Sunday 22 April 2018

This will be a real test for 'new politics' as Fianna Fáil handed hot potato

John Walshe

The fate of the Cassells Report lies with Fianna Fáil, which has clearly been enjoying its power over recent government decisions - without having to take any responsibility for the unpopular ones.

But that's about to change - at least as far as taking responsibility for the hot political potato of funding higher education.

Education Minister Richard Bruton has neatly handed it over to the Oireachtas Committee on Education, which just happens to be chaired by one of the new Fianna Fáil TDs, Fiona O'Loughlin (pictured right), a former primary school teacher. She is joined on the committee by her party's education spokesperson, Thomas Byrne.

Bruton really had little choice. There is no point in him bringing Cassells-type proposals for a loans scheme to Cabinet unless Fianna Fáil is on board. But nor is there any point in pretending that it will be possible to get unanimous backing for such a scheme, given that Sinn Féin is also represented on the committee.

By their manifestos ye shall know them and Sinn Féin's was quite clear - it promised to abolish the existing €3,000 student charge if it got into government.

So the party's education spokeswoman, Carol Nolan - who, incidentally, asks the best Dáil questions on higher education - is hardly likely to agree to a 'study now, pay later' scheme to cover charges that she wants abolished.

If she did so, she would be roasted by People Before Profit, which also promised to abolish student charges.

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

The Cassells Report will be a real test of the 'new politics' we hear so much about.

In some ways, it is misleading to talk about the report as if it was the only publication from the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, to give it its full title.

The group, chaired by former ICTU general secretary Peter Cassells, has produced six. While today's is the most important, earlier publications have highlighted not just the crisis in funding, but the increasing demand for student places and the impact of mass higher education on Irish society.

How times have changed was reflected in the views of those who took part in a survey, which found a real sense that whereas in the past third-level was seen as being for the elite, that is no longer so.

As one Dublin 10 resident said: "In 1976, if anyone from Ballyfermot went to college, there would have been a ticker-tape parade."

The survey also found generally positive attitudes towards higher education but a lack of awareness of the funding crisis. This makes it easier for politicians to ignore the funding elephant in the room, a point I've made in discussions with college administrators.

It's much easier for the same politicians to make cuts in higher education, as they have been doing for the past decade, than in schools.

The results of this decade of under-investment are clear. They are shown in a decline in the quality of what is offered to students, the drop in international rankings for our universities and the danger that Ireland's attractiveness as a base for foreign direct investment will be diminished.

As the working group warns: "The contribution of higher education to Ireland's economic and social development can no longer be assumed and is, in fact, severely threatened."

It's time, as I once heard a prominent university administrator state, to "bell the elephant".

John Walshe is an education consultant


Irish Independent

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