Monday 9 December 2019

Colum Kenny: Youth not to blame for our failures

From preschooling to university, there has been a policy of make-do and get-by, writes Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny

The sins of the parents are being visited on our young people. It was not their negligence and greed that caused the crisis in the Irish economy. They should not be its scapegoats.

Already many are burdened with bad or heavy debts. They were enticed into liabilities by sharp commercial practice, and left unprotected by government disrespect for effective financial and social regulation.

They are losing -- or cannot find -- jobs. When they do get a job, they face insecurity, levels of taxation and new pension burdens that are what they are because of an older generation's recklessness. Meanwhile, wage levels are being driven down.

Last week young people were told too that their qualifications are suspect. At the very time that many are being forced to seek work abroad, the minister responsible for education could not robustly defend the system. Following some complaints from multinationals, he has decided that, "our approach to developing education policy must be strategic and more aligned with industry needs". Why does he have so little confidence in the system over which he and his party preside that he could not strongly defend it without further ado? University heads reacted with concern.

Minister for Education and Science Batt O'Keeffe (who is also described as "Minister of Education" on his department's website, tut-tut) belongs to a party that has been in power for most of the last 20 years. It presided over any grade inflation.

Young people need to organise to defend their interests and to seek answers to what has gone wrong in their society. They are being cast in the role of spoilt idlers who deserve a dose of so-called reality. They will be an easy target until they resist. They will be made pay for the misconduct and mistakes of others.

Young people have now to plead to get loans at high interest rates from banks that were throwing money at them not long ago. What are the prospects of them finding a long-term job so that they can be independent, marry and have a family in decent circumstances?

Who created the reality in which young Irish people now find themselves? Who let the banks and speculators get out of hand? Who voted back into power a party that appears to have lost its bearings? And if educational standards have been let slide, so that graduates' qualifications are now being criticised just as they need them most to get jobs, who was in charge at the Department of Education during that decline? It was not young people.

If people really do get the government they deserve then Irish people must be inept, selfish and shortsighted. For despite all of our windfall wealth of the past 20 years we have failed to leave ourselves a legacy in health and education and other services of which we can be proud. We have a shambles of one-off housing, ill-conceived estates and unwanted office blocks that the State is now buying when it could instead be investing in education and other services.

The fact that young people are not out on the streets angry, that they are not already demanding answers as to where the money has gone and why people are not being made to account for it, is a sign of our failure, not theirs. They have been given the wrong priorities and are confused. Why would they connect actions and consequences when neither the government nor financial bodies did so?

And before Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe gets carried away about educational standards again, let us remind ourselves of a few facts. From preschooling through to university, there has been a policy of make-do and get-by. The pretending game included promises that the State would support working parents with a system of high-quality childcare. The system is hit and miss.

At primary level some schools are stuck with prefabs, while new schools are now being built without full facilities. The national schools are an objective statement of how the Celtic Tiger really regarded its cubs. They could wait. We are now cutting back on special-needs teaching while pouring billions into the banks and giving what Fine Gael described last week as a "a massive gift" to the pensions' industry. Bankers that got us blithely into the mess are let transfer their wealth elsewhere while young people emigrate.

At secondary school level, the length of the school year and the problems of substandard teachers and curriculum confusion were never tackled effectively by Mr O'Keeffe's department. Whatever about dumbing down at third level, some of our school leavers coming into colleges with high points spell badly, can barely write grammatically coherent sentences and have little experience of independent research. Last week's report from the Department of Education confirmed grade inflation but was unable to say if it was based on student merit or systems failure.

And there is a problem at third level also. Whenever the wind shifts, so too does the high-sounding verbiage from ministers about "excellence". But it is they who decided that the funding for colleges was not sustained by the State at the level it could have been had fees not been abolished. The State has also failed to put in place any system for dealing with the minority of lecturers who fail to keep up. Other lecturers cannot afford to get to vital research conferences because the support provided for individual staff and postgraduate students is too limited.

And if there is grade inflation, then some of us remember when a signal was sent to Irish teachers and lecturers that our students were disadvantaged internationally if applying abroad for courses or jobs, because our Leaving Cert was supposedly marked harder than the UK's A-levels, and our degrees were supposedly being graded tougher than foreign degrees.

When it comes to alleged grade inflation, we must compare not just the number of degrees of a certain grade with Irish degrees some years ago, We need also to compare the percentage of such grades with the percentage of similar grades abroad. Certainly some Irish university lecturers have encountered visiting students from the USA who are shocked and outraged to be awarded marks here that we regard as good but that reputable US colleges regard as below par (not least for students in receipt of performance-related private endowments). There has also been pressure on lecturers who fail students to justify doing so, as if that failure reflects poor teaching rather than poor performance.

We need to distinguish between two different things. One is the comparative number of such grades internationally, the other is the quality of work completed to achieve such grades. If the latter has fallen, then our educational system is in trouble and needs rapid reform. So where was the minister on this issue before a few multinationals complained? And if education is to be geared more towards the transient needs of industry, then what of the long-term needs of citizens and society?

Young people are being burdened by the national debt and are an easy target for higher thresholds to entitlements. They must also cope with costlier charges and prerequisites for a range of services, such as the driving test and motor insurance.

Young people should not wait around for someone "up there" to fix things. They can organise in various ways to achieve change by joining or forming political parties and other organisations. They can ensure that whoever is returned at the next general election will not get away with restoring either the status quo or the cosy relationships between powerful groups that landed us in a mess.

Professor Colum Kenny lectures at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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