IRELAND: Tuition fees off new government's agenda

The two political parties making up the newly-elected government in Ireland - Fine Gael and Labour - have avoided a major row between them by agreeing to yet another review of the controversial issue of student funding. Irish university students will continue to study without having to pay for their tuition for the foreseeable future.

However, student service charges will increase from EUR1,500 (US$2,100) to EUR2,000 next September.

The decision is a significant victory for the smaller Labour Party, which had signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any return of tuition fees or the introduction of a graduate tax.

Labour abolished tuition fees a decade and a half ago and had signed the pledge organised by the Union of Students in Ireland.

The majority coalition party, Fine Gael, did not sign as it had proposed a graduate contribution equivalent to 30% of the unit cost of a student's course. This would have meant debts ranging from EUR8,000 for a business or humanities graduate to a maximum of EUR54,000 for dentistry.

The Fine Gael proposal received little attention in the pre-election campaign, which was consumed with the International Monetary Fund-European Union bail-out deal for the country, massive unemployment, the return of emigration and the overwhelming desire to punish Fianna Fail and the Green Party, the two parties that made up the outgoing government.

But the proposal featured in the negotiations between the two successful parties after the election. Labour, which secured the education ministry, let it be known that the Fine Gael proposal left too many questions unanswered.

The programme for government instead promised a review by the end of the year which will look at two reports - a strategy report last year which recommended a graduate contribution and an OECD report of some years ago which recommended a return of tuition fees.

Ruairi Quinn, the new Minister for Education, has stated that he wants higher education to be free at the point of entry. But the Labour Party MP made a cryptic comment before the election in which he seemed not to rule out some form of graduate contribution in the future.

In a radio interview on 10 March he accepted that the real value of the state grant for universities and other higher education institutions had dropped by 40% since the abolition of fees.

Some university heads have expressed disappointment that there is no immediate sign of either a return to fees or a graduate contribution. They favour a graduate contribution, which would feed back into funding higher education in the future.

But the outcome has been welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland, which ran its own effective lobbying campaign before the election and scored a victory by getting Labour to sign its pre-election pledge.