With all the hemming and hawing and handwringing about whether and how to reintroduce student fees, something has been lost on almost everyone but working lecturers: the woeful rates of student attendance. Absenteeism among students is absolutely endemic and, in my experience, the problem is getting worse. I suspect that, if the taxpayers knew what was going on, the pressure to re-introduce fees would grow.
Many see a link between poor attendance and the abolition of fees. They believe that students aren’t attending because it doesn’t cost them much or, in any case, nothing like the real costs of their places in university. Yet, I’m not certain that re-instituting fees alone would solve the problem for the simple reason that, once the money is paid, students on whom the qualitative incentives to attend (you know: learning) have no purchase have no further incentive to attend (or, alternatively, no disincentive not to attend). Let’s face it: a great many students are mercenary about their studies. The view is very widespread among students that grades are the only things that matter and that the goal of a “university” “education” is to get the highest grades with minimal effort. If you can get a good or even satisfactory grade without attending a single class, then you’ve played the game as well as can be played. I’m not the only one saying this even if it is a view that one rarely hears in Ireland.
Many lecturers and departments have tried to devise all manner of incentives and disincentives to discourage this behaviour. They give a percentage of the final grade for attendance, for example. But that’s perverse: why should a student get actual credit for doing what should go without saying?
Is there a way to solve this problem without re-introducing fees (or, worse, continually increasing fees by calling them something else while also claiming that university is “free”)? I believe there is and I also believe it would have the effect of improving educational outcomes for many if not most students. It may also raise more revenue than the current system.
The idea is this: fees are re-instated at a level around the average cost of delivering the service to students in all disciplines–in other words at the level of the actual cost of delivering a university education–but all students are given a grant to cover 100% of those fees. So university is effectively free. However, for every timetabled class that is missed without a documented excuse, the student’s grant will be reduced on a pro rata basis. There’ll be no direct impact on the student’s grade in the class, only on their pocket. Miss more than a few classes without documentation and you’ll be paying more than you pay currently. Miss a substantial number and it’ll cost you quite a lot. Miss them all and, before you flunk out, you’ll pay the full cost of providing you with the education you’re not taking advantage of.
What objections could anyone have to this? Students could not claim that fees had been reintroduced. Indeed, the various “student services charges” that they object to would also be abolished. Now, it might turn out not to raise as much money as what it replaces, but even if that were so, it would nevertheless result in better-educated graduates.