Education should be based on ability rather than wealth

Yesterday there was a report on third level education which gave information that might have been obtained under freedom of information legislation. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate as soon as possible on the important question of funding third level education. Apparently, the Higher Education Authority is of the view that there will be a requirement for more than €4 billion – a familiar figure has been given to the banks and other places in recent times. However, this €4 billion is to meet a most important requirement in order that we can invest in our third level education system and, ultimately, the future of the country.

I am not sure whether the publication of this report – I do not know if the information was obtained or leaked – is intended to soften up public opinion in regard to the reintroduction of university fees. However, it should form one important element of the discussion we should have in the House. The reintroduction of fees would be a mistake. The Opposition is always being accused of being negative, including during yesterday’s debate on banking. However, one thing we have managed to do in the past 15 years, as a country and society, is maintain a progressive level of funding and a progressive approach to third level education, for which people are not charged. We regard it as a public, not a private good to be parcelled up and sold to the highest bidder. People are educated based on their ability, rather than on the wealth of their parents.

I am often struck by those who say it is mainly wealthy people or those who have money who are able to avail of free fees. However, whenever the issue of equality in the taxation system is raised, perhaps by taxing more than we do those with greater wealth, the very same individuals recoil from such a suggestion. That is the real contradiction. If we want to have equality, the single, best and most progressive instrument we can use, in terms of income and generally, is the taxation system. We should maintain our free third and second level education systems at the points of delivery to young people. If we cannot educate and give them an opportunity for the future, we will not achieve anything in this country.