Wednesday, 21 May 2003
Rural Development Policy: Statements (Resumed). - Third Level Fees: Motion.
I wish to comment on the Government amendment, which fails to recognise the motion. The controversy that has arisen is of the making of the Minister for Education and Science. When he gave an interview to The Irish Times last September in which he floated kites as to his intentions, people in the media and education thought they were witnessing a visionary Minister for Education and Science. His idea for raising a new source of revenue within education by reintroducing third level fees was tempered by the suggestion that this would be used to increase the finances and resources available to the disadvantaged to access third level. We now know that has failed.
One of the Minister's first efforts in education was to increase substantially the college registration fee, which became a burden on the very group he was supposed to encourage and whose problems he was purporting to alleviate. That fee was increased by 69% because the Minister could not introduce fees elsewhere. It was a huge imposition on many families and was followed by an insensitive reduction of €36 million in the Estimates for support mechanisms to allow the disadvantaged access third level, such as the retention of school initiatives, building improvements, information technology research and development and teacher recruitment. Some €5 million was taken from programmes aimed at attracting school leavers from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds into third level and €6 million from planned initiatives to reduce the schools drop-out rate.
The Minister is well aware that, last year, 1,000 primary school students failed to transfer to second level and 13,000 failed to transfer from second to third level. Many of these failures were within the categories to which he referred and are mentioned in the amendment. I do not know why they have been referred to because they only serve to highlight the abject failure of the Minister in improving access at any level for the disadvantaged. If they cannot transfer from primary to second level or from second to third level, why does he make an issue of ringfencing finance for third level?
The confusion in the Minister's vision for education is also manifest in the uncertainty of the Taoiseach, who has clearly distanced himself from the Minister's stance on this issue. Within Government, the Tánaiste and the Progressive Democrats have also distanced themselves and said that under no circumstances can fees be reintroduced. This has caused uncertainty and confusion for many students and parents, and it is especially insensitive at a time when students are just about to sit their examinations. Their confusion is marked and is paralleled by the confusion within Cabinet.
The Minister does not know for what level or ceiling of earnings he will reintroduce fees. He is on record as saying he will do so for the three holiday per annum family. They are the target of his new revenue raising tax. Perhaps it is aimed at what the Taoiseach described as the super rich, those who earn from €100,000 to €200,000 per annum. Figures from the Revenue Commissioners show that the number of people in this category is small – 53,000 last year. There is no indication how many of these are parents who might have sons or daughters likely to attend third level and be subject to fees in future.
If we knew that fees were to be reintroduced, the level at which they would apply and who would be the target, there would be something to be said for them, but confusion continues to reign. I hope the Minister for Defence gives a clear indication in this regard during the debate. The Minister for Education and Science cannot dodge these matters by saying he is waiting for a review. Mr. McDonagh from the Department has undertaken huge work which seems to have been completed since last Easter but because of the sensitivity of the subject and the fallout that has occurred, the Minister has failed to indicate his intentions.
The onus is on the Minister to come to this House tonight and say that he will not reintroduce third level fees. Nothing short of that will be of any consequence to the many people who are literally under stress. I question the Minister's sincerity and I hope he clarifies the matter at a later stage this evening.
The Minister has talked about a loan scheme. The acid test of the ineffectiveness of a loan scheme is to be seen in Britain. Students who had accrued substantial debts were forced to declare themselves bankrupt in order to avoid repaying loans for up to ten years. That is a huge debt to carry when starting out on a first job and dealing with all their other commitments. A test case last week found that the British Ministry of Education could not pursue them for the money. I hope the Minister will not tinker with the idea of loans, whether based on the Australian or the British model. The Department of Education and Science cannot seem to see that the policy has failed in Britain. If this system is adopted we will find to our cost that it will be a failure here as well. I ask the Minister not to entertain that idea.
The Minister failed on a mission similar to this – the dual mandate – when he was Minister for the Environment and Local Government in the former Government. If we withdraw the incentives for young people to go on to third level education we will switch off the engine that has driven the economy in the past ten years. I challenge Members on the other side to declare truthfully that they do not agree with the reintroduction of fees and go through the lobbies in the right direction tonight.
I second the motion in the name of my colleagues. I welcome the Minister for Defence and his officials to the House but I ask where is the Minister for Education and Science. This is a very important debate and many colleagues on all sides have important contributions to make. I ask that the Minister should show up at some point during the debate to make his contribution and also to hear the sincerely held views of this House.
The reason we have elections is to enable people to determine, based on programmes, policies and manifestos, the kind of Government they want for the following four or five years. The reintroduction of third level fees is an idea that came after the election from the Minister for Education and Science. If the Fianna Fáil Party and the Progressive Democrats wanted this proposal, why did the debate not take place during the last election? That is what elections are about and they determine where people stand on issues such as this. I accept that it is a legitimate subject for debate and that differing stances can be taken on the issue. Trying to do this in the first year of office of a Government is a crude attempt to take money from people which will go into a big black hole. This is another stealth tax and it will be clearly shown as such during this debate.
I come from a constituency where there are many pockets of deprivation, where the level of participation in third level education is very low. I do not believe that the key issue in getting children from those communities into college is fees. There are many reasons why children from those communities do not go to college – peer group pressure, parental expectations, the level of support available at home for study, the lack of chance and the lack of expectation.
I know of a case in my constituency where a young person had to leave college because of the hassle he was getting from other young people in his community. The notion that simply reintroducing fees will bring about some element of equality into the education system is daft. If the Government is genuine on this issue – let us accept that it is – why does it not tell us its programme for dealing with educational disadvantage? Why does it not mainstream the Breaking the Cycle programme which is still a pilot scheme? Why does it not fund proper access programmes for young people from those communities to give them support? I believe the Minister would have a good deal more credibility on the issue if he outlined what exactly he wants to do, summed up the amount of money it would cost and then engaged in a genuine debate. There is nothing in this proposal but spite, to use the words of his Fianna Fáil colleagues when they called him the Minister for Spite last year. This is a spiteful proposal because it will do nothing for educational disadvantage. It will be money lost in a colossal black hole and it will not go to the communities most in need.
If there is consistency in the Government's argument, why are we not talking about the abolition of the free medical cards-GP scheme for persons over 70? Why is it the case that Mr. O'Reilly and other well-known millionaires should be given medical cards? There is no consistency in the Government's argument in respect of this matter. If we were genuinely serious about doing something for educational disadvantage we would be talking about tackling a whole range of discrepancies that exist across a variety of Departments. There is no commitment to do so.
This policy has no political support in this House and clearly not among the Progressive Democrats, the Leader of the House and many of her colleagues. The Minister should do the honourable thing and should consider his position, given the difficulty he has created for the Government on this issue. This proposal will not fly and it comes at a time when students and parents are trying to prepare for examinations. He is playing games with children's futures and he should be ashamed of himself, as should any member of the Government grouping who votes for the amendment tonight.
I join in supporting my two colleagues on this motion. It is important to put this issue into perspective. In 1996, when Niamh Bhreathnach abolished third level fees, neither Fianna Fáil nor the Progressive Democrats nor any party opposed her decision. They recognised the validity of her action. It is fair to acknowledge that over the years many parents have been extremely thankful for the abolition of college fees. Many of us in this House and our sons and daughters have benefited from this scheme.
The two parties on the other side of the House were in power from June 1997 until last year, a period of five years. It was the time of the Celtic tiger when money was coming out of our ears, a time when the present Minister for Finance said that we should drink champagne and celebrate. Why was it not attempted in the five years when the funding was available? They did not do so because it would not help their political chances and there would be a political backlash. If they were so committed, why did they not include it in their manifesto?
This has nothing to do with disadvantage. It is like a mantra used by the Minister for Education and Science. The Taoiseach even uses it. He made a statement during the Nice referendum campaign that he was in favour of the introduction of fees. If I know the Taoiseach, he will not be long distancing himself from the issue.
If I were the Minister for Education and Science I would be disappointed at the level of Cabinet collegiality. He has been hung out to dry on the issue. Perhaps he wants to be the latter day Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the disadvantaged in the form of better education. I would remind him of the social inclusion policy on housing – we know what happened to that 20% provision. It was recently overturned by the Minister, Deputy Cullen. The Minister will probably be remembered for the introduction of the plastic bag levy, which is probably a good venture.
