Cutting corners on education

 
 

With the economic forecase almost as miserable as the weather, Stephen Boyle worries about how universities will fare on an increasingly meagre budget.

Like a verbally borne disease, talk of recession hit Ireland mid-summer and has spread rapidly across the country.

The news media, with little else to sustain it during the summer months, diagnosed many of the major symptoms. From feature articles on the best emigration destinations, reports on rising numbers signing on at the dole office, through to the global oil crisis, the litany of disasters was hard to avoid.

It’s as if all the economists, restrained by years of growth and good news have suddenly been cut loose. George Lee seems in his element on RTÉ News bringing nightly updates on the state of nation’s dwindling finances.

However, fears of a return to the dark days of the 1980s are more than a little misguided. There is evidence that this year’s CAO applicants have opted for what they consider ‘safe’ career options, but by all accounts the economy should be smoothly back on the rails by the time they come to graduate in 2011 and 2012.

The simple truth is that markets, as the radio advertisements like to remind us, can go down as well as up. Ireland is still richer than it has even been before, and while there may be some belttightening and other over-used clichés for cut-backs in the next year or two, most forecasts predict a return to growth in the not-so-distant future.

As always in a downturn, the government has cut where it is most politically acceptable to do so. It should
bring shame to every Irish person that their representatives chose to cut foreign aid as one of the major ways of saving money in the recent mini-budget.

The poorest people of the world, already deprived of the opportunity to export their meagre agricultural surplus to Ireland because of our subsidised farmers and outrageous trade barriers, must suffer further because of the cold and politically scheming calculations of Brian Cowen & Co.

Education is another area which has seen cut-backs, for many of the same reasons that foreign aid has. As a demographic, students are the least likely to vote in the country, and consequently carry little political significance.

With most of the universities running deficits numbering in the millions of euro, courses being cut back on, higher masters fees, higher foreign student fees and an increasing reliance on private enterprise to fund education (see the Quinn School of Business and O’Reilly Hall for starters) there can be little doubt that third level education is crying out for an increase in funding.

Instead, the government in all their generosity have mandated a cut of 3% in the wage bill. With that level of funding, it’s hardly surprising to find that the University heads are leading the call for fees to be re-introduced.

That debate is covered elsewhere in these pages. However, if the current situation continues, there can be little doubt what the outcome will be.

Fees for those who pay them, such as masters students, will continue to rise in order to make up the shortfall of undergraduate funding, thus undermining the laudable aim of increasing levels of educational achievement in the country.

Minority courses such as early Irish, which UCD temporarily suspended as a degree subject will also be likely to suffer. These courses which add little in terms of their ability to draw in money are none the less the essence of what a university should be about, pushing the frontiers of all kinds of knowledge and creating an awareness about little known aspects of our culture and heritage.

The registration fee may also continue to creep up, in a way all too reminiscent of car tax. €1000 is more than a small amount of money for students to pay each year as it is. The problem is that while all of these measures will help to balance to the budget, they will not go far enough. Funding will either need to increase from the state or from fees if the quality of education is not to fall.

Education is vital to Ireland’s future economic success. Not only a small island country battered by the Atlantic Ocean, but also a country exposed to the prevailing economic winds, we have identified
education as one of the major ways of staying ahead of the increasing competition coming from our European neighbours, and the rest of the world. Its importance is fairly obvious: that’s why we put it in the National Development Plan. That’s what makes the government’s decision even more blatantly short-sighted.

Perhaps they plan on simply allowing educational funding to dwindle in order to make the return of fees all but inevitable. Regardless of their motives, the current situation cannot be allowed to continue un-checked.

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