of the “changing global trade patterns”. The most well-known effort to use it in Ireland is for the Dell workers, but the DES is also trying to put together a package to get EGF funds for building workers. I am told schenmes for other sectors are being put in place. The theory is that the EGF would be used to enable the redundant workers to go to third-level and acquire new skills.

However, the DES is not using the EGF to expand access to higher education. No extra lecturers or tutors will be hired. Instead, the redundant workers will, with EU funds, take places in the current or planned ‘intake slots’ and those leaving school will now be squeezed out. I await that cynicism by the DES being examined by the media or the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education.

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12. irishelectionliterature - May 28, 2010

There is an article on Diarmaid Ferriter in the Irish Times today….
In relation to this discussion the following jumped out…

“Sometimes when young academics are going in for interview, even for one-year posts, the interview is dominated by fundraising. That worries people in the humanities and it’s very legitimate.”

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13. Tomaltach - May 28, 2010

The reaction on this page is mostly the left wing reflex at its worst. Presented with serious evidence that a policy failed to meet its own objective the reaction is to come out with the usual attacks on the middle classes.

CMK: “What depresses me about this whole debate, which is gathering momentum for a return to fees, is the ‘tone deaf’ nature of middle class discourse on non-traditional participation in universities.“. That the middle classes cannot understand the barriers preventing working class children participating in university is abolutely true. Yet this statement missed the target. The middle classes are not calmouring for a return to fees – they were the key beneficiary of the abolishment of fees. That is the whole point : not only did the policy fail to increase participation rates among the working class, but it proved a bonus for the previously fee-paying classes.

Later, sonofstan refers to “the ‘tone deaf’ bleating of the middle-classes entitled.”.

It is true in this country that there is an elite, an upper class, who have tried hard, and are largely succeeding, to carve into the edifice our republic, the institutions that will sustain their position of privilege. But in the main, painting all potential fee payers in a future system of fees, or those who previously paid fees, with the same brush is not just simplistic but preposterous. It equates a privately schooled, multi-millionaire, D4 lawyer with a PAYE worker just above a fees threshold. This kind of ideoligical shorthand hides more than it reveals about Irish society and is no help in any discussion.

Niall, on comment 6 makes a completely false analogy. First, giving women the right to vote rather than fail in its main aim, succeeded perfectly: it granted women the fundamental right to have an equal voice in chosing their representatives. And second, the statement “Equality of opportunity is an end in itself”. Uncharacteristically, WBS fell for the slogan in endorsing this comment. Yes, equality of opportunity is not just a valuable, but a key goal. But again, the point is, the abolition of fees didn’t achieve it. Plain and simple.

WBS, you seemed to try too hard to turn the slim pickings on the positive side from Denny into support for the policy. It may not have succeeded very well, you admit, but it may have had “some” effect. But that cannot be good enough. The cost was enormous and the evidence is overwhelming that it benefitted the better off more than the poor.

For the same price, simply increasing the old maintenance grant, raising the fees limit, and closing some loopholes could have achieve far far more – and without the net transfer from poor to rich.

The old fees and grants policy was badly flawed and so is the new. There must be some way we can design a system where those from all backgrounds will not see a prohibitive finacial barrier to third level. And with that done, we are still left with the real barriers which prevent working class and deprived children from entering college, some of which were touched on above, such as cultural capital, difficulties at primary and secondary level, and so on.

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eejoynt - May 28, 2010

Should HEIs be entitled to charge the same fee as paid in the school where the applicant did their leaving cert or equivalent?

For the majority this would mean no change but it would have an effect for those parents who pocketed the free fees and spent them in fee paying second level schools

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Tomboktu - May 28, 2010

Excellent idea. (Except the fees would probably switch to “voluntary donations” or some such.)

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Niall - May 28, 2010

Way to misread everything I said!

I never said the point of extending to franchise to women was to ensure equal representation in parliament.

I never said that abolishing fees resulted in equality of opportunity, only that it removed a single barrier to it.

Try again.

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14. sonofstan - May 28, 2010

Tomaltach,

I agree with you that the issue is very complex: If the argument about fees comes up in college, I nearly always support the status quo as it obtains – but some of the counter arguments are not unpersuasive (there’s academia-speak for you!).

Someone above noted that ‘free’ third level access removed one of the barriers, but there were many more: that’s true, and I would hazard that its by no means even the biggest barrier. The obstacles go up the day a child starts primary school. With that in mind, if you offered me the choice between a package that included reduction in Primary class sizes to 20, and 15 in economically disadvantaged areas, a restoration and extension of special needs education, free books and free school meals, MUCH better teacher training, and nearly most important, a huge school building programme to include community sports facilities, libraries and evening adult education, in return for a restoration of university fees (with grants and loans built in), I know which I’d take, on the grounds of improving equality of opportunity AND outcome. Problem is, it would take a lot for a government in this country to persuade me to swap a modest good we have for an aspirational and much greater good.

