Thursday 19 September 2019

'I've attended the funerals of students and it affects me'

The Minister for Higher Education has vowed to take on the issues of drug abuse and the amount of sexual assaults on students, writes Donal Lynch

Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Picture: Mark Condren
Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Picture: Mark Condren
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In The Importance Of Being Earnest, Jack Worthing says of Lady Bracknell that "she is a monster without a myth, which is quite unfair".

Of Mary Mitchell O'Connor it might be said that she is a myth without being a monster, which is perhaps unfairer still.

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In her eight years as a TD she has, more than most politicians, endured a trial by fire in the media - this week alone she was compared to Marie Antoinette for suggesting that students put their grants toward rent - ferocious, personal criticism from certain Leinster House colleagues, and a generally gleeful willingness to pounce on her perceived mistakes.

And yet through it all, she has, like Lady Bracknell, endured quite well. She is an adept media performer. She still has a seat at the Cabinet table, albeit as a super junior minister, she has performed well in her brief and, were an election to be called in the morning, she would probably be a certainty to retain her seat in Dun Laoghaire.

She is Minister for Higher Education at an interesting juncture in Irish life. Our continued recovery and competitiveness depends on proper funding being directed toward third level institutions, but there is debate - even within the Government, it would seem - about who, exactly, will pay for all that.

Colleges are also frontiers of social change: gender inequality, inclusion of minorities, sexual consent and the increasing prevalence of drug misuse on campuses are just some of the issues that Mitchell O'Connor deals with on a day to day basis.

I begin by asking her about college fees. Education Minister Joe McHugh has already made a pledge not to increase university registration fees beyond €3,000 per year if Fine Gael is returned to government after the next general election. But does that not mean that the entire population - including those who do not go to college - is, in effect, subsidising the educations of those who do?

"Where I stand is that we all have a duty to ensure that there is a very basic opportunity for our students to get undergraduate degrees if they so wish," she responds. "It's not just that we are only subsidising university educations, we also subsidise apprenticeships and, indeed, all higher education. It would be terrible if our students accumulated American-style debt. So many of our graduates had to leave during the recession, we owe it to this generation of students in Ireland to give them a good basic degree."

Education, she adds, is connected to our competitiveness and one of the major reasons that foreign direct investment continues to flow into this country. But, still, we do not have a single university ranked inside the top 100 in the world. With no fee hikes, can universities regain some of what they lost in the crisis?

"There's 15,000 universities ranked in the world and some of our universities are in the top 1pc of that. All of them bar one are in the top 4pc. We're comparing them with the likes of Harvard. But in terms of getting value for money for the student - who is the most important person in this whole equation - I think we are actually doing quite well."

She notes herself that universities are microcosms of wider society. While problem drinking has declined in Ireland, and has been replaced somewhat by drug misuse; colleges are seeing this same trend reflected in campuses, she says.

"We have an issue around substance abuse in Irish colleges. I've attended some students' funerals and as a mother and a TD it really concerns me. You don't expect in a higher education institution that there would be drugs freely available, but I have heard about drugs being sold within colleges. In June we had a meeting and asked stakeholders within the colleges, including USI (Union of Students in Ireland) leaders, to come and tell us what is happening. It was very eye-opening. There is a laissez faire attitude to this issue in colleges but I am going to show leadership on this.

"I'm not talking about smoking weed, for instance. I'm talking about MDMA, ecstasy. They'll pop one, then they'll pop two or three and there are tragic consequences."

She's never taken drugs, she says, but she's seen those consequences first-hand. "The last funeral I was at, I walked toward them to sympathise with them and the father and mother asked me to do something about the issue. Another mother wrote to me from Tipperary and said they wouldn't want anyone else to die."

If she had a college-aged child who was taking drugs would she go to the Garda?

"I would go to the gardai if I knew who was dealing drugs in that college. This is not about criminalising students who take drugs. It is about solving a problem. We've set up a rapid review. There are psychiatrists, student leaders and representatives from the parents' council - that will help form a roadmap of what we need to do for higher education institutions."

She says that a disproportionate number of sexual assault victims in this country are college students. "I visited a sexual assault trauma unit and 40pc of the people who had reported sexual assault were students. I was shocked and said to myself, 'we must deal with this'.

"We have put together an expert group and the institutions are now going to have a whole policy on this issue. There obviously is some link between the increased use of pornography and the level of sexual assault in this country. It contributes to the issue of women being treated badly."

Quotas are almost as thorny a subject in academia as they are in politics. Does she think it's fair that certain male candidates for jobs should pay for the sins of the past?

"Listen, the numbers speak for themselves. Women need to get a fair crack of the whip," she responds.

"Imagine you have a daughter who gets into a college and she sees that only 22pc of the senior academics are women. What message is that to be giving a daughter - or a son? If you can't see it, you can't be it."

She appears to wince when I raise the even more vexed question of Maria Bailey, who will, it has been decided, be her running mate in their constituency in the next election. I wonder if Bailey standing might in fact help Mitchell O'Connor on the ticket, since voters who are inclined to vote Fine Gael might see it as a two-way choice - between Mitchell O'Connor and constituency colleague Sean Barrett - rather than a three-way choice?

She all but shows me the pole she won't touch that argument with. "Elections are so difficult and every one of us will be out there to get number one votes. I will do my part, the people in my constituency work extremely hard and I'll do my level best."

She is a grandmother now and says she can never imagine marrying again - "I'm too difficult to live with!" After nearly a decade in Leinster House, she says she loves the work more than ever, but wouldn't like her daughter-in-law or granddaughter go into politics.

"I have come in for a lot of criticism and I think female politicians feel it more because maybe we are more empathetic and compassionate."

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