Is free third-level education possible in Ireland?

While typing the headline for this article, I stopped for a moment. Why am I questioning something which everybody I’ve talked to agrees with? We, as students, desire a third level education which provides us with career opportunities and without the burden of high fees each year. Past students faced the hike in student fees after the most recent economic crash, but now that the situation is improving, we want that lowered or indeed abolished. I am a student so therefore I must keep my student hat on and not go against this notion.

In an ideal world the above would be the case. We would all receive a free education from when we enter junior infants until we decide to complete our studies, be that at second-level or further on. But as we all know, we do not live in an ideal world. Free education is something that is universally lauded as a good thing. However, Ireland’s job market is undeniably saturated and it could be said that we are churning out more graduates than the country can employ.

In a set of statistics compiled by the Higher Education Authority, it was stated that there were 23,243 newly entered full-time undergraduate students in the country in the academic year 2014/2015. That number was up 1,337 from the year 2009/2010 and continues to grow yearly. The job market is growing at a much slower pace than our universities seem to be able to handle, which then causes many graduates to seek further education. These postgraduate courses often put students in employment where they are deemed to be overqualified.

Education is a right that each of us should have the opportunity to undertake and financial situations of individuals and their families should not disrupt this. However, would any of us be able to find employment if we attained qualifications to the highest possible standard for free?  Employers do not want to hire overqualified candidates, so we are possibly hurting our own chances if the government choose free education as the way of the future. These candidates often feel that their salaries do not reflect their educational background and can feel underwhelmed in their positions. Their employers can sense that they don’t truly understand the role of the job and that they’ll leave when something better comes along.

There is also the question of whether, and if so, why, college students should receive the enormous funds required to pay for third level courses instead of primary and secondary schools nationwide. Many believe that by providing free college education those who cannot afford it themselves will be able to go to university. However this is a questionable way of thinking according to some in positions of status in educational fields. Professor Louise Richardson of Waterford and vice-chancellor of Oxford University has stated that more funding is needed in early-years education if poorer children are to compete with other students for third-level places.

In England, where a loan scheme is used, poorer students’ participation rates in higher education are higher than in Scotland where fees are paid for by the government. With my student hat on, I am whole-heartedly against the loan scheme which has been suggested by the government, but when I take it off, I dwell on that England-Scotland situation. The Netherlands has a fee-system with greater funding from the government and 13 of their universities made it into the Times Higher Education’s latest top 250 list.

What is best for the country as a whole and individuals is not the same thing, which is where the crux of the situation lies. Students want and some need free education, while the country needs to maintain the tiered system that is occurring. I do not envy the government and the decisions that will have to be made in the coming months and years.

 -By Connell McHugh

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