This issue has nothing to do with disadvantage. It has to do with a Government in straitened economic circumstances deciding it wants to raise more revenue from within the education system. If it had to do with disadvantage, why did the Minister not consult his colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, on the back-to-education allowance which was recently debated in this House? This money was whipped away with the stroke of a pen to save €4.5 million for the Department of Social and Family Affairs. However, the Minister withdrew the proposal when she recognised the level of hostility among those who had availed of the back-to-education allowance.
Let us not continue with this nonsense. The Minister probably wanted to go down in history as having achieved one laudable objective but he has been hung out to dry. The Progressive Democrats have distanced themselves completely from the proposal. He must have been sick watching "Questions and Answers" on Monday night and listening to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, from the comfort of the United States of America, distanced herself from the issue.
If the Members opposite are honest they will back this simple one line sentence in the motion and forget about the long waffle in the amendment. They should back the motion because it is what they are saying outside on the plinth. However, Fianna Fáil members play the "good cop, bad cop" role on every issue. They should at least have the gumption tonight to support the motion, which is consistent with what they are saying outside.
commends the Government for undertaking a review of student support provisions with the aim of ensuring that the benefits of the substantial investment being made are maximised and that the available funding is targeted in a manner which achieves greatest impact from the point of view of equity of access to third level education."
I cannot believe what I have just heard from across the floor – an exercise in naked political opportunism. The sentiments expressed and the tactics employed by the Opposition do no service whatsoever to the provision of education. The single focus was on an issue that is still not on the Cabinet table, let alone before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It was an opportunistic strategy employed by the Opposition, for which I utterly condemn them. If they had any shred of decency in terms of respect, appreciation or concern for the real issues in education, this is not the kind of motion they would have tabled in this House.
Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. You have my full confidence and I have yours.
What is taking place is a fundamental review of student support services, including the very substantial investment by the Government in education, particularly at third level. It is totally in accord and consistent with An Agreed Programme for Government. It is stated unequivocally and unambiguously in the amendment that we have a clear commitment to an inclusive society, for which we make no apologies to anyone. We have a clear commitment to tackling disadvantage.
We have spoken about a review of public spending. I find the attitude of Fine Gael extraordinary, a party that promulgated and constantly preached through the years about reviews, the just society and re-evaluation. I have been in the Houses of the Oireachtas more years than I want to admit and each year I was on a committee, no matter what area of public spending the committee dealt with, Opposition colleagues, of whom I could name several, constantly demanded reviews, re-evaluations and cost-benefit analyses. This seems to be thrown out the window this evening by Fine Gael. They are only interested in grabbing one thing. There is a perception that they have an opportunity to exploit divisions among Members on this side of the House.
We have different points of view, not just across the parties in Government but within parties, for which I make no apologies to anyone. This is a fundamental debate not just about the future of education, including third level education, but about the future for our country, based on surveys carried out on future skills needs over the next ten to 15 years, surveys carried out by eminent educationalists and sociologists on the socio-economic profile of the participation rates at third level and the clearly stated sentiments expressed by eminent experts in the area of third level education on the abominably negative effect of the free fees initiative. Perhaps I will deal with that matter before I deal with the glaring inconsistencies in the performance of the main Opposition parties over the last few years in relation to this issue.
The free fees initiative has contributed absolutely nothing to promoting equality of access to third level education. It has favoured the higher income groups, a fact to which educational experts almost unanimously attest. It has facilitated those with the most resources to buy their way into further educational advantage. Professor Malcolm Skilbeck, a leading expert in educational policy, said the abolition of fees gave a fantastic subsidy to the middle and upper classes. He said it helped to underpin the elitist nature of third level education in the Republic.
It is strange to note the failure of the Labour Party to address the creeping elitism in education and its seeming abandonment of the needs and concerns of the lower income groups, the poor and the disadvantaged.
They must have found a New Labour existence. They must have found strange happenings in the voter participation rates of the middle and upper classes. Perhaps it had nothing to do with those voting patterns.
The free fees initiative contributed nothing to equity of access. It just gave a subsidy to the middle and upper classes and underpinned the elitist nature of third level education in the Republic. These are the clearly stated views of eminent educationalists on this issue.
I am not saying we must always agree with professors but this professor has yet to be challenged factually and statistically. Professor Skilbeck went on to say that he was not the least bit surprised that the initiative led to flooding the major universities with students from middle and upper income families.
I am sure the Chair will give me the licence to refer, in the interests of democratic balance, to some of the glaring inconsistencies in the approaches of the Opposition parties. In an article written in 2001, the Fine Gael Party complained that despite free fees, one in ten students declined their CAO offer because their parents could not afford to send them to college. I have not yet spoken about the many initiatives the Government has taken since 1997 to promote better access to third level education for the disadvantaged. My colleagues will deal with that.
This is an admission of the failure of the free fees initiative. Proinsias De Rossa, in his previous existence as Minister for Social Welfare and leader of Democratic Left, and his colleague, the Minister of State with the high stool at the Cabinet table, Deputy Rabbitte, were united in opposing the intiative. It is interesting to see the conversion on the road to Damascus in these cases.
There are serious issues in this area.
We have to make serious choices. The debate at present is about a review. A review is justifiable unless the Opposition parties have decided that reviews, evaluations and cost benefit analyses are no longer relevant. It will be interesting to hear what Opposition Members say about that.
Every teacher, garda, nurse or other middle class parent I knew had education policies to pay for the education of their children. They scrimped, scraped and sacrificed to put them through college. They did more. Some sold their end of career gratuities to pay for their children in college. I know one man who took a career break from his job. He had three children at college and could not afford to pay for them, despite having made provision. By taking a three year career break he lost his salary so he could qualify for grant aid during that period. Two of those children are now senior members of the diplomatic corps. They would never have got there without that type of scrimping and scraping. People went without. It is unfair to say that those people should be put back into that situation.
I know the Senator did not say it. However, it would be wrong to put them back into that situation. We should leave the middle classes out of it. The reason I am worried is that the people who had made provision for their children before the free fees were introduced liquidated that provision and used the money for other things. Those people are scared by the current prospects.
I opposed the proposal to introduce free fees in 1996, for the same reason that I now oppose the reintroduction of fees. People are not able to plan. The people who will be hit are the parents who are caring, concerned and who have consistently been responsible in their approach. This issue is not driven by equity. This will make people suicidal.
There are other ways to look at this. Senator Fitzgerald's points about whether the initiative brought more people into college are correct. I do not believe it did. I do not accept the argument that the reason the initiative should not be reversed is that it brought a huge number of extra people into third level. It did not. There are still huge problems with maintenance and that is what should be examined.
The downward egalitarianism that is proposed, which is to take from people who have a little to give to people who do not have anything, is not the way to approach this issue. That is my honest response. There are other ways. I said in the health debate last week that we cannot have Swedish systems of health care with Texas levels of taxes. The same applies to education. We should approach disadvantage in a comprehensive manner with a proper plan that begins at pre-primary and goes through primary and post-primary by supporting people throughout. We should make provision for that.
This is not the way to do it. It is unfair, threatening and has no element of equity. The Government can do other things. I pleaded with the Minister for Finance before the last budget not to reduce corporation tax to 12% and to defer the reduction for a couple of years. Other things can be done to address this issue. Fees are the wrong way to do it and I speak as a Member who did not support the free fees initiative. I have a bag full of hate mail from people, mainly those who were paying my salary, asking me to shut up but I stuck with that position. I am not taking a populist line now, I just believe it is the wrong decision.
This will not bring greater equity. We should examine maintenance grants as a means of dealing with equity in a more consistent fashion. This proposal is unfair to a group of people on whom we depend for the future of this country. It is wrong. We should see education as an investment and we should be supportive.
I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing his time. We are speaking in a vacuum because we do not know what the Government's proposals are at this stage. However, we know it proposes to reverse the decision which was taken some time ago.
