Tuesday 2 September 2008

Free Education and the Debate about Third Level Fees

It seems to me that if the debate re-ignited by Batt O'Keeffe on the question of third-level fees is going to get any further than the attempt of his predecessor, Noel Dempsey, then the issue probably needs to be explored in a wider context. The case for a wealth tax as a solution to the country's current economic ills has already been put in the columns of The Sunday Business Post by Vincent Browne (Who should pay for the recession? You do the maths - 6 July, 2008). It cannot therefore, easily be dismissed as a 'loony left fad'. At the same time there are, without doubt, those who will fight it tooth and nail. The discordant notes that have been sounded to date may only represent 'the thin end of the wedge' in this regard.

Personally I don't go out of my way to advocate such a measure. I think that if the proposal is to be considered at all it deserves proper and serious consideration. Is it necessary, is it feasible, is it justified? There may well be valid arguments against. It could be, for example that taxation is not the best mechanism to achieve such ends, that the same result can be accomplished without creating a political hot potato. But I do sense a certain degree of evasion, hypocrisy even, in the debate as it stands.

I attended college prior to the Labour Party's initiative that abolished fees but in my recollection third level education was free even back then. That is because there was something called the 'third-level grant' which was effectively given out to everybody except of course perhaps, you've guessed it ... those on very high incomes! The abolition of third level fees therefore was probably more of a sop to the cash-strapped middle class, inadvertently benefitting the super-wealthy while having little bearing on the condition of the disadvantaged in society. Of course the problem with a system that is means tested is that it has to be administered and the costs of this may outweigh the benefit of just giving it away for free.

From a purely moral point of view the justification for a wealth tax goes something like this. Nobody gets rich on their own. To build and sustain a personal fortune requires the direct and indirect assistance of a myriad of state-sponsored infrastructures and supports. Public education is just one of these. The moral argument follows that those who have done well should also be asked to dig a little deeper into their pockets. However the moral argument gets nowhere if it is not reinforced with a political and economic critique.

'From each according to his ability to each according to his needs'. Well at least we know that it works in theory!

19th August 2008

A version of this post appeared as a 'Letter to the Editor' in The Sunday Business Post of 24th August, 2008.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2008


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