Last week, the Union of Students in Ireland brought thousands of students out of their classrooms and onto the streets to demand that the Government increase third-level funding. Many students are under very severe pressure as a result of the existing student contribution combined with the dearth of affordable student accommodation brought on by the housing crisis. Add living expenses in a city like Dublin and you can quickly begin to empathise with their plight.

What’s more, the numbers attending college are projected to rise significantly in the years to come, even though the sector is stretched thin financially and struggling to cope with existing numbers.

Persistent underfunding of third-level education naturally leads to underperformance in international league tables, as has been the case in Ireland in recent years. While Trinity climbed 14 places to 117th in the Times Higher Education world rankings for 2018, this is hardly grounds for great celebration. Ominously, only three Irish colleges joined Trinity in the top 250.

There are two major issues here: funding and student numbers. On both matters, the USI and the assorted socialist parties which march alongside them at demonstrations are flat-out wrong.

Firstly, there is the money. Student protestors say that the sharp cuts to education funding during the crash have led to a deterioration in quality, and that these cuts now need to be reversed to improve the sector.

True enough. However, the scale of the problem makes greater resource allocation a daunting task.

The recent Cassells report on the future financing of higher education has indicated that major changes are needed to provide the necessary funding, and that an investment of €1 billion would be needed over the next 15 years in order to bring the sector up to speed.

To achieve this, the Cassells report laid out three options: student loans, loan repayments related to the income of graduates and making higher education ‘free’ at the point of access.

The USI – true to previous form – are dead set against loans and loan repayments of any kind. Instead, they are seeking an investment of €1.26 billion into third-level education over the next decade.

There is no chance of this happening, under any government likely to be elected soon.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have tiptoed around Cassells: cognisant of the scale of the problem, but reluctant to state publicly what needs to be done.

Economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit, massive debt repayments, significant infrastructural projects and the housing crisis all mean that a massive state increase in third-level funding is off-the-table. There is no €1 billion to spare.

Some sort of loan system is inevitable and it is only a question of which of the two centrist parties will introduce it.  

But even if the €1 billion were to become available, the USI’s demands should still not be met. The arguments against ‘free’ college education are compelling regardless of the state’s current financial situation.  

Possessing a third-level degree is economically advantageous. It opens doors which would otherwise be shut, and puts graduates on a path towards achieving higher wages than they could without said qualification. As a result, it is right and just that graduates should be willing to pay for this privilege in the same way that they would be willing to pay for other forms of up-skilling.

Consider this. Two 18-year-olds are preparing to do their Leaving Certificate examinations. Sean wishes to go into business, and has identified an undergraduate course which interests him. Gareth, on the other hand, has always loved cars and has found a mechanic who is willing to take him on as an apprentice. School is out, for him.

Those who insist upon free third-level education should be asked to explain why Gareth should pay income tax on what he earns as a productive worker from his first day on the job to support Sean’s decision to spend four or more years in college. How on earth is that morally defensible?

This argument is not predicated on any hostility towards third-level education, or what those years represent in the lives of students.

Ultimately, whether Sean spends that four years looking to broaden his mind and work at self-improvement in the classroom and in the library, or whether he blows his grant on Dutch Gold and spends umpteen hours sprawled across his mate’s dirt-encrusted couch is more or less irrelevant. It’s Sean’s college experience, and he should pay for it himself.

Of course, many cannot pay at the time – I certainly couldn’t have. The cultivation of the human intellect should be one of the highest goals of any society, and to enable this it is imperative that not one gifted person should be denied the opportunity to be educated by learned professors in the company of their peers.

A generous loan system, therefore, is not only desirable but essential, and it should be the business of educational policymakers to devise the most efficacious system for providing students with all the resources they need while in college, followed by a manageable repayment system further along the line.

Not that this will satisfy the student protesters of course, who (correctly) fear that a loan system will deter many people from going on to third-level.

Student union apparatchiks contend that broader societal benefits are derived from having large numbers of people going to college, and that these benefits justify what they call ‘free education.’

This idea – now widely accepted at all levels of society, but particularly in the middle and upper-classes – is responsible for the explosion in the numbers of people going on to third-level.

It is clear that the vast increase in numbers attending college is behind much of the inflation in education costs, and the problem is getting worse by the day.