Like Senator O'Toole I opposed the introduction of free third level fees. That has been a sometimes difficult and sometimes easy road to travel. To suggest now, however, that the policy be reversed is impractical and a nonsense. The proposals we have seen and heard are only in the flotation stage but they are a tax on the middle classes. The money they have earned and put aside for a certain purpose will be taken away.
There is a great danger in means testing. There seems to be a difference between the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education and Science and other sources in the Government, who are giving all sorts of figures, about who would pay these fees. Would it be people on incomes of €100,000, €150,000 or €200,000? It does not matter because, in effect, one is saying that those who earn more pay more, which is the same principle as an income tax, and those who have saved more pay more in the case of assets and savings. That is not a healthy principle on which to run education.
This is about ideology. I believe there are two important areas of public spending above all else. The first is health. We cannot compromise the principle that everybody has a right to their health and the right to have the State look after it as far as possible. The second area is education. When one talks about these two rights, one cannot put a commercial value on them and say one person must pay while another does not and one has a right to them and another does not. It is discriminating in a commercial way in education and putting a tax on people because they have done well, earned money and saved it. It will deter some of those who have earned and saved money from putting their children through third level.
If the House believes that people have this right or should be offered this access, the Government should look at the idea of offering loans. It is a controversial idea but one this House should consider – that everyone should be entitled to a guaranteed Government loan. It would certainly solve the problem of access. They should also be entitled to a Government loan for maintenance, which Senator O'Toole rightly identified as one of the most important and tricky areas. When the Minister brings his proposals to Cabinet, he should do something of a shimmy, and he will have to do quite a shimmy to get them past Senator Dardis's party, and ask about loans. It would solve the problem of access, help the Government with funding and place a value on education for those who benefit from it while not crucifying the parents.
I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, to the House.
Coalition Government has been the norm in Ireland for two decades now. Over the past 22 years, single party Governments have been in power for only 36 months in total. If there was one clear message from the last general election, it was that voters wanted to see a continuation of coalition, a continuation of the partnership approach to Government.
The record of coalition over those 22 years has been varied. Some Administrations were very cohesive and quite successful in implementing their political objectives. Others were not so cohesive and they foundered relatively quickly, leaving little by way of political legacy behind them. The successful coalitions were characterised by mutual trust and confidence and the unsuccessful coalitions by mutual distrust and suspicion. We in the Progressive Democrats have experience of both kinds of coalition.
The Administration which held office between 1989 and 1992 was very difficult from the Progressive Democrats' point of view. It collapsed prematurely amid recriminations and hostility between the coalition partners. The Administration which succeeded it, of which we were not part, collapsed in a similar way just 24 months later.
Since then the country and the political system have matured. Our experience of coalition since 1997 has been wholly positive. We in the Progressive Democrats have negotiated with Fianna Fáil two programmes for Government. We have had a positive and constructive role in two successive Administrations. We remain true to our principles while engaging in reasonable compromise for the common good. Mutual trust and mutual respect have been the glue that have kept the two Government parties together over the last six years. Two different parties with different policies and perspectives have worked together in a spirit of co-operation and consultation to form a successful Administration based on genuine partnership.
Under the leadership of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, the two parties have worked together for the good of the country. Structures were put in place to address issues, to resolve differences and to solve problems. Those structures have worked exceptionally well up until now.
I am prepared to wait until the hot air subsides. The floating of proposals to reintroduce third level fees is not consistent with the tried and tested formula of coalition Government. I hope any Government decision on fees will not be a departure from the normal way in which this coalition has done business. I hope we will yet see the normal pattern of consultation. I hope there will be time allowed for the normal circulation of documents for discussion and analysis and that there will be efforts to use the normal mechanisms for resolving the policy differences which arise as a natural feature of inter-party Government. I hope as partners in Government we will not be asked to approve or disapprove a package of measures within a matter of a few days. That does not seem to me to be the way to run a coalition Government and it is not the way that this Government has operated since 1997.
I can assure Senator O'Toole that I can stick my chest out with the best of them. There is a major decision to be made here about an important issue of public policy. That decision should be made after a full process of analysis and discussion, but that process should not be confined to one Department nor should it be confined to one party. Using our coalition processes, the Government has developed over the last six years education policies that have led to more investment at all levels, more teachers and more access programmes. In coalition Government, we have implemented new steps to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds use the open access to third level education that free fees provide.
Since 1997, spending has increased from €500,000 to €26 million on measures to open up third level education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have worked with the Higher Education Authority, the universities and the institutes of technology and we have funded initiatives for third level opportunity in Ballymun, Blanchardstown, Clondalkin, Tallaght, Limerick and Wexford. We have introduced special rates of maintenance grants, the millennium partnership fund for disadvantage and the student assistant fund. Together with the free fees initiative, these programmes are working to help increase access to third level education.
The parties in Government share the objective of making greater progress on education at all levels. That is why the Progressive Democrats have supported on every occasion the work of the Minister for Education and Science in initiating a review of student support measures to ensure they are effective in achieving greater access. We await the outcome of this review. The Progressive Democrats in Government will give detailed consideration to the Minister's proposals based on the review when they are brought forward and that is why we support the amendment to the motion tonight.
This coalition Government has implemented for six years the policy of free fees for third level education. Third level education is now as important for our country's development as second level was in the 1960s.
—because he has said many things I would agree with.
Tomorrow, the Labour Party is holding a wreath-laying ceremony in Arbour Hill Cemetery to honour the memory of James Connolly. In 1896, James Connolly, the founder of the oldest political party in the State, the Labour Party, called for free education up to the highest university grades. It is good to know that, of all parties, the Progressive Democrats concur with that basic socialist principle.
The principle James Connolly espoused of education at all levels as a basic and universal right and a thing of value to the individual and society is a fundamental socialist and social democratic principle. It is this principle that underpinned the Labour Party's decision that the former Minister for Education, Niamh Breathnach, should abolish third level fees in 1996 and that the State should fund third level as it funds primary and second level education out of general taxation. As Senator Dardis has reminded us, a similarly imaginative and foresighted move was made in relation to second level education by Donogh O'Malley, a Fianna Fáil Minister in the 1960s. That move saw levels of participation in second level education increase dramatically over a 20-year period, to today's level of more than 80%.
It is only seven years since third level fees were abolished, and it is too soon to assess fully the impact of this abolition on levels of participation at third level by the various socio-economic groups. The figures available in the Clancy report of the Higher Education Authority relate only up to 1998, but the signs that access to third level education is widening are promising.
In the Dáil this morning, the Taoiseach trumpeted the increased numbers attending third level courses compared to figures in the past. Contrary to what the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education and Science and Senator Fitzgerald seem to believe – that the abolition of fees has not improved access to third level education by the lower socio-economic groups – the evidence available suggests that the abolition improved access to third level education by all socio-economic groups. In the latest year for which figures are available, 1998, two years after the abolition of third level fees, the participation rates of the children of the lowest socio-economic group, the unskilled manual workers, had almost doubled, from 12% in 1992 to 22% in 1998. The Clancy report shows that from 1980 to 1992, before third level tuition fees were abolished, eight out of 11 socio-economic groups increased their participation rate in third level education, and overall participation rates increased, but the rates of three low to middle PAYE-paying income groups either worsened or increased negligibly. Between 1986 and 1992, the participation rates of those three groups actually dropped.
If third level fees are reintroduced, those three lower-income groups who fared badly in terms of those participation rates prior to the abolition of fees will suffer again. The types of people involved include, for example, the children of teachers, nurses and shop-workers, hardworking people who scrimp and save – the kind of people Senator O'Toole referred to. These are the middle classes, basically the low to middle income PAYE groups that Fianna Fáil seems to have decided to abandon, while at the same time providing tax breaks for millionaires.
I read an article before Christmas in The Irish Times which claimed it was as if the middle classes had become the surrogate for the truly rich in society, the tax dodgers, the millionaires with illicit offshore accounts. Those people will probably not end up paying fees, but the PAYE people will be sitting ducks if this Government reintroduces third level fees.
The conclusion that may be drawn from the Clancy figures is that the abolition of fees removed both a psychological and a financial deterrent to PAYE families participating in third level education. Reintroducing fees will replace the same psychological and financial barriers in front of hardworking families.