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15. WorldbyStorm - May 28, 2010

The reaction on this page is mostly the left wing reflex at its worst. Presented with serious evidence that a policy failed to meet its own objective the reaction is to come out with the usual attacks on the middle classes.
CMK: “What depresses me about this whole debate, which is gathering momentum for a return to fees, is the ‘tone deaf’ nature of middle class discourse on non-traditional participation in universities.“. That the middle classes cannot understand the barriers preventing working class children participating in university is abolutely true. Yet this statement missed the target. The middle classes are not calmouring for a return to fees – they were the key beneficiary of the abolishment of fees. That is the whole point : not only did the policy fail to increase participation rates among the working class, but it proved a bonus for the previously fee-paying classes.

In one sense you’re right, it’s a small segment of what appear to be middle class and upper middle class who are arguing for doing away with free fees. But you’re incorrect that they were the key beneficiary, all benefited. As it should be.

But I’m particularly intrigued that as shown on this site, you directly charge people such as CMK and SOS who have noted from their personal experience that those barriers do exist and have a real psychological impact (in some instances in terms of dissuading people) with reflex leftism.

I also see on the IrishEconomy site you charged Joanna Tuffy, who was one of the few people to introduce dissident arguments with ‘stifling debate’. How you could draw that conclusion in the context of a debate where almost no-one demurred from Denny’s original piece escapes me.

Later, sonofstan refers to “the ‘tone deaf’ bleating of the middle-classes entitled.”.
It is true in this country that there is an elite, an upper class, who have tried hard, and are largely succeeding, to carve into the edifice our republic, the institutions that will sustain their position of privilege. But in the main, painting all potential fee payers in a future system of fees, or those who previously paid fees, with the same brush is not just simplistic but preposterous. It equates a privately schooled, multi-millionaire, D4 lawyer with a PAYE worker just above a fees threshold. This kind of ideoligical shorthand hides more than it reveals about Irish society and is no help in any discussion.

Again, the point is that the voices calling for the reintroduction of fees are broadly speaking those in the middle classes. Sure, some of the statements are overly wide in their application of the term. But that doesn’t reduce the truth as regards the source of the push.

Niall, on comment 6 makes a completely false analogy. First, giving women the right to vote rather than fail in its main aim, succeeded perfectly: it granted women the fundamental right to have an equal voice in chosing their representatives. And second, the statement “Equality of opportunity is an end in itself”. Uncharacteristically, WBS fell for the slogan in endorsing this comment. Yes, equality of opportunity is not just a valuable, but a key goal. But again, the point is, the abolition of fees didn’t achieve it. Plain and simple.

I think that’s a very partial reading of the data available. The point with progressive policies is that they open up the scope for engagement. It takes time for changes to come into effect. We know from ESRI reports that access from low income SES groups has increased into the HE as a whole. Therefore one can reasonably posit that the abolition of fees had some positive impact (most likely in tandem with other factors).
WBS, you seemed to try too hard to turn the slim pickings on the positive side from Denny into support for the policy. It may not have succeeded very well, you admit, but it may have had “some” effect. But that cannot be good enough. The cost was enormous and the evidence is overwhelming that it benefitted the better off more than the poor.

I actually tend to think the costs are, given what we gain from HE, far from enormous and I think there’s no end of overstatement about this. I also think that it’s entirely feasible to see revenue streams that could and should be directed towards HE and fees.
The lack of interest expressed on the IE thread in, say, using taxation as a tool to recoup costs is remarkable.

I also refer you to this:

http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/free-education-457278.html

But you continue…

For the same price, simply increasing the old maintenance grant, raising the fees limit, and closing some loopholes could have achieve far far more – and without the net transfer from poor to rich.

Hmmm… On the one hand the middle classes are characterised by you as PAYE workers just above the threshold. But now you say this is a net transfer from rich to poor. The two aren’t entirely incompatible, albeit many – indeed probably most – of those PAYE workers are on pretty modest incomes, but given that any left wing analysis would expect that transfer to be negated by increased higher taxation rather than a return to the status quo ante… which didn’t work… I find that argument extremely unconvincing.

But let’s look at your own thoughts on the grant and fees system.

The old fees and grants policy was badly flawed and so is the new. There must be some way we can design a system where those from all backgrounds will not see a prohibitive finacial barrier to third level. And with that done, we are still left with the real barriers which prevent working class and deprived children from entering college, some of which were touched on above, such as cultural capital, difficulties at primary and secondary level, and so on.

