Monday 26 September 2016

We shouldn't rob Peter to pay for Paul's basic education - if we fail to invest we will never see long-term benefits

John Walshe

Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30

Politicians respond quicker to stories about emergencies elsewhere rather than listen to and respond to arguments about the long-term benefits of investment in education (Stock image)
Politicians respond quicker to stories about emergencies elsewhere rather than listen to and respond to arguments about the long-term benefits of investment in education (Stock image)

Universities made their pitches this week for more funding following their worrying fall in global rankings. Last week, Barnardos made its case for free primary education, which should really be a no-brainer for any government.

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Next week, a new report from the international think-tank, the OECD, will confirm our class sizes are among the highest in the developed world. And the week after that, a conference in Killarney will hear that the further education sector is starved of funds.

No wonder Department of Education officials are scrambling to finalise spending plans for next month's Budget. At all levels of education, from pre-school to higher education, there is a growing sense of crisis and a hope that the Budget will address years of under-funding. But will it?

When we consider government spending, we often assume that the different departments get the same slice of the Budget cake year after year. But that's not necessarily the case. Let's take agriculture for instance. In 1950, it accounted for more than a quarter of government spending. Joining the EEC, as it was then in January 1973, changed all that with the release of massive funds from Brussels for Irish agriculture. Now, agriculture accounts for just 2pc of exchequer spending.

In 1950, spending on health, education and social welfare accounted for only a third of government spending. Today, the three biggies account for around four-fifths. But what's particularly interesting is how the relative spending between these departments has shifted over the years.

At the turn of the century, 26.7pc of current government spending went on social welfare, 19.6pc on health and 13.9pc on education. All three continued to increase their share for various reasons such as demographics, rising costs etc. Social welfare has gone up to 38pc, health has gone up to 26pc, while the smallest increase has been in education, which accounts for 17pc of current government expenditure.

This very dramatic shift in spending has taken place without any real discussion about our national priorities - perhaps it's time we initiated that debate. This is not just my view but that of the OECD, which has urged policymakers to take into account the wider social benefits of education when allocating resources across public policies. If we truly believe that investment in education pays off through better employment, health and social outcomes why don't we invest more in education?

Is it because the education system is not facing into daily emergencies, unlike other parts of the public service, particularly health? Every day, 4,000 schools, colleges, institutes of technology and universities open their doors - they teach over one million students, usually without some headline-grabbing crisis. There are no 'Prime Time' investigations into a daily education crisis which would catapult it into politicians' consciousness. The system does not seem to be breaking down. It's creaking for lack of funds but it doesn't stop operating. As one teachers' union leader put it: "We need the equivalent of a hospital trolley count every day to make politicians sit up and take notice."

The pressure on politicians to respond to the underfunding of the education system is not as immediate and intense as it is in other areas such as health, housing and social protection.

Politicians respond quicker to stories about emergencies elsewhere rather than listen to and respond to arguments about the long-term benefits of investment in education.

Our political system promotes short-term rather than long-term planning. We need to think of the long-term benefits of investing in particular areas of public spending. The recent Olympics gave a classic example of how investment and planning paid off for our neighbour. Twenty years ago, Britain had the dubious pleasure of pipping Belarus for 36th place in the gold medals table in the Atlanta Games.

It started making serious investment in training and preparation, which paid off when it came third in the Olympics in the gold medal ranks four years ago. This year, it came second.

What does that tell us? Well, we can't all be Olympians, obviously, but as a country we need to think more strategically about where we make additional investment now we have some fiscal space.

Ministers love making announcements about additional measures in response to some emergency but they don't always think of the medium-term outcomes, or of the long-term budgetary costs.

And it shouldn't be a question of robbing Peter to pay for Paul's basic education.

Instead of arguing for a bigger share of the limited education budget, the education partners should be campaigning for a greater share overall of the national Budget.

Irish Independent

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