A loan system would be an even greater barrier and deterrent. Today I read a report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust on socio-economic disadvantage and experience in higher education. This report found that a fear of debt was a huge deterrent in terms of disadvantaged students' continued participation in third level education.
The statistical evidence suggests strongly that participation in third level education of all groups, including the disadvantaged, has improved as a result of the abolition of fees. As a local public representative, that is my experience on the ground. For example, Neilstown's Collinstown Park school, in my constituency, this year sent its first student ever to study medicine, in Trinity College. The school sent several students to third level colleges. When I was attending my own local school in Lucan, very few students went on to third level education, whereas now the vast majority do so.
Fees will definitely be a deterrent. When people of my generation, who did not have in their families the tradition of going to third level colleges, were faced with the choice of a job or the financial burden that going to college entailed, they chose the job. Their long-term economic and career prospects were thus reduced.
There is no evidence that the abolition of fees has failed. All the evidence suggests it has been a success. If fees are reintroduced, whatever the threshold or the system, it will be the thin end of the wedge. We know it is a revenue-raising measure, and that is how the increase in college registration fees was treated. The money raised went back into the general coffers and did nothing to improve access to or funding of education.
It should be noted that Australia and the UK are now looking at the prospect of third level top-up fees. That will probably be the next proposal if fees are reintroduced here. I suggest to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, and to the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, that instead of setting up one person against another in third level education, and one class of society against another, the Minister should be fighting at the Cabinet table for proper funding for all levels of education, and for investment to be funded out of a fair taxation system.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I have so far listened to a very lively debate, which I had expected. I do not want to talk about the narrow issue of third level fees. I want the debate to be broader than that.
When I began to think about the issue, I realised it was all about the funding of education. I asked myself whether or not we are getting value for money. There is a colossal amount of money going into education and, as I see it, we are not getting value for money. Something is going wrong somewhere. I ask why we should not have this review. It is important, and we need a brainstorming exercise in this area.
Many people I spoke to, including Fine Gael supporters outside this House, have agreed that the issue is worth debating, that we need to ask where we are going with regard to education, in terms of creating an inclusive society. That is what I want to debate, not the narrow issue of third level fees on its own. That is not sound conceptual thinking in terms of how our education system should be developed. We should be talking about resources to target those who should have access to education but who are not getting it.
I want to look at our second level education system and consider how best we can target the disadvantaged. Have we put the resources into this area, in terms of remedial teachers, home school links, early start programmes, career guidance counselling, and into the best way of targeting and directing people from second level education into third level?
Not everyone is suited to third level education. Not everyone should go into it. Not everyone has an academic brain. There are different types of intelligence. There is skilled intelligence. There is also emotional intelligence. We could do with more of that in the House this evening. There is political intelligence, of which we are getting too much in this debate.
The Senator should not distract me. This debate is concerned with how best we can encourage people to enter a suitable area of education in order to maximise their ability and potential. The challenge for us in the future will be to realise that the profile has changed. There are post-leaving certificate courses and excellent courses on offer.
We have to talk about that issue in a broader context. As already stated, there are many programmes on offer and people in the middle income category should not have to pay fees. I make no apologies for saying that. However, there is no harm in examining this matter.
What is wrong with looking at the system of third level fees and the opportunities and challenges that exist? I have no difficulty with that. The Minister is right to call for a review. When it is complete, we could engage in a brainstorming exercise—
—all they can say is that they do not want fees to be reintroduced. I am talking about broader issues, such as an inclusive society and a level of equality and participation in the educational system. I want everybody to have access to third level.
—it may be about other issues. Perhaps we should be debating that point, not claims by narrow-minded spin doctors that the Government is reintroducing fees. That is not on the cards. What is at issue is the review to which I refer. I assure Members—
We need to look at the entire education system, from primary level to secondary level. We also need to look at the psychological service and at those who are not successful in the system. We must consider how best we can retain people in the education system, maximise their potential and allow them access to whatever form of third level education they choose. Perhaps we should be tapping into the apprenticeship system. We need to look at the skilled areas because not everyone is academically orientated. We could do with a few such individuals in the House.
I welcome this worthwhile debate. I am glad that Senators are making such lively contributions to it.
I welcome the Minister. I sympathise with him, because not for the first time, he has drawn the short straw.
I stated on the Order of Business that the supposed amendment to the motion is a subterfuge. There is no commitment in the programme for Government with regard to the reintroduction of tuition fees. I heard the able Senators Fitzgerald and Ormonde do their best – they are good debaters – but they cannot make something out of nothing.
—but much of what he said is hot air. If I might dwell on the Senator's contribution, it should carry a health warning for all in Fianna Fáil. When the Progressive Democrats have views on matters, they hold them strongly to them. What Fianna Fáil is doing is flawed and the party is going off half-cocked. This is why the amendment is a fig leaf.
That other able man from the Progressive Democrats who sits at the Cabinet table stated that there are legal issues at stake. Students cannot command their parents in respect of fees. It would be dangerous to allow them to do so in any event. Before I move on from Senator Dardis's contribution, which I enjoyed, I must state that he gave the House a lecture on how modern coalitions must—
—proceed. When one wants cohesion in Government, this is not the way one initiates the debate. It must be conducted within Government in the first instance and we should not know anything about it.
This issue is not being handled properly and that is why the Government's so-called amendment is a fig leaf. This issue has sown much confusion. It is difficult for parents and students and has introduced a total climate of confusion. This is not the time to add to the burdens of students and parents. This multi-tier price system – if that is what the Minister has in mind – would be dangerous. The great educationalist, Senator O'Toole, pointed out that there are major problems with maintenance which we should address first. These proposals will not bring about greater equity. What we are doing for our students is the greatest investment we can make in the future.
I welcome the Minister and thank my colleague for sharing time with me. The Government won the general election but quickly lost the confidence of the people with its deceitful and slieveen carry on. This is evident in every part of the country.
Given the Minister's proposal to reintroduce third level fees, it appears the Government has lost the confidence of a sizeable number of the members of both parliamentary parties. I hope the Progressive Democrats will not be hypocritical tonight and that we will not leave this Chamber calling them the hypocritical democrats rather than the Progressive Democrats.
The public has to bear the cost of broken promises with low spending and higher charges with new ones being introduced each day. The Government has proved to be incompetent in its economic management of the country. The verdict lies with the people despite its strongly worded 14 page cover-up document in defence of its first year in power. Promises have been broken and no amount of backtracking or waffling can remedy that position. I can tell the Minister that every man, woman and young person is sick to the teeth of the Government's dishonesty.
What is chiefly on their minds is the final straw, the attack on the very fabric of society, the essence of our heritage, the education system. The electorate was lied to with regard to the funding for education prior to the general election. We heard nothing about the 10% cut in the budget for primary schools, or about college registration fees being increased by 69%, or the proposed abolition of the third level grants scheme. A year later the people have shown up the Government's U-turns on spending and so on in the recent opinion poll.
The Government has lost all credibility. It has introduced one cut after another in the scandal that never ends. The outlook for the year ahead is equally gloom. The health service has suffered closure after closure. Local authorities budgets are being slashed while the sick, the disabled and the elderly are left without essential services. Today parents and young people are furious and rightly accuse the Government of deception and betrayal.
What about the pre-election promise by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, that no cuts whatsoever were being planned? The Government parties, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, have broken their contract with their breach of faith in education.
I am extremely disappointed with the Progressive Democrats and their hypocritical approach. The Government's record of lies and half truths has been shown up and the people will give their verdict at the next local and European elections, if there is not a general election before then. I ask the Minister to take note of what the general public is telling the Government in the opinion polls, that it has got it wrong, that it was lied to in regard to the cutbacks prior to the general election. It is a very bad message.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey. I do not mean to say with any vestige of pretension that I was Minister for Education for almost five years and a teacher. The Minister was also a teacher, as was the spirited Senator Ormonde. I speak from that perspective and should have an input into a debate such as this.
It is very alarming that we are not debating a proposal. We are debating a matter about which we know nothing. In regard to the amendment, I cannot understand how one can cast aspersions on building an inclusive society. Of all parties, the Labour Party should enjoy this. In regard to improving the level and quality of participation and achievement at every level of education; ensuring the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in third level education expands significantly; and building a greater culture of review of public spending, I cannot see how anybody could have a quarrel with the amendment.
