IRELAND: Free higher education to end

The end is nigh for free higher education in Ireland. Even the timing of its demise is known - September 2010, barring some miraculous political intervention.

The only decision that has to be made is the manner of its departure.

A few years ago, such a prospect was barely thinkable. The Celtic Tiger was booming. Academics and government officials from overseas were flocking to Ireland to wonder could they replicate its growth rate, its ability to attract foreign direct investment, particularly in pharmaceuticals and ICT.

Infrastructure was racing to catch up with the growth which reversed decades of emigration and sucked in tens of thousands of immigrants. The Dublin skyline was crowded with giant cranes which have suddenly disappeared or gone silent as the recession hits Ireland harder than most OECD countries.

After years of good economic tidings, the public has become inured to a welter of bad economic news over the past 12 months. The green shoots of recovery may be appearing elsewhere but they would find barren soil in Ireland where the gap between government spending and tax revenues is exceptionally wide by OECD standards.

Salaries have been cut, taxes have risen and unemployment is seeping into the professions and middle class homes once thought to be immune from economic vagaries.

The government has been told by a high powered advisory group that it will have to make further budgetary changes which will impact on education, social welfare and health in particular.

In higher education, rationalisation and staff reductions are inevitable as is the rationalisation of several state agencies. Getting rid of quangos is the new political blood sport in Ireland.

Into all this political mix, comes the affable Minister for Education and Science Batt O'Keeffe who says the taxpayer can no longer afford to subsidise free higher education.

Tuition fees were abolished in the mid-1990s by the Labour Party. They will either return directly or be replaced by some form of graduate contribution to the state once a certain income level has been reached.

O'Keeffe favours this option but the hard pressed Minister for Finance would probably prefer upfront payment to relieve the Exchequer. A decision will be taken shortly but in the meantime all incoming students are being informed that they won't escape.

They may get away with it this year but when they go into second year they will have to pay, either up front or when they graduate. The main opposition party has come round to the idea of a graduate payment which now seems inevitable.

The only thing that could stop it is if the government collapses and payment is a deal breaker in subsequent coalition negotiations with the Labour Party which still clings to the notion of free higher education.

This year, record numbers of school leavers and adults applied for higher education. Some probably did so in the hope of getting the last year of free higher education. Others did so to ride out the recession in college and emerge to a better future than they would face now in the depressed jobs' market.