Indeed, the Department of Education’s ‘Projections on Demand for Full Time Third Level Education, 2015 – 2029’ document details the scale of the increase which is expected over the next decade. Therein lies the second major problem in our third-level system: far too many people are going to college.

Colleges were meant to be places where students could learn more in preparation for whatever career they had decided to embark upon. It was never meant to be a universal experience for those in their late teens and early twenties, regardless of their interest in or aptitude for structured learning at a high level.

That experience certainly provides some benefits, but they come at a high and fast-rising price.

College should be a choice embarked upon for a specific purpose, not a rite-of-passage undergone because everyone else was doing it. Treating it as such destroys its core purpose. The end result is not a furthering of knowledge, but instead a prolonging of adolescence, and this results in serious problems.

The more deeply engrained this college-for-all-and-free-for-all attitude has become, the larger the third-level industry has grown. Courses have been duplicated needlessly, with a needlessly large amount of overly specific courses being created.

Consider this: Trinity’s website lists over 60 different undergraduate courses in its ‘Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’ faculty. Is that really necessary? Are “Acting” and “Acting Studies” that dissimilar? What about “Classical Civilisations” and “Classics”? And can the great schism between “Religions and Theology and World Religions” and “Theology” not be resolved, or would that be too much of an ecumenical matter?  

For each individual college course populated by many students with only a vague interest in the core subject matter, a professor must be appointed, and supported by additional administrative staff. All this requires more funding, which the student unions are willing to march for as part of a vicious cycle which has led us to this point.

A related problem can be seen in the nation’s Institutes of Technology. These were initially established to provide technical instruction and to address the skills gaps in the Irish workforce.

While the ITs continue to perform this task by offering enormously valuable courses, the good that they could have done has been greatly reduced by their tendency to attempt to morph the universities rather than offering distinctive educational fare. This has resulted in many more courses being created, and many, many more students enrolling.

Ireland’s system is not the norm. In other countries such as Germany, Switzerland or Austria there are clearly delineated vocational systems – often involving close partnerships with employers eager to catch the talent young and nurture it – which cater to teenagers seeking to acquire practical skills with which they can earn a good living.

There is no sense in these systems that those in vocational schools are somehow less gifted than their university-attending peers: in fact, in Switzerland far, far more choose vocational education in preference to university given the superior earning prospects associated with such training.

The countries with these systems reap the rewards by developing exceptionally well-educated workforces and keeping youth unemployment at very low levels.

By cutting down on the number of years a learner will be in formal education and involving the private sector through the use of apprenticeships, they also cut down on their overall expenditure, therefore allowing for proper investment in their university sectors.

The greatest benefit of all though is one which can easily escape the observer’s attention, and a word that passes the lips of the student union leadership frequently: choice. The Swiss have it; the Irish don’t.

By providing a realistic and attractive set of choices to young people, a system which values both academic and vocational education instils in teenagers a sense that (a) they can choose what they can do and (b) they are responsible for those choices.

Far too often, the voice of the student union is the voice of entitlement. This frequently gives rise to a sense of grievance about any perceived denials of their ‘right’ to ‘free’ education paid for by someone else.

The prolonged adolescence which too often defines modern college life – the subject of a recent best-selling book by the US Senator Ben Sasse – has other costs too.

The refusal of a growing minority of students to accept any deviation from conventional wisdom in a variety of areas, and the growing tendency to restrict the propagation of minority views, and the sheer, unreconstructed rage when confronted with those who stubbornly adhere to their own beliefs (Katie Ascough is UCD’s Student President – ahhhh! Impeach!) are also products of what can only be labelled childishness.

If attending college was always a result of a well-thought out decision, made in the knowledge that fees would be paid up-front or later on, many of the worst of these offenders wouldn’t be in third-level education. Instead, they’d likely be trying to establish safe spaces during their plumbing apprenticeships. I doubt they’d catch on.

The fact that the willingness of the young to suppress rather than to debate opposing views runs contrary to the essence of education – learning how to think, not what to think – is ironic. The fact that it is an increasing problem within colleges worldwide is sad. The fact that it has grown up alongside ‘free education’ is undeniable.

One way or another, the current system is going to end in the coming years. If you want real education, you’re soon going to have to pay for it, and that is far from being a bad thing.