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Education crisis puts us all to test

ALL government is about priorities, and next to the economic crisis the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition can have no greater priority than the education system. Our future as a society, not just as an economy, depends on nurturing the next generation, and generations to come, of well-educated and highly skilled young people.

But the problems that face Education Minister Ruairi Quinn are as daunting as any yet encountered by his colleagues Michael Noonan, in handling the shattered public finances; and Brendan Howlin, in containing expenditure and reforming the bureaucracy.

An international report has found that almost a quarter of Irish 15-year-old boys are illiterate. Class sizes have risen while the number of special needs teachers has declined. Large numbers of school buildings are in need of repair.

And all this will soon be pushed into the background by a crisis of simple numbers. The youngest children of the deceased Tiger will be starting primary school, their elders moving to second or third level.

The projections, constantly revised, have become breathtaking. According to the Education Department's latest forecasts, by 2014 the number in education at all levels will have risen by 80,000. By 2017, it will have risen by 10pc, to a total of 1.1 million. If existing staffing levels were maintained -- an evident impossibility -- the numbers would dictate the recruitment of 2,000 more teachers at primary and post-primary level.

For the minister, the department and the staff on the ground to fulfil all the tasks demanded by this situation would require, in the absence of increased funding, extraordinary ingenuity.

But the most difficult problems will arise in the field of higher education.

All experts agree that we need to increase, not reduce, third-level funding. There may be a self-serving element in some pleas, but unquestionably we must maintain world-class standards.

Yet at the same time we will continue to require cuts in public spending. And the choices for sources of funds are limited. Any increase in taxes could wreck our chances of economic recovery. There is much to be said for a student loan system, but Ireland has a special difficulty caused by emigration.

Most observers now think that a return of tuition fees is inevitable. If that happens, it will be immensely unpopular, especially among the middle classes who determine election results. Mr Quinn may ponder wryly that a Labour minister abolished tuition fees and a Labour minister may have to bring them back.

But this is not just a matter of political courage. We also need public awareness. Would a return of fees deny higher education to large numbers from poorer backgrounds? And what, crucially, does that mean for the society that we are trying to preserve and reconstruct?

Irish Independent