I regret very much that we are not debating a proposal. I wish we had before the House a fully fleshed out review which had been presented to the Cabinet and was up for public debate. That is the point at which we should be. In September 2002 this issue was first strongly floated. It has been defended on several occasions in this House. The Minister and his Government colleagues are entitled to review any part of public policy. It would be a sad, dispirited and undetermined Government if it was unable to do so. We are approaching the end of May and a time when it will be necessary for young people and their parents, who make provision for them, to have the full facts in order that they can make subsequent decisions. Eight months on it is still unfocused. It has no texture and is not debatable because we do not know the facts. I regret this very much because that is not the way matters should proceed in any Department.
It is wrong that the general debate has reached a stage where those atavistic sentiments are stirred when we do not have a proposal. That is the reason those who sneer at our amendment are incorrect. The Minister has yet to go to Cabinet with his proposal which, we are assured, he will be doing. The politics of envy are not the right way to go about promulgating public policy. If one has a policy of envy in one's heart, one is envious of others who have more money, which I do not have but I do not care what people have because I am not envious. If one is satisfied with one's own lifestyle—
—one is satisfied with oneself and one's inner self. Stirring up atavistic tendencies is wrong. This has come about because people do not know what the proposal is.
Lest anybody think I am afraid to face up to the issue, in 1987-88 when things were very difficult and I was Minister for Education, I had to face up to 1,000 teachers at my front door and every clinic I attended for six weeks. I certainly did face them because I had to do so. Policies were brought forward from the Department of Finance – it was proposed that there should be a charge for post-intermediate certificate secondary education. That was the policy given to us but we rejected it because the Cabinet stated it would not do so.
While the Department of Finance has a job to do – I am not criticising it – which is to conserve the public purse, at which it is very good, this is the thin end of the wedge. If this proposal is introduced at whatever level – if the level is huge, we might all have to look again at it – it will not do and will come down the following year and will come down again the year after. That is the way the Department of Finance operates because it needs money. I am not speaking about the Minister for Finance but about the Department.
This is a complex issue. We are concerned with those at primary, late primary and second level becoming infused with the idea that they can attend college and are as good as the children already attending. We also face a period when colleges will be denuded of students and the points race will lose its acute role in deciding futures.
While we will support our amendment to the motion, all parties should be united on the need to bring education in its fullest sense to everybody. It does not end when students leave college. We should bring this debate to a speedy conclusion and proceed with the review which may cover a large number of issues on which we would have common purpose. If so, it will have been a good review and I wish the Minister luck in progressing it. If I appear to have been outspoken, it is because I spent five years in the Department over which the Minister presides, which entitles me to have an opinion.
I am afraid I will disappoint my good friend, Senator O'Rourke, because I will take a different approach to this debate. I commend the Minister. He is somebody of courage and integrity and the kind of person we need as Taoiseach.
We hear much from members of the public about scandals and their desire for integrity, decency and ideas, yet when they get it, they pee all over it, if the House will excuse the unparliamentary expression. They do not seem to want to know when they are asked to pay for it, when something is taken out of their well filled pockets.
My esteemed colleague, Senator O'Toole, told a tragic tale of somebody who had to take a career break in order that his income would drop to a level where he would be entitled to avail of free education. My heart was broken that the poor man should have to go through the frightful trauma of getting paid for doing nothing for three years in order that his children could be educated at the expense of the taxpayer. What a tragic story but it did not change my mind. It is the kind of luxury and self-indulgence that has got the country into its present condition.
I got no free education. I was unable to take up the scholarship to which I was entitled because it was not tenable at Trinity College. While I do not begrudge people these things, it is outrageous that the taxes of old age pensioners should be used to provide free education for those earning €250,000 and more every year.
The figures are clear. Alleged free education has virtually no impact on disadvantaged areas. If people are interested in equality and committed to the ideals of the 1916 rebellion, revolution, or whatever it may prefer to be called, about cherishing the children of the nation equally, scarce resources must be reallocated. It must be made clear that they will be channelled to those areas which people cannot access, even with free education because of the cost of such factors as transport, accommodation and books. Even with programmes such as the Trinity College access scheme, the number from deprived areas of this city and the rest of the country attending third level is pathetic. If we want to do something about this, we must at least inquire, which is what the Minister is proposing to do.
Yesterday, I told the Minister about my recent experience when I visited two marvellous institutions in my part of the city. I attended a debate at Larkin College, Champions Avenue, an area blighted by drugs while the previous day I read stories to six, seven and eight year old children in the Central School, Marlborough Street. They are participants in the Breaking the Cycle programme. It should be called the break your hearts programme because, in an area of absolute deprivation, it only takes children up to the second year of primary school. These wonderful children, beautifully dressed, immaculate, polite, intelligent and curious will, within a period of approximately 18 months, be dumped on the pavements of a very harsh city, where their role models will be the crack and heroin dealers in the big cars and motorcycles. If they were given a different role model, it would have a huge impact on the part of the city in which I live and on many similar areas around the country. Most have unemployed or absent fathers, or single parents. The couple of decent community gardaí who put their effort into the area provide them with a kind of male role model.
If the Breaking the Cycle programme were to be continued, beyond the pathetic two years of primary level to which it is currently applied, through primary, secondary and third level education, the first couple of doctors, lawyers, engineers and vets who come from the areas around me would provide a new role model. The money to provide for this could be raised by charging those who can well afford it to pay for their education. A condition of this charge would be that it did not go back to the general Exchequer but was targeted and focused on these areas.
The Minister has a real commitment to the ideal of giving everybody an equal chance and equal access and opportunity, not the slogan of free education. All the surveys show that people would benefit from this approach. In England, men with a three year university degree get a quantifiable benefit of a 17% increase in their earnings while women get a 37% increase. That is what they get for the rest of their lives. Why should the State not get some of this money back to redirect it? This is not covetousness nor envy. I say to those who are well off, why not share a little with those who are not so advantaged? Why not set up a system where, for example, tax clawbacks would be available? This means that parents would not have to take their free holiday at the expense of the company in the form of a career break of whatever.
There needs to be a sophisticated form of means testing. For example, if three or four children are clustered around the same age, they must be looked after because even a wealthy family would find it difficult to support them. The Government would also have to guarantee funding to the universities.
I commend the Minister and urge him to continue with his inquiry, even if it leads to the reintroduction of fees. I represent a constituency that would be affected by that approach but do not care because I believe the one way in which we will get decent values in this country is by spreading the right of access to people throughout. If that is the way the Minister proceeds, he will have my strong support.
If those who are members of the Conference of Heads of Irish universities were present, they would support the reintroduction of fees. They found that, unfortunately, the parents of Irish students were a far more reliable source of income than the Department of Education and Science. While there has been an increase in the amount of money given to universities, there has also been Government agreement of major increases in salaries. No matter how well deserved these are, it means there is very little left over for services. We have increasing numbers in lecture theatres and tutorials while staff on contracts are not being re-employed. Courses such as the clinical psychology course which is so badly needed have been cancelled, though in that case the Minister reinstated it.
There has been talk of getting money from graduates once they leave college but there is no need for anyone to worry as we are getting that money already. We could not manage without it. I am chairperson of the Trinity Association and Trust and we appeal to our graduates all the time. Most of the Trinity College access programme is funded by graduates and the same amount goes into the general fund. I take Senator Norris's point. We certainly appear to be very well off but it was only when our three children who had been at university at the same time graduated and were able to support their mother in her old age that I realised how hard it had been.
As a proud member of the Progressive Democrats, I hope I do not disappoint my friend, Senator Bannon, on the Opposition benches. Education is the key to our future opportunities as a society and as individuals. For this reason, the Progressive Democrats support free primary, secondary and third level education and seek to ensure each is well funded, effective and open to all. To achieve these objectives we need policies which are well thought out and a broad resource base to fund them. Targeted initiatives are required to improve each level of education. In no area should we attempt to achieve these objectives by tinkering with thresholds for taxes, fees and charges for smaller groups. Any change in free secondary education since the 1960s would have been a backward step and any change in third level fees now would be the same.
