Saturday, February 7, 2009

Paying the price

Batt O'Keeffe, Minister for Education, is considering jettisoning plans to re-introduce third level tuition fees and instead wants to focus his attentions on the implementation of a so-called "graduate tax." This would see third level graduates pay a levy on their income for a set number of years once they reached a certain income threshold, thus offsetting the cost incurred by the state of putting them through their education in the first place.

Seems reasonable enough, doesn't it?

Well, we're going to have to accept it, because the argument on fees is lost, quite simply. Protests, like the Dublin colleges one on October 22 and the all-Ireland one on February 4, are all well and good, but we needed to follow it up with further action. We did not maintain a significant media presence. We did not lobby the Minister sufficiently. We have failed, and only we are to blame for that.

The simple reality remains is that this is an argument that we would never have won. One way or another, some form of taxation on education was going to be introduced. The state coffers are simply too bare to allow for any further investment in third level education - something which the government is committed to - without some little bit of give on our behalf. The above proposal seems to be the fairest way to go about it.

But it's also the easiest one to subvert. Will it bring about a brain drain, where thousands of graduates flee the country every year to avoid Batt's punitive measures? Or do we make the levy small enough and over a longer number of years so it doesn't pack as big of an emotional and financial punch? That's why tuition fees were never a viable option. Families would never have accepted one-off, annual payments of €6,000 or more. It's simply too large a financial commitment to face. So tax the students, the ones who have directly benefited from the education, in a fair and affordable manner. The more I think about it, the more reasonable a proposal it seems.

Opponents to the system will play the "brain drain" card over and over. But I really can't see that happening. Make it a manageable enough payment and people will put up with it.

They won't really have a choice, in fairness.

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