IRELAND: Fees threat as Celtic Tiger disappears

More than 15,000 students took to the streets in Dublin last week to protest against the possible re-introduction of tuition fees from next September. The country's Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe is to bring proposals to Cabinet in April outlining a series of options.

Six months ago, pundits were saying the Minister stood no chance of forcing students to contribute towards the cost of their higher education. But such is the scale of the financial crisis suddenly facing the country that fees, or some sort of graduate tax, are increasingly likely.

For years economists, industrialists and academics flocked to Ireland asking why a country of only four million had such a fast growing economy. Not any more, as the property boom has collapsed, jobs are disappearing rapidly and cuts in public spending are the order of the day.

The Celtic Tiger has become a neutered kitten.

O'Keeffe has made clear his preference for the straightforward re-introduction of tuition fees which were abolished in the mid-1990s. This was also the initial position of the country's seven university heads, although they now favour some form of income contingent loan scheme.

The Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs) is attracting most attention. Professor Bruce Chapman who pioneered the idea in Australia was in Dublin recently where he briefed ministry officials on how an income contingent loan scheme works.

The threat of fees or loans has galvanised the Union of Students in Ireland which has been holding a series of demonstrations over the past few months, preventing many government ministers from speaking in universities and colleges.

Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern was visibly shaken during a protest in the National University of Ireland in Galway last week when a meeting he was due to address had to be abandoned by a protest that got out of hand.

Students are already angry over a government decision to increase registration charges from EUR900 to EUR1,500 next September. The re-introduction of fees or a new loans scheme would inflame student and public opinion further, coming as it does after an income levy for all earners and a special pension levy on those in the public sector.

Even if fees are re-introduced, there is no guarantee universities will be allowed to keep the income generated. Indeed, all the indications are that the government would simply reduce exchequer funding accordingly.

As it is, the universities and institutes are strapped for cash and are being forced to make serious economies. These cuts are coming at a time when demand for places among school-leavers is increasing and there is pressure on the institutions to boost the skills of the jobless, particularly those with professional qualifications.