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A student loan scheme - too optimistic for Ireland's government

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Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn
Ireland's new government, elected in February, has been a little less guilty of making ridiculously optimistic statements about the Ireland's future than their predecessors, but they have hardly eschewed the tactic. Every so often they trot out a line or two about how the economy is improving, things will get better, etc.

Well, all of the government's manufactured optimism and bluster about the future was blown away in one remark by the Minister for Education in a statement about the return of college tuition fees. Ruairi Quinn announced that the era of tuition‑free college is coming to an end. Fees have to return because the costs of providing free college education are just too great for a state that is only a hair's breadth away from Chapter 11.

I can't argue with Quinn, although with one daughter in college and another soon to be going, I'd love for the tuition to remain zero for a while longer. However, tuition‑free college is one of the many luxuries that post‑Celtic Tiger Ireland cannot afford.

So tuition is coming back, fair enough. What's really telling, however, is that not only is the government going to reintroduce fees, but they are not going to introduce a student loan scheme – such as exists in America – in order to help students and parents meet the new costs. According to Quinn such a scheme wouldn't work in Ireland because the "student loan system would, in my view, become an emigrant incentive."

"An emigrant incentive." In other words, those students who borrow money to get educated in Ireland could not possibly be enticed to stay. No, emigration will allow them a virtually pain‑free default and offer a more attractive option than remaining in Ireland and repaying student loans.

The thing is, I doubt many Irish people would disagree with Quinn. That's how bad things are here now. At the same time I can't imagine any American politician ever being so negative about the future of America, even in these challenging times.

Imagine for a moment an Ireland where life is so attractive that students want to live here after graduation. Imagine an Ireland where even those who would like to experience life abroad repay their student loans because they assume they'll return to live out their days in Ireland. Imagine an Ireland where jobs are plentiful and wages sufficient so that graduates see their student loan repayments as a cost that can be borne. Imagine an optimistic Ireland.

We caught a glimpse of what such an Ireland might look like during the Celtic Tiger years. Unfortunately the optimism of the early Celtic Tiger years morphed into a heedless utopianism. Free college education was an early example of that utopianism.

Now, according to Ruairi Quinn, not only is the Celtic Tiger dead, but so are optimism and hope. The best we can hope for now is that the emigrating young go with the minimal state support behind them. They're going to leave anyway so make them pay up front for anything they get.

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