A situation that is so badly flawed is not something I would seek to return to in any shape or form. Indeed the worst of it is that we know that at the points below and above levels where fees kick in there are perverse effects that affect people very badly indeed. But we know that the HE system is considerably less flawed than it was in general.

But you continue to dismiss and ignore the psychological barriers to entry, barriers that I’ve already provided evidence are very real and operate in terms of the provision of targeted benefits. You say the ‘real’ barriers, thereby implying that those are not real barriers.

Now the criticism might be raised that benefits, targeted or universal are in some way different to fees. Which is possible, but I see no lesser authority than Ferdinand von Prondzynski writing on his own blog arguing that fees sit within a conceptual framework of benefits such as health etc. http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/tuition-fees-and-universal-benefits/

I think he’s wrong in his interpretation, but I’m not unhappy that he accepts there is a similarity in terms of free access to education and broader welfare and social services.

I have laid out precisely why I think Denny’s report, while interesting, is insufficient.

He starts out from a premise which is demonstrably incorrect that the goal of fee abolition was to increase university access rates. It wasn’t, or at least not specifically. It was to increase access to all HE. That the stats demonstrate occurred.

He and you seem to believe that a focus on the universities is sufficient to invalidate the abolition of fees. I disagree.

He and you appear to have no interest in the well developed literature on how targeted as distinct from universal benefits/services provide barriers to uptake. I think that’s an error.

And most curiously of all he and you appear implicitly to want to return to a system, however modified, that served us all extremely poorly, that was inequitable in terms of how it operated (and to smooth out that inequity would require some sort of band system of grant assistance from full to none passing through various stages, which again would generate further inequities), and was open to considerable abuse.
I’m no ideologue, indeed I’m fairly pragmatic in my approach. And pragmatism alone suggests that such a return makes little or no sense.

If we want to recoup costs, we can do so through general and possibly specific taxation – we could explore any number of funding mechanisms. There’s absolutely no reason start with the free fees scheme. But I would argue that the evidence suggests that free access at point of entry is one of the ways to optimise the potential for ensuring that people from low incomes increase take up in HE.

Finally, what about the attitudes of the working class itself to ‘free fees’, because their voice sure as hell isn’t being articulated in these discussions, or as here is dismissed almost out of hand as ‘reflexive leftism’. Well, I can go to the Irish Times Behaviour & Attitudes study of last November, available here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/1121/1224259236478.html

and read that…

Perhaps not surprisingly, almost half of the population is opposed to the introduction of a property tax, although one-third are in favour. The fact that as many working class as middle class individuals are opposed to the reintroduction of third-level fees (a majority in both cases) would appear to contradict the notion that free third-level education has been of little real benefit to those from the lower socio-economic groupings.

[Addendum: I should add that I’m surprised there’s absolutely no engagement with the idea that there were alternatives to potential students from lower income groups to HE in the shape of jobs during this period.]

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Tomaltach - May 31, 2010

Wbs,

Though I genuinely welcome her willingness to engage in the debate, I thought Joanna’s defence was not addressing Denny’s paper head on and that she kept on repeating the same line about the socio-economic groups from 1980 to 1992. She came across as a politician defending a legacy policy that has become a sacred cow. In fact in her response to my comment Tuffy pretty much concedes that, after all, it is possible the abolition of fees didn’t really cause wider participation. She then writes “show me the evidence that free fees have made participation at third level more unequal than it was prior to the abolition of fees.”. In other words, she says, ok, but prove our policy didn’t make matters worse.” Hardly a solid defence. (As an aside: I agree with you entirely that Denny’s own dismissive, even insulting remark towards Joanna makes him very small).

You say that the policy wasn’t a trasnfer from poor to rich because all benefitted. But given the scant evidence that exists for an widening in participation, and the fact that fees were now removed from those who used to pay, I cannot accept anything other than this was a transfer of resources up the wealth chain.

My point about the left wing reflex was that I noticed the reaction jumped right away to a general condemnation of the middle classes. You are going along with the condemnation in saying the “point is that the voices calling for the reintroduction of fees are broadly speaking those in the middle classes.”. Who are these middle classes crying out for the introduction of fees? Surely that would be turkeys voting for Christmas. Apart from the really wealthy elite (which I mention in my comment) most other parents that I know in the middle class (whether guards, teachers, or even doctors) will be very happy to keep the free fees thank you very much. In fact, you contradict yourself at the end of your piece by referring to a study that shows a majority of both working class and middle class are opposed to bringing back fees.

Your point about the voices calling for fees are middle class simply means that for example the economists, politicians, or journalists who argue for it are middle class. The real point here is that the working class don’t really have a voice – certainly not a strong one in the ranks of ‘opinion-forming’ profressions. Likewise that there are politicians, journalists or economists calling for fees doesn’t mean this reflects the opinion of the middle class generally.

