“That Seanad Éireann:
- affirming its commitment to providing equality of access to education at primary, secondary and third-level;
- recognising the benefits, culturally and economically, of the historic decision to invest in publicly-funded secondary education in Ireland and recognising also that the introduction of publicly-funded third-level education further encouraged a generation of young people to attain the highest levels of education;
- acknowledging that, while publicly-funded third-level access no longer exists across the board, a significant number of people, particularly those from rural and lower socio-economic backgrounds, benefit from a publicly-funded path to third-level; and
- further recognising that a number of contributing factors have led to a significant gap in funding for the third-level sector and that, while this shortfall must be addressed, it cannot be at the expense of those most vulnerable in our society;
- calls on the Government to affirm its commitment to providing equality of access to education for all; to reject any move to implement an income contingent loan scheme to fund third-level education; and to adopt a policy of ending college fees."
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. The Labour Party is delighted to propose the motion on access to third-level education. We are disappointed in the amendments which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have tabled on this. They seem to be clinging to the idea of student loans as a way of financing individuals' access to third level education in any way they can. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of I and my party to lay out our vision for education in this country.
I went to university in the 1990s and benefitted from the free fees scheme, as it was then called. I paid full fees in 1994, half fees in 1995 and no fees whatever in 1997. When I left college, and when the Labour Party left Government in 1997 the registration fee was around £150. By the time Labour returned to Government in 2011 that had risen to €2,000. That is a registration fee, not a tuition fee, but the subtlety of calling something a registration fee or tuition fee is irrelevant to an ordinary working family.
Before the last general election, my own party made commitments which were not lived up to. I greatly regret that but one either stands by one's belief in free education or one lets it lie and let the commitment dog one forever. What we managed to do in five years of Government was stop Fine Gael's manifesto promise of having tuition paid for through a graduate loans system. That system still features in the Cassels report which contains a number of options, including a publicly funded option which is the one we propose.
A student loan system such as the one being advocated in various quarters has been proved to be devastating wherever it has been introduced, particularly in Britain where it has saddled ordinary middle-income families and hard-working families with debt and has devastated certain aspects of third-level education, especially the arts and humanities. I strongly assert that we must have a different view and vision of education. It costs the State around €16,000 each year that a student is in second level. No one would ever suggest that individual student attending second level should pay that back over a period. There is no statutory obligation for anyone to attend school beyond the age of 16 years. We would never say to a 17 or 18 year old that they have no statutory obligation to be in school, it is costing the State €16,000, and they should therefore pay it back over a period, because we believe in the ethos and aspiration of free second-level education, as we should. One frequently made argument relates to the children of multi-millionaires but the same argument could be made about primary or second level and we contend that argument does not stand up at third level. If one benefits from third level and one's income increases as a result, then one contributes to society through a fair and progressive tax system.
I do not believe that the current Government has the same belief system in education as my party. Our party believes education is the great liberator and the great leveller. It is something that can liberate and change an individual's life, their perspective of themselves, of their entire community. I feel passionately about the way it empowers young women. I taught in an all-girls' school in an acutely disadvantaged area for 11 years. I have told as many people as possible wherever I has spoken across the world, that the most powerful thing in the world is a girl with a book. A girl who can read changes her family. A girl who can read changes her community. A girl who can read can change her entire country. The power of education is incredible, it has no borders, so why would we want to tell someone who was addressing their leaving certificate that we would give them the opportunity to attend third-level education, but once they got there they would not only leave with a qualification but with a whole lot of debt to pay off.
We refute the idea that the free fee schemes introduced in the 1990s only benefitted a certain cohort. If one looks at the access rates in 1992, 34% of leaving certificate students accessed third level. It was an elite pursuit. It was unobtainable and had a mystique around it which many in the third-level sector wanted to maintain. They wanted to maintain the idea that only for a certain cohort in Irish society should benefit from third-level education. Ten years later, in 2003, 54% of those who had done leaving certificate or equivalent now attended third level. It did benefit many families who would otherwise have looked at the financial burden and said they could not send their children to third-level education.
