Opinion Columnists

Sunday 20 October 2019

Mary O'Rourke: 'Fund universities and colleges - for the sake of all our futures'

Tough decisions must be made over third-level education to maintain our economic attraction, writes Mary O'Rourke

Education Minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Education Minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

August means so many different things to so many people. For those of a literary bent, one can point to the delicious long-ago novel by Edna O'Brien, August is a Wicked Month. Of course, to many it is the month of holidays, particularly schoolchildren who this week are facing the familiar feeling of going back to school after weeks of freedom.

But, particularly for students, it is a very traumatic month. There are the Leaving Cert results, the CAO offers and the ongoing search among all the various options which are now so freely available to young people as they leave school. All of that indeed is going on right now.

For ministers in big-spending departments, August is a worrying month. It is the time when the Department of Finance has its focus on the big spenders, and its earnest civil servants seek to rein in the spending hopes of the ministers within their parent department.

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For the almost five years I was in Marlborough Street in the Department of Education, I remember August so well for the feeling of fighting your corner and, in many cases, a feeling of trepidation.

So I had very real fellow feeling for the recent utterances of Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education, and Mary Mitchell O'Connor, the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education. Yes, some of their utterances were clumsy - not meant to be so - but I still empathised with their good instincts to do the very best for the students going into higher education.

The whole system of higher education is in flux at the moment. So much is happening, and that is good.

The department has announced a review of the Higher Education Act, and not before time. That legislation was passed in 1971, so it is now coming up to 50 years old. When enacted, it provided for 20,000 students and a handful of institutions. It is now catering for 200,000 and myriad institutions, so a keen look at its working is entirely necessary.

The dominant issue, of course, is that the Higher Education Authority, soon to be called the Higher Education Commission, is the body to provide advice to the relevant minister. That is, if its advice is heeded.

It is apparent that on many occasions its advice has not been welcomed in the department - I do not mean by the ministers, but by the civil servants. However, the working through of the submissions to this review of legislation will be interesting.

Joe McHugh was right when he announced that there would be no increase in the student registration fee, and he hopes to keep it at that level for some time to come. That is a worthy objective, and I hope he succeeds in that.

The ongoing and ever-escalating cost of accommodation is a huge worry for parents and young people. Equally, if a student chooses to commute, the time and money and delays spent on that can often cast a blight over what should be a very full curriculum of lectures, societies and other activities within a college.

But to me, the most important aspect of all this talk about third level is the need for definite, ongoing, committed capital funding to the universities and higher education institutions.

The Cassells Report is now more than three years old, and in it Peter Cassells and his team spoke of the dire situation facing funding in the third-level area. This continues to be the case.

Yes, so many colleges have engaged in many areas of fundraising. They have succeeded very well in philanthropy, they have excelled at bringing in foreign students at very high fees in order to boost the income of the college, and they have undertaken many other strategies to get ongoing funding.

But there is a limit to what all these strategies can do. And yet, for Ireland living through the present economic uncertainty - not just with Brexit but against a global background - there is a clear need to continue to enrol and equip young people with the highest of skills, so that Ireland can wear the calling card of giving the best of third-level education to our young students as they face into a world economy where knowledge will be paramount.

We cannot say we are doing that now against a proper background of funding for third level.

Very soon, the lure of favourable tax treatment for incoming industries will lose its shine as the OECD trundles on with its various taxation recommendations. That day is fast approaching.

My belief is that our main calling card to such industries, and to the world in general, should be the properly laid-out government funding to bolster our universities and colleges.

To my mind, this can no longer be delayed. The crunch time is now, and I am sure that against the background of the various announced reforms, it is the most important aspect of all third-level funding.

We have long traded on the name of the 'island of saints and scholars'. We can no longer continue with that, except we give expression to the scholastic element of it. Now I know the Department of Education and its ministers are busy on all these things, not least in the supply of school transport, which as of today is the most important thing for many parents and students as they face into school returns.

After all, Donogh O'Malley, the pioneering Minister for Education during the 1960s, announced free education for post-primary students more than 50 years ago. It is surely in keeping with that wonderful philosophy that not alone will education be provided, but the means to get to education will be provided as well.

So good luck to the ministers and civil servants in Marlborough Street, as they toil to bring results to students at all levels in our education system. The task is awesome and many-faceted, but it is noble.

But, to me, the most pressing need now in education is properly structured, ongoing funding for universities and third level.

We need this in order to maintain our economic attractions as a country.

Mary O'Rourke is a former minister for education, health and public enterprise, and is the author of two bestselling books

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