To bring back fees would be unfair and disruptive to thousands of students and families. People have made plans many years in advance on the basis of free education and it will not only be students who hope to attend third level this year who would suffer. Students already there as well as those in secondary education would also pay.
There has been much talk about thresholds for payments but everyone knows that thresholds, once introduced, are likely to come down. In these tougher economic times people want as many reassurances as they can get but ideas about thresholds have already had the opposite effect. People will be anxious, not reassured by the idea of thresholds for fees. We expended much effort to create a clean and understandable tax and benefits system in which people were not trapped by thresholds. Anyone whose household income is near a fees threshold would face an enormous increase in expenses in their earnings which in one year might tip them slightly over the benchmark. There would be a perverse initiative to avoid pay increases, overtime work, bonuses and opportunities for promotion. With a few students in a family the effect of fees would be devastating to the family finances.
This is much more fundamental than thresholds and questions of who is and is not wealthy. At issue are our approach to education at all levels as a public service, our approach to the funding of public services and our work to ensure full access to education. Charging fees at third level to some would not achieve greater access to education for others. Policies and programmes to help people take advantage of third level education need to be effective and funded. Should wealthier persons who have dependants attending third level education make a greater contribution to funding access for all? They already do. Should wealthier persons who do not have dependants at third level make a significant financial contribution to tackling disadvantage? They already do. Should third level graduates who get good jobs and earn higher salaries fund social programmes to help others to get the same opportunities they had? They already do through the tax system.
We believe the only fair way to fund social programmes is through the general tax system. The coalition Government has formulated a tax system and made it much fairer over the last six years. It is clear, fair and effective. Wealthier individuals pay more tax, as they should, while 50% of all income tax is contributed by 8% of income taxpayers. The general tax system is the vehicle for ensuring social priorities are decided by Government as a whole. There are significant demands on resources from health, social welfare and education which must be considered as a whole, as should the level of tax fees and charges in our society. This is the only fair way to achieve a balance between tax and spending.
I congratulate the Progressive Democrats for being right about something for the first time since the party's formation. They have been wrong about most things over the last 15 years and Senator Dardis is well aware of my opinions on the matter.
Universal free access to education at all levels is a matter of right. The fact that some who are very rich gain access to free education is not an issue. We never spoke about charging rich people for primary education because to do so would be daft. For 20 years we have not spoken about charging rich people for secondary education. If they wish to pay for education, let them attend private schools and if the Minister is so concerned about social justice, he should stop paying the salaries of teachers in elitist fee-paying secondary schools. Will he respond to this as my radical friend who is concerned about social justice? Why should we pay the salaries of teachers in Belvedere, Clongowes, CBC Cork and Presentation College, Cork other than to support privilege and elitist education? If the Minister wishes to do something about social justice, he should start there and leave third level education alone.
The Minister should stop threatening people. It is a reflection of the remoteness of the Government that it does not understand that ordinary people have to budget to pay for their children to attend third level. Ordinary people—
I am a member of a political party which bravely abolished third level fees during the early 1990s. That decision, by former Deputy Niamh Breathnach, was not only brave but visionary. Where was this proposal when the Government's election manifesto was revealed on a daily basis amid great pomp and ceremony? Was it in the newspapers or on a radio or television programme? No, it was not. The Government has demonstrated, on an almost daily basis, the level of contempt in which it holds the electorate.
I remind Fianna Fáil Senators, who have the brass neck to defend this so-called review, that they should take a leaf out of the Progressive Democrats' book and look at the people who will suffer as a result of this outlandish proposal. We all know that the Minister has every intention of reintroducing fees as soon as the summer recess begins, in a pathetic PR attempt to avoid the backlash from students who will have gone abroad to work.
If a proposal, or review as the Government is now calling it, of this magnitude goes ahead, it will hurt thousands of people, not least those who are on the margins, on middle and average incomes. There are plenty of opportunities for the Minister to raise revenue if he is serious about running a Department. He can chase his friends in the bloodstock industry or perhaps consult his friends in the Fianna Fáil hospitality tent at the Galway Races. He is not listening to the public.
If Fianna Fáil Senators wish to wear blinkers, then woe betide them when they are knocking on doors next year, looking for votes to return their candidates to local authorities and the European Parliament. If the Government is that blinkered and the Minister is not willing to fight the Department of Finance for appropriate funding for his Department, as a Minister should, perhaps he should not be in office.
I remind Senators that it was a Fianna Fáil Minister who introduced free second level education. That Minister was an uncle of the founder of the Progressive Democrats Party and it is about time Fianna Fáil went back to its roots and, for once, listened to the wishes of the ordinary people.
The Government's use of the wealthy as an argument to get away with this policy does not stand up, because the covenant system allowed them to bleed the system, of which the Government is perfectly aware. The next time there is a race meeting in Cheltenham, perhaps the Cabinet could persuade Charlie before he departs Dublin Airport to borrow and allow funding to the Department of Education and Science.
Our constituency spans all sectors of society. I applaud the Minister's concern and his current inquiry into the entire grant system. He is seeking to ascertain how grants can be equally applied and enforced in order that they can be visited on communities, particularly those which are in most need. To my mind, that is a fair and decent way of thinking.
I wish to remind the Opposition that we live in a Republic which cherishes all its citizens equally.
As Minister for Education and Science, he is perfectly correct to inquire into the distribution of his Department's annual budget. However, when a Minister undertakes a new inquiry on behalf of a vulnerable community, an Opposition with no constructive agenda descends to the lowest form of political attack. Members of the Opposition are out there looking for soundbites and headlines.
Shame on the Opposition for using this motion in the way it has tonight. Do Opposition Senators really believe in inequality, as their motion suggests they do? They are showing their true colours. We all know the colour of the Labour Party, but Fine Gael has lost its identity and has to grab on to someone else's.
At its best, Fianna Fáil condemns elitism and everything associated with it. This matter is only at an inquiry stage. It is the Minster's obligation to inquire and look for the best value for money. Are we such a closed society, as the Opposition would have us believe, that when an issue like this arises we cannot canvass it, let alone debate it—
Overall funding is up 94% in the last five years. We are now spending €5.6 billion each year on education and that figure is increasing. We have considerably increased the amount of money for the capital programmes and right across the board the Government has put considerable resources into education. Many young people have now come through good primary and secondary education and seek opportunities for further education. We should look at whatever changes are necessary to achieve this.
Is it right that people with enormous incomes and salaries benefit from education grants?
—and those of the substantial number of people who earn over €200,000 per annum should benefit from free fees, when families in communities in which participation in third level is 5% or less receive nothing? No, it is not.
The leader of the champions of the upper middle classes and multimillionaires, Deputy Rabbitte, believes in universal access to third level education.
Fine Gael has no idea what is going on. Its members are having autopsy after autopsy as a result of their lack of imagination during the general election campaign, yet they have the audacity to mention the opinion polls here. That is a disgrace.
We are having an intriguing debate this evening. We have a motion on third level fees, yet nobody from Fianna Fáil has mentioned the word "fees." The Progressive Democrats have given us their thesis on what good coalition Government should be, including more consultation and so on. We have a Minister who has been flying this kite for many months, yet he obviously did not discuss it with his coalition partners. He prefers to leave it hanging in the air, with the Taoiseach differing in his opinion.
We were talking about figures. We have not heard anything about figures, as regards wealth or anything else.
Free third level education is a right. It is also essential for the economy that we have good, well qualified people, who have completed third level education, to attract certain types of industry, particularly high-tech and research-based industries.
We all accept that access to third level education among the lower socio-economic groups has not improved dramatically in recent years. Whose failure is that? It is the failure of the Fianna Fáil-PD Government that has been in office for the past six or seven years.
As has been stated, there was no talk about the reintroduction of these fees in the programme for Government, but now it is being discussed all the time. The Government has, effectively, already ended free third level education with the massive increase – 69% – in college registration fees last autumn.