On your point on ‘real’ barriers. I know all about working class barriers to going to college, particularly univeristy. My working class parents reacted in disbelief when I mentioned that I wanted to go to college. None of my family had ever been to college, and it was automatically assumed that college was for the well heeled. The cultural, or pyschological barriers as you say, were immense. Thankfully may parents always wanted me to do well at school, and quickly realised that college is just an extension of education and that going further would be a great thing. So they supported me fully. The financial burden – despite the grants – was very signifcant too.

You say I want to return to a flawed system ‘however modified’ that served us poorly. But I see the ‘however modified’ as crucial. I don’t want to return to the same old system – not at all. I’m simply arguing that it is not beyond our capacty to design a much better system.

My passion is for a system that is affordable and accessable to all. But more than that, one that is sufficiently well funded to deliver the quality of third level education that Ireland requires. The current system doesn’t deliver on either count. Between maintenance grant levels that have fallen behind and increasing other costs (such as registration fees, rents etc), there is a huge extra financial burden for lower income groups. At the same time, we subsidize the better off.

True, it is possible to imagine a system of taxation that delivers extra funds to third level and which sources its revenue from extra tax higher income deciles. And if that were available I would grab it with both hands. But I believe that solution isn’t remotely possible. And rather than stick with our current broken system, I’d strongly prefer reform.

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WorldbyStorm - June 1, 2010

Wbs,
Though I genuinely welcome her willingness to engage in the debate, I thought Joanna’s defence was not addressing Denny’s paper head on and that she kept on repeating the same line about the socio-economic groups from 1980 to 1992. She came across as a politician defending a legacy policy that has become a sacred cow. In fact in her response to my comment Tuffy pretty much concedes that, after all, it is possible the abolition of fees didn’t really cause wider participation. She then writes “show me the evidence that free fees have made participation at third level more unequal than it was prior to the abolition of fees.”. In other words, she says, ok, but prove our policy didn’t make matters worse.” Hardly a solid defence. (As an aside: I agree with you entirely that Denny’s own dismissive, even insulting remark towards Joanna makes him very small).

I think Tuffy’s motivation and bona fides I think are fairly clear. She has, as have I, continued to make the point that this discussion is skewed because on Irish Economy, and indeed in Denny’s report, the discussion is limited to the University sector within the overall HE sector. And she’s been misunderstood on a number of occasions by those responding to her.
Indeed Colm Harmon on the IE thread makes the same mistake as almost everyone in this discussion when he responds to her that:
2. In absolute terms there are more students, and therefore more low SES students in HE, but we still have a situation where the relative share in University is largely unchanged. That is what the fee regime change was meant to change – it didn’t (and that is true of many countries as is the reverse – introducing does not lower participation – see Oz)

That’s simply incorrect. The fee regime change wasn’t meant to increase access to university alone, it was the whole of the HE sector. If there is a problem in universities it would seem logical to me to examine specifically why such a problem might exist given the increase across the rest of the HE sector.
I’m a bit amused to see Liam Delaney ignore the HEA figures Tuffy put forward and that I referenced here (even though he also references this post), until very very late in the day where he has an epiphany and says first ‘Actually, I missed the obvious trick point out by other posters also that the HEA report refers to higher education more broadly rather than just the universities so this is an added source of confusion.’ and then that… ‘The issue of the HEA data seems potentially a better route if anyone wants to put up a more robust defence of the fees abolition. We still haven’t cleared up the issue of the different socioeconomic trend lines. Anyone willing to give a hand on this?’
That’s the argument I’ve been making from the beginning here. That it takes almost a 100 comments on this topic before this is addressed is a matter of some concern to me.
On a different matter. Got to say, and I want to keep my words moderate on-line, I was very very taken aback by the response to Tuffy.
You say that the policy wasn’t a trasnfer from poor to rich because all benefitted. But given the scant evidence that exists for an widening in participation, and the fact that fees were now removed from those who used to pay, I cannot accept anything other than this was a transfer of resources up the wealth chain.
But the lack of evidence only exists in the university sector, not HE as a whole where participation rates have increased. This really irritates me, not what you’re saying but the general tenor of the discussion on IE. I teach in the ‘college’ sector and have externed in he IoT’s and frankly the division is pointless, but more to the point, it’s self-serving in the context of the argument being made. Of course there would be transfers but taxation is the obvious means of dealing with that.
And the university sector may see less take up for a myriad of reasons which I’ve already discussed. I can well imagine that some people might be put off by the ambience of TCD or wherever. After all these have traditionally been bastions of privilege. Sure, you and I know that that’s not the whole story by now, that a lot of that is cosmetic and even where residual extant (as it is in places) we’d not put much store in it. But that’s you and I. We’ve been around the block. You and I aren’t seventeen any longer, we come from places where third level is normalised in terms of our families – your kids will most likely go to third level, at the very least, like myself with my daughter, you’d have some expectation of that.
A close relative teaches in the PLC and secondary area in the VEC in one of the more deprived parts of Dublin. The idea that the majority of children who are encountered there will ever go to third level, of any flavour, is risible. Simply getting them through second level is an achievement. They have no traditions, no background, few enough roll models, who would point in that direction. Every additional barrier to their transition to third level knocks a few more of them out. And for some, as the person who teaches there will testify, even where grants or services are available, there’s a stigma about putting the hand out. And a fear that that that handout will stay with them.
It’s grand to discuss these on Irish Economy, where largely speaking, the experience of most there is radically different to that background, or is one of success drawn from that background and therefore sometimes an inability to entirely empathise or understand the context of those who haven’t succeeded. But I think a little real-world exposure to the dynamics at play here is required.