We understand that my party has had a chequered history on this matter. We accept that and are willing to take the criticism but collectively we need to move on. We introduced the free fees scheme in the 1990s. It was hugely beneficial and it changed many young people's perspective on education. Do we fundamentally believe that it is free or do we believe that it is a commodity? I fear the ethos coming from the Department of Education and Skills which is also evident in primary level in the way in which the Minister thinks the most important thing for a child to learn is coding. We are not dealing with economic units that fit into an economy. Education is much more fundamental and important to a person's aspirations than that.
We should not commodify education. The idea that we send the young people of this country, the students, that they would be saddled with student debt that they must repay over years flies in the face of the ethos and vision that a modern republic should have.
We want to change the whole basis of this argument. We want to change the thrust and where this debate is going. We have to stop the thrust of the argument going from how, can or should students pay to how the State should pay.
The current position taken on this issue is disappointing after everything we have gone through in this country in terms of the economic collapse and the social hurt and the wounds we have all experienced in recent years. When we speak to colleagues in the UK, we find the unquestionable and untouchable political principle of the collective system in the UK - the sacred cow of British politics - is equality in health. If we talk to anyone in Finland, we find the unquestioning sacred cow of their political system that everyone buys into is equality in education. For some reason, the unquestionable sacred cow of Irish politics is not equality in health or education but the 12.5% corporation tax rate. That is what we have reduced ourselves to. This is the thing we cannot discuss. It cannot be discussed at any level in the political spectrum. Maybe we should begin to ask these corporations, which benefit from highly trained, skilled and educated young people, to contribute.
There is a national training fund, as the Minister of State is well aware. It is paid for through employers' PRSI. It accumulates approximately €200 million and almost matches the estimated €222 million that it would cost to abolish third-level fees. We are suggesting that those who benefit from this highly trained and educated workforce should contribute by way of a graduate tax towards the funding of third-level education in this country. I do not believe for a moment the scaremongering and protests that they will go away and find somewhere else to base themselves. They are here for the 12.5% corporation tax. However, they are also here because we are soon to be the only English-speaking member of the European Union and we have a highly skilled and educated workforce.
Perhaps it is because of my background and where I taught. Perhaps it is because of the children who inspire me every day of my political life. I have seen how education, day by day, has improved their lives. It is often said that free fees or the abolition of fees would not affect access to third-level education by acutely disadvantaged communities and that it did not affect access in the 1990s. There are myriad overlapping and various reasons why access rates from those communities are not as they should be. The statistics are obvious in the Hart and Risley report from 1995. The average three year old from a welfare dependent family has one third the oral capacity and one third of the vocabulary of a three year old from a professional family. The gulf is there by three years of age. One third of children leaving DEIS schools after sixth class have basic reading problems. The issue in terms of access to third-level education in acutely disadvantaged areas is far more complex than a financial barrier. Financial considerations exist but, on account of the grant system, which almost 50% of students avail of, it is not the same. It is relevant for those who are always outside that cohort and outside any means test, those who year by year make a determination about how many of their children can access third level because of financial concerns.
I believe the Minister of State would have support from across this House, notwithstanding the disappointing amendments from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, if she made a strong statement. What we want is a strong statement from the Minister of State as the newly appointed Minister of State with responsibility for higher education who has an education background and who, like me, was a principal of a primary school. She sits at Cabinet and has an influential role in this Government. We want the Minister of State to make a commitment to the House that the Government has absolutely no intention of pursuing the concept of a graduate loan scheme and that the Government completely agrees with the vision of absolutely free access to third-level education.
We can understand that there are financial constraints and that it may take several years to achieve it. However, it would at least be an improvement if the vision was there, no more than any other social justice issue in this country, whether homelessness, housing, illiteracy or whatever. At least if the vision is there from within Government, there is a chance. Our aspiration is that access to third-level education would be absolutely free and that those who pay for it pay through general taxation. I do not believe that people should be taxed on the basis of their education. They should be taxed on the basis of their wealth.
If the Minister of State supported a graduate tax or a student loan scheme, she would be effectively taxing someone on the basis of their education and not on the basis of their wealth or income. Such schemes have been disastrous wherever they have been introduced. I want to live in a society of highly educated individuals, including nurses, doctors, teachers and, God help us, even politicians who are a benefit to the State every day of their working lives. They should not be saddled with debt. Education is not a commodity or a privilege; it a right. Any proposed student loan scheme would be a barrier to that right. That is why we feel so strongly about this issue and that is why we have put down the motion this evening.