IRELAND is a small country, whose western coast is the exposed and routinely battered edge of Europe. In the same way that Ireland is exposed to the elements, we are also more exposed to ebb and flow of the global economy than many of our mainland colleagues.
In reality, we don't have a huge amount going for us economically. We're isolated geographically, we don't have large stores of natural resources, our industry is mainly footloose, and we face increasing competition over the coming years from the states who have recently entered the EU, eager to copy our success.
Yet, there is no need to panic. We have our advantages too, such as a high concentration of technology companies and a youthful population. Those companies were attracted here by our low corporation taxes and unfettered access to EU markets. It is no coincidence that Google and Microsoft both have their European headquarters in Ireland. The question we face is how to keep those companies here, and how to keep ourselves ahead? The answer is straightforward: education.
What we lack in natural resources, we must make up for in a well educated, dynamic workforce. We all know it, it's pretty straight forward; it's why we put it in the national development plan...Which makes it all the more baffling that the government continue to dramatically underfund 3rd level education, with colleges expected to cut expenditure by 3% in the coming year. Given that the majority of universities are already running deficits, jacking 4th level fees and turning to the private sector to make up their shortfalls, it's hard to see where that money is going to come from, unless they carry through with their threat to cut courses in 2009-10.
The universities are crying out for money, but it's not forthcoming from the short-sighted government; student's don't vote en-masse and most people are more concerned with their own pocket, so cutting back at 3rd level is politically acceptable. That's why I think it's time that we reconsider 3rd level fees. They were scrapped with the admirable aim of encouraging greater participation beyond second level. However. they didn't address the underlying reasons that poorer people don't go to college such as a lack of role models, poor understanding of the university system, and the feeling that they need to get to work straight away. That's why schemes such as the Trinity Outreach Programme and UCD's New Era work, wheras free fees didn't; they address the root casues in a targeted way.
What ''free fees'' (a rather stupid way of saying it I think, but it's caught on!) have done is to let the middle classes (of which I am undoubtedly part) further themselves a step down the ladder with fee paying secondary schools and grind schools. It shows that people are clearly willing and happy to invest in education. An investment which will just be shifted back up to 3rd level from 2nd, and an investment that will not effect the number of people going to college.
By re-introducing fees for that bracket (perhaps income tested at the highest tax bracket or households over €100,000) we can increase funding for Universities, and ensure high quality eduction is provided, protecting the most important assett Ireland holds. With the extra money, we can also expand funding of the initiatives that genuinely make a difference to the poor people free fees were meant to help. Not bad for a days work.