No easy answers for government on third level fees issue.


The Irish government looks bereft of easy answers to the increasingly complex third level fees issue.

With Ireland just beginning to peek its head out of a recession of staggering depth and proportions, the Government has some hard choices to make if it’s going to abide by its promise to not bring in third level fees, as Minister for Education Mary Coughlan made last week.

Ireland’s avowed economic mission for the twenty-first century is to become a so-called 'smart-economy', one based on its citizens' educational skills and abilities. This mission, though, hinges largely on its ability to produce a large crop of graduates with advanced degrees every year, and for this third level funding is requried.

Such graduates, however, require extensive training, and this, of course, is provided in the nation’s universities, which run – as do all institutions – at a cost.

But therein lies the problem.

Ireland is in the anomalous situation of being one of the few countries in the world which doesn’t charge tuition fees for a university education, a concept which must seem absurd to Americans' used to forking out or borrowing six digit sums to keep their children, or themselves, in 'school', as Americans call it.

And while that’s good news for Irish students, for the Irish government it translates into something of a headache, or more recently perhaps, into a massive migraine.

On the same day that the Minister for Education swore her promise to not introduce tuition fees during that government's "lifespan" in power, she told the Irish nation that economist Dr Colin Hunt, the man heading the Government-appointed commission to look into the fees funding issue, is leaning increasingly in favour of concluding that third level fees are both inevitable and drastically necessary.

This looks likely to pit Ireland's leadership against expert opinion on the matter, something makes the economic viability of the decision look even more improbable.

To make a bad situation worse, though, 77,123 students applied through Ireland's admissions system, the CAO (rough equivalent of the Common Application) to enter third level education in 2010-2011.

Although this figure may seem small by American standards, it's the largest ever recorded in Ireland, and seems likely to make an already difficult financial situation impossible.

The figure is the by-product of a trend in Irish society to continue in third level education rather than enter the desolate workforce, where jobs are as scare as water in an African desert, though doesn't look likely to abate in future years as the recession hangover draws on.

Newsweek magazine recently named Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen as one of the ten top leaders in the world. If Cowen and his cabinet can find a way to grant entry to this year's massive application-load without compromising on the no-fees promise he will well and truly have earned that accolade.

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