My point about the left wing reflex was that I noticed the reaction jumped right away to a general condemnation of the middle classes. You are going along with the condemnation in saying the “point is that the voices calling for the reintroduction of fees are broadly speaking those in the middle classes.”. Who are these middle classes crying out for the introduction of fees? Surely that would be turkeys voting for Christmas. Apart from the really wealthy elite (which I mention in my comment) most other parents that I know in the middle class (whether guards, teachers, or even doctors) will be very happy to keep the free fees thank you very much. In fact, you contradict yourself at the end of your piece by referring to a study that shows a majority of both working class and middle class are opposed to bringing back fees.

I’m not sure you’re reading what I wrote entirely accurately, I myself pointed out that it was “some” middle class voices, and in my response to your first comment here I was explicit that both CMK and sonofstan had overegged that pudding.
I agree with you, it’s a small segment, but in the main voices raised calling for the rollback of the initiative are middle class.
I suspect there’s a dynamic here of public self-abnegation whereby some – not you I hasten to add – can wrap themselves in the ‘bring back fees’ flag as a gesture of their virtue and self-sacrifice when in truth this dovetails precisely with a political view of filtered and rationed public services. I find that a bit irritating too.
Your point about the voices calling for fees are middle class simply means that for example the economists, politicians, or journalists who argue for it are middle class. The real point here is that the working class don’t really have a voice – certainly not a strong one in the ranks of ‘opinion-forming’ profressions. Likewise that there are politicians, journalists or economists calling for fees doesn’t mean this reflects the opinion of the middle class generally.
But that’s precisely the point I made in my original response to you. And yes, you’re right, the working class don’t have a voice. Except when CMK and sonofstan who both said they’re from working class background dissent from your view you belabour them for it and argue that they’re ‘reflexive leftists’. Well, maybe, or maybe they have some personal experience of these matters which informs their worldview.
But when we ask the working class, as with the B&A survey we see that the working class likes free fees. They like them a lot. And why wouldn’t they? These aren’t, despite being psychological barriers, unreal barriers. They’re very real for some and provide a massive obstacle.

On your point on ‘real’ barriers. I know all about working class barriers to going to college, particularly univeristy. My working class parents reacted in disbelief when I mentioned that I wanted to go to college. None of my family had ever been to college, and it was automatically assumed that college was for the well heeled. The cultural, or pyschological barriers as you say, were immense. Thankfully may parents always wanted me to do well at school, and quickly realised that college is just an extension of education and that going further would be a great thing. So they supported me fully. The financial burden – despite the grants – was very signifcant too.
I’m confused. You agree that there are ‘real’ barriers, ones thrown up by traditional perspectives, and yet you don’t seem to accept that they have a ‘real’ effect. You were fortunate, as were most of my core group of friends who I went to national school with and who have remained my friends ever since. They too came from overwhelmingly working class families and were lucky that education was valued. But you know as well as I do how that has not been the norm. The figures of take up bear that out. Except we also know that subsequent to the introduction of free fees take up has improved across the HE.
Which is precisely why I believe any policies that increase admissions are necessary.