We have heard about the Government's commitment – or attempt at commitment – to fighting disadvantage. What did the Minister do? One of his first actions was to cut €6 million from initiatives designed to reduce the school dropout rate and €5 million from programmes that help disadvantaged school leavers make it to third level. An Agreed Programme for Government states, "We will ensure that the number of mature students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds in third-level expands significantly." What happened? The back to education allowance was cut by 25%. We have heard nothing but lies, lies and more lies from the Government in respect of third level education or, indeed, any type of education.
I do not believe that the Minister has any conception of the challenges facing students and the workload they face at second level in order to gain places in third level institutions. Does he not realise that in addition to the stress they are under, they must cope with the cost of expensive accommodation, subsistence and books? People have paid dearly for re-electing the Government, with its empty promises, last year. No one believes that the introduction of fees for the wealthy will be the end of the matter. The income threshold will decrease until everybody is caught in the trap and the situation is as it was prior to the Fine Gael-Labour Government which got rid of these fees.
We could have a new Government as a result of all this. There are plenty of Independents waiting in the wings already. The Progressive Democrats may have to drop out – that is a decision for the party itself to make. A decision will have to be made, however, sooner rather than later, for the sake of the students.
I welcome the Minister and I am glad that he is here for this part of the debate. It has been an extraordinary debate by any standards. In my few months in this Chamber, I have never seen a Government Senator, let alone the Leader of the House, give such a dressing-down to a Cabinet Minister. It is also particularly remarkable when one considers the contributions of many of the other Fianna Fáil Senators.
I would love to know how Senator Wilson knows where the 50,000 people who earn more than €100 million per year reside.
Perhaps they will be funding the Fianna Fáil Party into the future.
This day last year I finished my last exam in Waterford Institute of Technology after spending four years there with free fees. My sister is currently attending the same college. Previous speakers have stated that many families have several children attending third level institutions at any time. It is a great burden to all families to have more than one member attending college. The possible reintroduction of third level fees is now hanging over these families.
Under the current Government we saw a 69% increase in college registration fees at the start of last year. We are now facing the start of the leaving certificate exams. It is a time of great apprehension and anxiety for the students who are facing those exams. As the Leader of the House correctly pointed out, we are no clearer about the Government's proposals on the reintroduction of third level fees.
A suggested solution to this problem is some sort of loan system. This is something to which I am absolutely opposed. Senator Kate Walsh was right when she said that people who qualify from colleges pay for their education through the taxation system. That is the way it should be done. When people leave college they face starting families and buying houses. This is the nature of their age group. They have huge expenses they have never had before. Now the Government is suggesting, or so we are led to believe, that they will have to repay a loan for their college tuition.
If the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat Senators had any backbone, they would have no problem supporting this simple, one line Fine Gael motion, "That Seanad Éireann is opposed to the reintroduction of third level tuition fees." It is a simple, basic motion. We have heard Fianna Fáil Senators say they are opposed to the reintroduction of fees. If they are, let them put their vote where their mouth is.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the issue of tackling education disadvantage, social inclusion and equity. That is what this is all about, even though the Senators opposite do not want to believe it.
For the information of Senator Cummins, in case he thinks I am out of touch, I have two daughters at third level education. Therefore, I am well in touch with what is happening.
Senator Bannon and I have been friends for a long time and the advice I would offer him is that he should not cite polls too often because they are a bigger embarrassment for Fine Gael than for anybody else.
It is disappointing to find 20 Senators banding together to support a one sentence motion on third level fees that lacks any analysis of the issues and lacks concern for the less well off in society. That any so-called socialist party would acquiesce in a motion of this nature is nothing short of astonishing.
More than nine out of ten children from the higher socio-economic groups have access to third level education. The participation rate from the lowest socio-economic groups is two out of ten. Those statistics should shock and appal the parties opposite who set out, and then failed, to address this issue with the abolition of tuition fees—
The two main Opposition parties have said very clearly that they are not willing to make any changes to current policies – as far as they are concerned, the core funding structures are fine as they are. The House should be aware that this marks a major change in position for many Opposition Members of the Oireachtas.
We should look back at the ramshackle way in which the decisions which created the current system were made. In 1995 a major review group reported on third level student support and presented its report to the then Minister for Education. It considered the full range of issues and was particularly concerned to improve access. It very explicitly recommended against the introduction of free fees for those who did not qualify through a means testing arrangement.
In spite of this, the Labour Party decided it wanted to push ahead with exactly this policy, particularly because it hoped that it would help it to retain the various seats it had won in the professional class areas in 1992. The decision of the Labour-Fine Gael-Democratic Left Government to go ahead with that policy was far from unanimous. John Walshe has reported on this in great detail and it forms a significant part of his book on education policy in Ireland.
The most striking aspect is that Democratic Left – remember it – directly opposed the abolition of fees. The then party leader and Minister, Proinsias De Rossa, is recorded as having argued at Cabinet that it would be a regressive decision which would do nothing to help disadvantaged groups. I do not often agree with Proinsias De Ross, MEP, but he was right about that. Fine Gael was also lukewarm but accepted the policy as the price of keeping Labour happy.
The House will note that the current Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party were both Democratic Left Ministers at that time and they were involved in all major policy decisions within the party – Deputy Rabbitte sat at the Cabinet table with his Leader. We have heard no explanation from the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party for the complete and total reversal of policy – they are now denouncing even the examination of changes to a policy they once felt was regressive and against the interests of the disadvantaged. They have been speaking out a good deal lately on supposed policy U-turns, but this is one that they will not say anything about.
At the time of the introduction of non-means tested fees relief it was announced by the then Minister that a measure which could, by definition, provide no direct benefit to poorer groups was going to throw open the gates of third level education.
It was also said that the initiative would be funded by removing tax convenants and would have no negative impact on other funding priorities. Each of these promises was false.
The increased participation of disadvantaged groups has come about overwhelmingly through the increased provision of third level places—
—particularly for courses with progression possibilities. Who put those in place? Successive Fianna Fáil Governments.
If Members want to see the funding impact of the decision, it is very stark. The funds for this policy of so-called free fees were taken from schools. At the same time as funding for fees remission was being put into the third level Vote, the Labour Party, in control of both Education and Finance, decided to freeze school funding and tried to cut teacher numbers. One need only check the Education Estimates for the first years of fees remission and one will note the direct cause and effect.
The Labour Party took a decision and it was to give priority to fees remission for better off groups over the needs of schools. I will excuse Senator Ryan from that process because he was not a member of the Labour Party at that time. I am not sure where he was then.
—and no matter how many times they are asked, they will never justify these decisions.
In contrast, we have taken a range of concrete steps to improve access to third level education. In setting policy for funding students, we have put the disadvantaged at the top of the priority list—
The top-up grants scheme goes only to students from these families and is today helping more than 7,000 students. We also introduced funding for area based initiatives to increase participation rates. These initiatives are tailored to local needs and can help with much more than just fees and grants.
They can help with books, travel and creating in-school schemes aimed at breaking cycles of disadvantage. We have ensured that, for the first time, every university and institute has an access initiative.
We also dramatically increased the number and diversity of places available, helping to deliver on what international evidence consistently shows is a key driver in increasing participation rates.
In the face of this consistent and ongoing record, all we have heard from the self-described champions of the disadvantaged is a demand that we should not even look at funding policies at third level. They have announced that they will mount the barricades in defence of the right of the most affluent sections of society to receive everything for free. The party of Connolly, led by a former member of a far-left, Moscow-supported party, is against—
It is a typically opportunistic performance and it shows that the only substance to their fair deal is another empty soundbite.
In An Agreed Programme for Government the Government gave a clear commitment to improve the level and quality of participation and achievement at every level of education.
The question of how funding for student supports, including free fees, can best be deployed is a pertinent one against this background. Can we as a society continue to justify the expenditure of millions of euro from within the finite resources available for student supports to meet the costs of free fees for the children of those in the highest income brackets when, at the same time, all the evidence tells us that those at the other end of the economic spectrum continue to be excluded from third level education by virtue of, among other factors, inadequate supports?
This is an internal review of the student support budget. I have a budget of approximately €344 million, €240 million of which goes towards free fees. I am looking to see if I can increase the money within that budget and give more of it to the disadvantaged. Those who advocate more money for third level while at the same time advocating lower taxes are being disingenuous at the very least.
