Irish weigh up no-fee cost

February 17, 1995

When the next history book on Irish education development is written a chapter will have to be devoted to the saga of the abolition of tuition fees. A suitable title might be "Free fees - no thanks . . . some of us would rather pay".

No single provision in this year's budget has provoked such discussion. Judged solely from the reaction of the education establishment, including many university presidents and student leaders, one would assume that there was little support for the idea.

They argued that it would not create any additional places in colleges nor would it help the disadvantaged get to higher education. Instead of free fees for all, it would have been better to bolstering maintenance grants.

However, popular reaction to the phasing out of fees was positive and it is certainly a winner with the middle-income earners.

The decision will put Niamh Bhreathnach, the education minister, into the history books in much the same way as her predecessor, Donogh O'Malley is remembered for introducing free secondary education in the late 1960s.

The decision will, she believes, have a huge psychological impact on the aspirations of young people who might not otherwise have considered going to college.

Ironically it was not her idea first but was floated more than two years ago by Seamus Brennan, a former Fianna Fail education minister at election time. Ms Bhreathnach's Labour Party, which initially entered into a coalition with Fianna Fail, did not think much of the idea but last summer began to see the advantages, particularly political. However, by then Fianna Fail was saying the cost was too much.

When the coalition collapsed Ms Bhreathnach succeeded in getting a commitment to the abolition of fees written into a new agreement for government with the Fine Gael and Democratic Left parties. She pushed for its inclusion in this year's budget and said the cost could be recouped largely by the scrapping of tax relief on covenants. Legal advice had to be sought on the withdrawal of this relief which is to go entirely next year. When it came to the crunch some Fine Gael ministers had misgivings but the Labour Party insisted and won the day.

"Free third-level education for only Pounds 6 million" was how Ms Bhreathnach announced what she called a "historic decision". The figure is the difference between the abolition of fees and the abolition of tax relief on most covenants. She argued that tax relief on covenants was regressive as the more money a family had the more they could get back by way of tax.

However, the abolition of covenants will hit postgraduates as they will not benefit from the free fees scheme. This, in turn, will worsen the "brain drain" according to Thomas Mitchell, the provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and one of the most persistent critics of the free fees plan.

Other groups will also be hit by the abolition of fees including students in further education colleges who do not get grants at present. The minister is to look at their plight next year but in the meantime the Fianna Fail opposition is warning that "free third-level education" will be much more expensive than is predicted.

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