You say I want to return to a flawed system ‘however modified’ that served us poorly. But I see the ‘however modified’ as crucial. I don’t want to return to the same old system – not at all. I’m simply arguing that it is not beyond our capacty to design a much better system.
Any ‘reformed system’ you want is one that from the off will have a barrier to entry imposed in the shape of a grant system. I simply don’t think that’s acceptable.
My passion is for a system that is affordable and accessable to all. But more than that, one that is sufficiently well funded to deliver the quality of third level education that Ireland requires. The current system doesn’t deliver on either count. Between maintenance grant levels that have fallen behind and increasing other costs (such as registration fees, rents etc), there is a huge extra financial burden for lower income groups. At the same time, we subsidize the better off.
I genuinely think we have to move beyond this subsidizing the better off idea. As I said above, my daughter who, if she so chooses or if it’s affordable, may well go to third level. On the figures for fees that are being bandied about as it stands (80k) I’ll probably be eligible for grants, and I’d take them in an instant. I’ve never seen the dole or any bursary funding at all in any context that I didn’t like if I’m entitled to it. Not everyone is like me, and if we are to believe the information from research on targeted benefits there’s a whole heap of people not at all like me. I actually consider myself and my partner to be on reasonably okay wages. But they’re not really high. But what if like many I’m or you are 1k over, or 2k, or whatever? How does that work?
And who are the middle classes? I think it’s pernicious to those just above a grants cut off to have to pay full whack. But more to the point, the sort of wages that people get in general in this state are low and through increased taxation, levies and wage cuts are getting lower.
Which leads to another problem. As you’ll know when fees are introduced we begin then to hear about efficiencies, about who is eligible and who is not, and given that funding will always be an issue regardless of what form it takes, we’ll see a downward pressure on the amounts granted in free fees, etc. We’ve seen that in relation to other benefits across a long period of time here and elsewhere, particularly when times get tough. When one shifts from universalism paid through tax to targeted benefits the pressures to constrain and limit the latter increases and on occasion the lines can’t be held.
So we could potentially wind up in a situation where not only were the aculturation issues embedded within the working class, but that the amounts available to those on lower incomes fell. Why not? After all, there’s no science to setting the levels of income at which fees kick in. And all this ignores some other points which is that there’s something a little unreasonable about parents income dictating individuals access to HE.
Tony Blair, who I rarely quote, made a good point once in a slightly different context, that to paraphrase, simply because the middle classes benefit doesn’t invalidate the correctness of a policy. And he continued, the middle classes almost always benefit. They have social confidence on their side, an aptitude and ability to work systems, an embedded network of people who are from that class across civil, commercial and public society and so on. But so what? If the abolition of fees assisted extra numbers into HE, as it appears to have done, then good on it.
And why is it that there’s no problem in demanding the middle classes, whoever they may be and however we define them, pay fees, whereas it is impossible to demand taxation on their incomes? Any suggestion as to the latter is met with muted and hushed tones.

And the obvious riposte is that if it’s a problem in terms of subsidies and transfers to the better off, well let’s shagging tax them a little more to even it all up. Which leads to your final point.

True, it is possible to imagine a system of taxation that delivers extra funds to third level and which sources its revenue from extra tax higher income deciles. And if that were available I would grab it with both hands. But I believe that solution isn’t remotely possible. And rather than stick with our current broken system, I’d strongly prefer reform.
I’m puzzled why you believe that isn’t remotely possible? A policy statement tomorrow by FG and Labour that they would do precisely that would sort it out for the next government. Since when has it become impossible to argue for slightly increased taxation at higher levels (and indeed at medium levels, and indeed I’ve no problem either with bringing all workers on all wages high or low into the tax net, indeed I think it’s crucial in terms of representation and citizenship). When did that become something we can’t push for?
If we were in many other European countries your lack of belief that we could do this would seem quite strange. I don’t mean that personally agin you, but simply think it reflects how the nostrums of the orthodoxy have permeated the debates to a point where it seems that even quite mildly progressive measures can’t be defended or expanded upon.

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16. WorldbyStorm - May 28, 2010

Before we get starry eyed about Harvard I think it’s necessary to be certain about the figures. According to Boston.com, in an article from last year, http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2009/05/12/the_harvard_disadvantage/

Students of modest means have attended Harvard on scholarship for decades. But with the school making an unprecedented push to recruit more of them by offering virtually free rides, the number of students from families making less than $60,000 a year has surged 30 percent over the last five years – to about one-fifth of all Harvard students.

That means that in 2008 20% of those attending Harvard came from families on less than $60,000. That doesn’t strike me as better than our own system. Indeed it strikes me as arguably significantly worse.

The discrepancy between the figure alastair provides and the one above is the all important $60k. Let’s look at the figures on the Harvard College Admissions site:

http://admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/statistics.html

Overall Financial Aid Information 2009-2010
Over half of all undergraduates receive need-based Harvard Scholarship aid, totaling over $145 million.
One-fifth of families qualify for the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, where parents with total incomes less than $60,000 are expected to pay nothing.
Parents with total incomes between $60,000 and $180,000, and typical assets, are now asked to pay an average of up to 10 percent of their income.
Foreign students have the same access to financial aid funding as U.S. citizens, including the Initiative outlined above.
Two-thirds of students work during the academic year.