Talk of people with degrees paying for that through the taxation system is all very well, but what about people on low incomes who pay tax and pay for the wealthy to get into colleges for free? Where is the social equity in that?
There are people on low incomes who will never see the inside of a third level institution and Senator Ryan knows many of them.
I had the impression from Senator O'Rourke's contribution that she felt I questioned her right to express her views on this matter. I have no difficulty with that. She is entitled to her view. Her experience in the Department of Education and Science is obviously very important, although much has changed in the ten years since she was Minister in the Department.
An Agreed Programme for Government also contains a commitment to build a culture of review of public spending by publishing regular evaluations of key spending programmes. It is perfectly logical to assess a student support programme that cost €380 million last year, of which some €240 million was spent on so-called free fees. The aim of the review of student support provisions is to ensure that the benefits of the substantial investment being made are maximised with a view to achieving the objectives we set out in the programme for Government. The review has almost been completed and, when available, will be brought by me to the Cabinet.
It would be relatively easy to proceed on the basis that everything is fine and no change should even be considered. That means we, as a society, are prepared to acquiesce in a system where one's address and socio-economic background are more important criteria for entry to third level education than academic ability. No political party or civilised society should countenance that.
We were told in 1995 that tuition fees were being abolished to improve access to third level education for students from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds. If this was the reason and accepting is as such, it failed miserably because the proportion of people from these backgrounds attending third level education has not increased since the cost of tuition fees was transferred to the taxpayer directly.
I accept that it initially assisted those middle income groups who were finding it difficult to support second and subsequent children in the third level system. I mentioned earlier the top-up grants system, of which 3,500 people availed last year and 7,000 will avail this year. Such a targeted initiative is a much better way of encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend third level.
There is consistent evidence that third level education represents a significant benefit to the individual and that educational attainment is closely correlated with success in the labour market. The study, Education at a Glance, shows that the career earnings potential of graduates is significantly enhanced, with a tertiary education delivering a weekly earnings premium of up to 57% in Ireland. The premium is even more striking when hourly earnings comparisons are made. The 1997 Living in Ireland survey conducted by the ESRI indicated that individuals with a degree or above receive an earnings premium of up to 83% more on average than individuals with a leaving certificate. Surely they should make a greater contribution to that education. This represents a significant private return for the public investment made in higher education and brings sharply into focus the issues surrounding the principle of individual contributions.
I noticed that the Labour Party today issued a third level document entitled, Keeping the Gates Open.
I took time to read it. It is another piece of poorly researched, hastily constructed documentation from the so-called champions of the disadvantaged. It will keep the gates open so that disadvantaged people can look into third level campuses and still wonder why the hell they cannot get in. The last time the Labour Party cobbled together such an initiative was in 1995, so it is obviously a return to form.
The Government's amendment fully reflects the complexity of the issues involved in achieving equity and social justice in third level education. I commend our amendment to the House.
I will be brief so that Senator Mansergh can reply. I want to hear his views. I have a policy of not supporting any motion from this side of the House unless it explains how we are to pay for it. On this occasion I have no problem whatsoever. Back in 1995 to 1997 when this was being talked about I was not in favour of the move to abolish third level fees. There was no suggestion in An Agreed Programme for Government there was to be a reintroduction of third level fees, so I have no problem in supporting the motion from this side of the House because it is a reversal of policy on the part of the Government.
My second point is that it does not make good economic sense as far as I can see. There is a 20% tax rebate for parents who are paying the fees. Whatever money the Government is planning to take, I hope it has taken into account that it will not be quite as much as it thought, even if it includes those earning €100,000 and over.
My third point is about equity. In many cases the students rather than their parents will be paying the fees and they will use a loan from the bank to do so. It will have nothing to do with the parents' income. Some students will be required to repay a loan because their parents had money but others will not have to repay anything because their parents did not have money. I do not believe that is equitable or fair and it challenges the parents rather than the students themselves.
There seems to be a view in the last week which suggests that there are differing levels of respect for university courses. With all due respect to Senator Henry, if one is studying to be a doctor, that will cost €8,000 but if you are only going to become a commerce graduate like me, that is only worth €4,000. Those who are studying science and technology and technical skills are the people we want to encourage, but they are regarded as very junior and not nearly as important. We have spent years trying to realise that there is a huge value in those with technical skills as against those with academic qualifications. We should not place monetary values on courses.
I encourage the Minister to re-think his proposal. He spoke about a U-turn, a reversal of policy on the part of the Labour Party, which it may well be. I believe the Minister should now make that U-turn and change his mind and say that it was an error of judgment and that he will return to the situation as it was according to An Agreed Programme for Government last year. The reintroduction of fees faced by parents of students is a wrong idea.
I thank Senator Quinn for giving me some speaking time. I welcome this debate which is about a very important strategic decision for the generations of students of today and tomorrow, for parents, for the character of universities and third level colleges and for the economy and society. I applaud the Minister for his courage and integrity which have been evident for a long time. He has a palpable commitment to the disadvantaged which one must respect and support.
Much of the debate both in this House and everywhere else has been highly emotive and over-simplified. I fully accept that the decision of Niamh Breathnach did seem quite attractive and it was not as costly then to have free third level education on the same principle as free second level education, but it has not worked in terms of equality for the disadvantaged. Fianna Fáil argued trenchantly at the time that the priority was raising maintenance grants over free fees.
Of course "free fees" is a manner of speaking; we do not have free fees at the moment. We have a €670 per year registration charge and I have not heard anyone argue on the basis of universalist principles that it should now be got rid of, except possibly the USI. The issue is whether fees in some way commensurate with the cost of the course, and indeed the benefits from it, could or should be charged to those well able to afford it. I accept that large numbers of parents paid fees with difficulty prior to 1996 and there have been a lot of tax cuts and pay increases since then. Nonetheless, there is a fairly general consensus that if fees are to be introduced they should be at a much higher threshold. The difficulty is that if that threshold is set too high the administrative costs wipe out the benefits and there is a repetition of the property tax syndrome.
Tuition fees only account for part of the cost of maintaining a child at college. There are clothes, books and travel costs and accommodation costs if they live away from home.
There is little empirical evidence that the status quo makes a positive contribution to equality of opportunity. In that free fees enable some wealthy professional people to buy up more rental properties to let it may even contribute to less equality.
If there is any class politics involved, it seems to be middle class politics. I respect the views of the Progressive Democrats. I say to them that whatever else free fees are, they are not proximity to Boston. Universities in Boston charge huge fees. We do not have time tonight to discuss the issue about quality of universities.
I thank all the Senators who contributed to this debate. I offer my sympathy to the Minister for the frame of mind in which he has come to the House today. I know that the ire within him has been fuelled by the failure of his colleagues both at Cabinet and parliamentary level to support him. The abuse he gave to the Members of this House and to his own colleague, the former Minister for Education, was palpable.
Where is education tonight? It is furthest from the Minister's concerns which are boiling within him. He is now in a corner and he does not know whether he will get out of that corner as a Minister. The tragedy is that he has a copy of a letter from a lady in this city, as I have.
The Minister does not mention these people. He will go to the extreme and point the finger at everyone else. That is his problem and he must solve it. He must make a decision but is not being helped by his colleagues, wherever they are or however they manifest themselves on the day he reports. He has had a review in the offing since last September. He said last Easter that one way or the other it would be placed before his colleagues. The tragedy is that, with his colleagues, he has adopted a maxim – if in doubt, leave them out. That is what he has done. That is how he has treated people tonight.
The Minister is trying to fly another kite at this late hour and may be able to rescue himself with a soft landing somewhere. If he decides to reintroduce fees for any group, except perhaps that of Senator Wilson, he will be in a very serious situation.
For the sake of consistency, let me read the following statement by Senator Ormonde on 8 November 1995. She argued in favour of the extension of fees as follows: "I cannot understand why we did not take this further step which would have meant so much for those students who are dying for the opportunity to get back into the education system." That is consistency.
I am quoting from the record of the debate in which Senator Ormonde moved the following motion:
That Seanad Éireann regrets the failure of the Minister for Education to abolish fees for evening and part-time students at third level and calls on the Minister to give a commitment to abolish such fees.