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Generation of future must invest in itself


PAYBACK TIME FOR GRADUATES: How Garland in the 'Daily Telegraph' sees the debate over student debt.

PAYBACK TIME FOR GRADUATES: How Garland in the 'Daily Telegraph' sees the debate over student debt.

PAYBACK TIME FOR GRADUATES: How Garland in the 'Daily Telegraph' sees the debate over student debt.

Quite a large percentage of students at university and third-level institutions here admit quite openly that if they had to pay fees for their tuition they would take their education a lot more seriously.

Most senior academics in our universities, certainly those at presidential and provost level, believe that, for the sake of educational standards, we need to impose fees. And, interestingly, they choose the option of imposing fees rather than no-strings-attached taxpayer grants as a means of further funding, which seems to indicate that they too may believe that fee-paying would concentrate the budding academic mind.

Of course, if fees are re-introduced for Irish students, there will be open warfare: we've all heard that third-level education is "a right". Actually, it's not: it's an intellectual privilege at a university; a piece of far-sighted social policy if it's at a training college where it is aimed at improving vocational skills.

We are churning out thousands of young adults from our schools who have been reared to believe that the taxpayer will fund their third- level education, even if they're using that three, four, or even more years merely as a time to put off having to take responsibility for their own lives.

As a result, universities and colleges are reducing their undergraduate standards to accommodate people, some of whom aren't even literate, much less members of the intellectual elite, and the institutions are starved of the funds which they need to ensure that they can serve the needs of the students who are able to take academic advantage of what is on offer.

In Britain, the Liberal Democrats in opposition wanted to join our rush to the bottom of the academic/socially engineered race; they wanted to remove third-level fees which stand at £3,300 sterling per annum. The students receive grants to cover the charge, but when their post-graduate earnings reach

£21,000 per year they have to start paying back. It was a Liberal Democrat pledge to end this "discriminatory" policy. But, as is the way of politics, when the Lib Dems found themselves living in the real world, the national balance sheet altered their thinking.

It's now planned to raise third-level fees to £12,000 a year (even higher for Oxford and Cambridge) and set the pay-back threshold at £15,000 earnings annually. "Fair and progressive" is how the (Lib Dem) Business Secretary Vince Cable described the plans.

Oxford and Cambridge, along with a couple of American universities, lead the world ratings for intellectual standards. And that, everyone agrees, costs money. Currently, Trinity is rated 52nd in the world, UCD 114th. That may sound a bit bleak, but it is actually pretty good, because the ratings go into the many hundreds. DCU is rated at 330, for instance. But it is even more revealing to note where the three institutions stood only a year ago. Trinity was at 43; it has dropped nine places. UCD was rated 89th in 2009, so it has dropped 25 places. And DCU is down from 279, a drop of a massive 51 places, which should have its academic council sweating bricks, although there hasn't been the sound of too many breasts being beaten emanating from Glasnevin.

That has implications, not least for the taxpayer. Universities need research money to preserve and improve their academic ratings, and that comes from international sources as well as from the taxpayer.

Intellectual ratings are affected by the level of research going on in a university, just as the level of undergraduate experience is directly affected by the quality of the teaching staff. And high-calibre staff are attracted by the research facilities available to them. To say that the staff should concentrate only on trying to inspire a lecture hall full of several hundred first-year students whose minds are fully fixed on the activities in the student bar the previous night is short-sighted in the extreme. It's as boring for the lecturer as it is for the student.

Unless we do something, we're going to continue in the downward spiral. And it's facetious and pointless to say the taxpayer should plug the gap. The funds weren't there even in the boom years. Now it's time for the generation of the future to invest in itself. They've realised that fact in Britain, where the world's two greatest universities are situated, and where the reality is accepted that not everybody has the same intellectual capacities, just as everybody is emphatically not an artist.

For the past couple of generations in Ireland, in the name of equality we've been trying to produce a population of clones, a process which is damaging intellectual life.

Our national psyche is incapable of taking on board the notion of socialism, which is predicated on equal opportunities but different levels of ability, with those with the highest ability being expected to contribute the most.

Instead, we've reduced academic standards to ensure "product", a high percentage of "graduates" the value of whose parchments is becoming more degraded every year.

It's time to face up to the unpalatable fact that if a student doesn't believe that the inestimable advantage of a university education isn't worth a payback, then that student probably hasn't the kind of brainpower to benefit from such an education.

Nobody should find their path to achievement denied by lack of money. But university education was never, from its earliest inception, intended for all: it was intended for the intellectual elite within society, and no concentration on "access facilities" will change the fact that some people are not of the calibre to benefit from, and pay society back for, its advantages.

We need a strong dose of reality, the kind of things that the Lib Dems in Britain have had to take on board since reaching the dizzying heights of government. We need to tell a lot of our school leavers that they are not suited to further academic education, and that if they are there's a price to pay for its advantages.

Grants should be adequate, even generous. But they start being paid back as soon as that cap and gown yield a job. There's even an argument to be made for the State/university being given the right to come back to the well: the greater the achievement of the graduate in later years, the greater the pay-back to be expected in financial terms.

In Britain, there's a plan to impose fees at a higher level for Oxford and Cambridge than for other universities. And guess what? I doubt that those venerable institutions will find their academic reputations suffering for it, or find themselves knocked from the top of the world university ratings any time soon.

Sunday Independent