Note that in 2009 the figure on those in the lowest income percentile (relative to Harvard) remains on 20%.

So the 50% figure masks the actual socio-economic reality – I think few of us would dispute that $180k is a good wage. In Irish terms, in the raw exchange conversion we’d be talking about €145k. There are also points one could raise about broader admissions policy in Harvard, the offspring of those who went there, preferences for athletes and so forth. Once that’s factored in I suspect we’re looking at a very different model from what most of us would consider ‘fair’ or one worth emulating.

Moreover the same article notes that the psychological barriers to entry are considerable, even in a grant environment…

Socially, though, less-fortunate students must gingerly navigate a minefield of class chasms on a campus still brimming with legacies and wealth.

Now fees per se doesn’t change that, and arguably as well, the gulf in Irish HE is lesser. Indeed Harvard would appear to be pitched much further up the social scale than say UCD.

Much of Harvard has changed. Even its exclusive final clubs – once a bastion of privilege – have opened up to students from modest backgrounds. While membership costs thousands of dollars a year, many now let sought-after recruits know that financial aid is available.

But in terms of expectations and perceptions a free fees environment seems to me to offer greater opportunity of access from the off than that we see in Harvard, or that proposed by those who would return to a fees context. I’m curious as to why people believe that it is either right, or effective, to champion that?

Re some individuals not having any problem applying for grants. Of course, there are going to be different responses on the individual level. I’ve provided links to suggestive evidence drawn from literature that in general such targeted benefits do have a negative outcome on take up.

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17. sonofstan - May 28, 2010

That means that in 2008 20% of those attending Harvard came from families on less than $60,000. That doesn’t strike me as better than our own system. Indeed it strikes me as arguably significantly worse.

Yes, but you’re comparing one university – by some metrics, the best in the world – with all of our system.

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WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2010

Well, actually I can refine that comparison to one university with the university sector in Ireland – where we know the average is 30% or so from lower SES’s (cheers Dr. Denny). So surely we still come out ahead? Indeed, even allowing for individual variations, where one university had a lower figure and another a higher it would seem that Ireland (unless there are appalling distortions, i.e. 10% lower SES at TCD and 40% at UCD or somesuch) comes out ahead.

And the metrics are crucial. Aren’t we concerned about SES issues in this instance?

Harvard is still a very elitist place. I only touch briefly above on the point that if you had a parent who went there, or if you gift money to the institution, or if you are the offspring of the very wealthy or prestigious your path in is more assured than otherwise. Indeed I’d almost go so far as to posit Harvard in terms of admissions as an example of how not to do things…

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Wednesday - May 29, 2010

if you had a parent who went there… your path in is more assured than otherwise.

That’s true about a lot of American universities though. Donations from alumni are an important source of their income, and one of the ways they secure those donations is by letting the children of alumni bypass the ordinary entry requirements. Funnily enough the Republicans screaming about affirmative action for minority ethnic groups don’t seem too concerned about this particular exception to merit-based admission.

On a personal anecdote, my own mother won an almost-full scholarship to Harvard but had to turn it down because the one thing they wouldn’t pay for was the cost of her getting to Boston in the first place. This is obviously going back a few years 🙂 .

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sonofstan - May 29, 2010

Yes, but you’re still not comparing like with like: Harvard has 20,000 odd students out of a total of 14m students in the US – about 0.12% of the total or something – there are 9 universities in Ireland, so even if one or two were the ‘elite’ institutions they would like to be, their share of the student body as a whole would be much greater and representative. The point I’m trying to make is that, for a University that is always among the top 4-5 in the world by most metrics, and one that take under 7% of those who apply, it doesn’t recruit exclusively from the prep schools of New England as its image suggests: of course it’s elitist, but not quite in the way it might at first appear. A more interesting comparison would be with Oxbridge: I bet that, despite being much cheaper in terms of fees, and semi- integrated in the state system, the twin pillars of the British establishment may be less socially mixed.

I’m not arguing about this to mount a defence of the US system, or more narrowly, the clever way in which the top American Universities deflect criticism in this manner: because it is much the same kind of argument that defenders of free enterprise use when you point out the unfairness of outcomes: if a few demonstrably working-class people can rise to the top – the Bill Cullen effect- then all might potentially do so. An argument which avoids the fact that the structure of market capitalism demands that only the few shall prosper, and the odd rags to riches tale occludes the more normal ‘riches to even more riches’ one.

This discussion arose from a minor point about UCD/ TCD ambitions to become top flight research universities and the fact that in pursuing this ambition, they were ignoring this fact: however cosmetic it might be, Harvard understands the need not to be – or to appear – entirely socially exclusive and exclusionary, if it is to be as good in terms of research outcomes as it wants to be.

