Ex-Irish premier converts to tuition fees cause

March 19, 2004

Garret Fitzgerald, the former Irish premier, has reversed his longstanding opposition to the return of university tuition fees, which were abolished in the mid-1990s by a coalition government dominated by the Fine Gael party, of which he was a previous leader.

Dr Fitzgerald, chancellor of the National University of Ireland, said that Ireland needed a merit-based but socially progressive financial system. He accepted that this would meet with opposition from those who benefited from the inadequate and badly targeted student-support schemes.

"But without such a reform it is difficult to see how we can seriously aspire to developing universities with world-class students and faculty," he said.

A new fees arrangement should fund scholarships for a relatively significant number of Irish and foreign students of ability. It should also provide for a far more extensive and well-targeted access scheme to attract the underused talents of able students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also called for income-contingent loans "for students of less ability who nevertheless could benefit from a university education".

There has been a deafening political silence to Dr Fitzgerald's call, but it was grist to the mill of Noel Dempsey, the education minister, who tried to bring back fees last year. He has now said they are off the agenda politically.

But his decision to freeze state funding to universities is forcing them to look at all options. Relations between Mr Dempsey and the universities are at an all time low after he suggested that they were not accountable enough and that they had some fat in the system.

Mr Dempsey maintains that the government owes it to taxpayers - most of whom would never set foot in a university - to get an overview of their performance.

"We have still a long way to go before academic ability is a more important criteria for university entry than your parents' postal address," he said.

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