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WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2010

Wednesday, yeah, as they tend to say on MacWorld, it’s a glitch, not a feature! 😦

That’s amazing re your mother (not her getting the scholarship, but the issue about getting to Boston). What a world we live in.

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18. WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2010

The point I’m trying to make is that, for a University that is always among the top 4-5 in the world by most metrics, and one that take under 7% of those who apply, it doesn’t recruit exclusively from the prep schools of New England as its image suggests: of course it’s elitist, but not quite in the way it might at first appear. A more interesting comparison would be with Oxbridge: I bet that, despite being much cheaper in terms of fees, and semi- integrated in the state system, the twin pillars of the British establishment may be less socially mixed.

I’m unsure though why simply by dint of an institution being in the top 5 that somehow means that a clearly elitist admissions policy (even in respect of its grant funding given that only 20% are from low SES groups) is explicable. I know you’re not defending that. It doesn’t seem to me though that Harvard’s current system is better (loaded term) than the status quo ante in Ireland, indeed I’d have thought it was demonstrably worse – let alone our current one.

There are other issues as well. I tend to think that the ambitions of those here who want ‘top flight research universities’ will always crash and burn on the rock of this being a much smaller society, a lack of serious investment in that year over decades, etc… Harvard can have such excellent outcomes on certain metrics because it can pick and choose from a vast cohort, a continental cohort. I can’t see how we could emulate that. Although that’s no argument for not trying to improve matters as much as is possible. But that’s a different point entirely to the main one.

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sonofstan - May 29, 2010

Agree entirely with you’re last para.

Irish universities need to get better, but not in the way Hugh Brady wants them to.

On the Harvard, thing: I guess we’re approaching this from different angles. I think we can both agree that, in terms of educational outcomes, starting from an economically secure background, with an expectation of achievement, is a huge advantage in this respect: and therefore one would reasonably expect that, the world being as it is, the universities most people would hold to be the most desirable ones to get into, either for simple reasons of excellence or because of the life prospects attendant on being a graduate of such a place, would be largely populated by those from the kind of background I sketched, even leaving aside the actual cost of going there. So simply the fact that some Ivy League colleges and a few other elite universities in the US do make a effort to rebalance this is to be noted. No more. But, in the light of the unrealistic ambitions of university administrators here, it ought to be kept foregrounded, because, assuredly, such considerations as equality of access are not uppermost in their minds.

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WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2010

Ah, I see what you’re saying. That elitism is going to be pervasive almost by definition and that the Ivy League makes attempts to tackle that and is aware of same and I presume you’re also saying that given their history that is pushing against some fairly entrenched interests, however strongly or weakly that push is. Whereas our own crew are shifting in the opposite direction and not that fussed in truth about equality of access.

That makes perfect sense.

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19. sonofstan - May 29, 2010

I presume you’re also saying that given their history that is pushing against some fairly entrenched interests

Yeah, although Harvard’s own history is interesting and a bit exceptional is this regard.

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WorldbyStorm - May 29, 2010

What’s also striking is how in the last five or ten years, certainly since 2003 they very overtly pushed more for inclusion.

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20. CL - May 31, 2010

Unequal opportunities due to social class position do not begin at the third level of education and therefore can be little ameliorated at that level.
In both Ireland and the U.S there is massive state subsidization of middle class and upper class students at third level.
State intervention to help low income children is needed much earlier in the process if the unjust disadvantage of class position is to be abolished.

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21. kevin denny - June 1, 2010

Havn’t the time to reply in detail. I am quite happy with my response to the Labour TD whose contribution was nonsense and indeed arrogant.
A little research would have shown that I’m at UCD, merely visiting Kentucky (not that it matters) and only a fool would describe the IFS as pro-conservative. But if you want to be mischievous, since thinking seriously about an issue is too hard, then I guess that’s the way to do it.Its hard to take somebody seriously with such a shaky command of facts and/or logic.

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22. Class and perception. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 31, 2011

[…] thought, who reappeared in the papers recently but Dr. Kevin Denny. It’s cropped up here and here. Denny is an economist at UCD, and it is he who wrote a report last year entitled ‘What did […]

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23. Jim Monaghan - August 31, 2011

I woul add a point. If fees are not introduced then the 3rd level bodies will be flooded with UK students. With a choice between 9000 sterling and 2000 Euro, then the choice is plain. We do not operate in an isolated state in these matters. Perhaps a grant system would deal better with access issues and avoid a more than “normal” influx of students from elsewhere.
My pont is based on realpolitic.In an ideal world/EU then a free exchange across teh EU would be great.

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