Last night, December 1st, saw the Royal Irish Academy host their first ‘Leaders in Higher Education’ address, a planned series of lectures to celebrate the contributions made by various figures to higher education in Ireland. To the presumed sniggering of many a student activist, the first chosen speaker was Ruairí Quinn TD, who served as Minister for Education and Skills before stepping down last July. The event was widely attended by the elite of Irish education, with the heads of all seven Irish universities, including UCD’s Andrew Deeks, in attendance.
Quinn did not elect to speak on a single topic close to his heart or to promote any single issue. Rather, his speech was impressive in its scope (if sometimes lacking in depth), setting the tone with an exploration of the historical and cultural centrality of education to our nation, and moving on to give his thoughts on a vast range of policy issues from university funding to Junior Certificate reform. Even his paper’s title, “The Education of Ireland”, seemed to be chosen to allow him as much room to discuss whatever issues he wished.
He was eager to showcase an appreciation of an educational heritage. He spoke of how Ireland has “inherited a landscape of learners”, one was formed as much by early Christian monasticism as it was by the rise of rural ‘hedge schools’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. Praise was given to the respect held for teaching profession, referring to a time when the ‘call to training’ meant “a life of study, secure employment and social status in the community”.
Of course, a reiteration of Ireland’s scholarly history was unlikely to be the reason many were in attendance. The obvious potential of this event was to hear a former Minister for Education, now freed from that role, give his honest thoughts on a the turbulent era that our third level education system is passing through.
While no shocking pronouncements or statements were made, Quinn did not hesitate to give firm opinions on a range of issues. He regularly emphasised the importance of a vocational component to education; a good third level education should not leave students filled with knowledge and equipped with a critical mind, yet unable to find work. Youth and graduate unemployment is a significant concern, both at home and abroad (references to Spain’s tragically high rate of youth unemployment were made). “Many parents of the present cohort of third level students have no direct experience of being a full time student in college, but they associate a college qualification as being a guarantee of a job.” As any student will tell you, that is no longer the case. The fact of the matter is that much graduate unemployment is correlated strongly with broader unemployment and economic downturn. It is not a problem created solely by the educational institutes but by the broader climate, something Quinn did not dwell on at all in his speech.
Accommodating young students who are vocationally minded rather than academic in the secondary education has also been a concern for Quinn, who called for reform of the Junior Certificate regularly throughout his time as Minister. Last night he was explicit that the fact that the exam served as “a great rehearsal for the Leaving Certificate” was not a sufficient justification for keeping it in its current shape. “Many young students, particularly working class boys and many others, whose homes and families are not supportive or comfortable with academic learning are either left behind or abandoned by the present system.” Speaking of research conducted by ESRI that showed that many students drift away from schooling in their early years, he noted the lack of opportunities available for many who do not pursue an academic path. “The path leads to either traditional apprenticeships, if you are lucky, or dead-end low paid employment and long periods of unemployment. The personal and social consequences for our young citizens who are left to drift in this unproductive route are very damaging for them, but it is toxic for the rest of our society as well.”
A blunt assessment of the societal effects this youth unemployment can have was offered with a reference to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalism across Europe. “I think that much of the recent surge of support for UKIP in Britian is fueled by young white British males who have been left behind without the skills to operate within an increasingly globalised world economy… The manifestation of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, including Ireland, is a cry for re-inclusion to a society which once had a role an education and a place for people who now feel abandoned because they are closed out of the modern workplace.” The other side of this, not mentioned by Quinn, is of course the outflow of young Irish students and graduates to foreign shores seeking a living for themselves that they cannot find here. For these, the lack of opportunities mean they must repeat again the emigration that so many generations of Irish have found necessary for a living.
This concern for the vocational aspects of higher education was most strongly expressed in defense of Ireland’s two-tiered system, with its seven Universities and fourteen Institutes of Technology. To him, the prospect of Institutes of Technology becoming “quasi-universities” would be “a major error”, comparable to the UK’s rebranding of its Polytechnics as Universities under the Major government.
Much of Quinn’s other topics for discussion ones that anyone present would have been deeply familiar with. On University rankings, he noted that “We cannot ignore the rankings, but nor should we become obsessed by them. One factor in climbing up the rankings is the need to advance additional finance to meet some of the rankings criteria. However, the level of funding required to deliver a top ten institution in Ireland is simply not available, and never will be.”
When discussing the needs of students, he called on USI to develop an enterprise or initiative to address the student housing crisis. There was a defense of his government’s role in increasing the student contribution charge (which he claimed was not paid by over 50% of undergraduates due to their economic circumstances). ” The phased increase of the student charge from €2000 in 2011 to €3000 in 2015, in four annual increments, was a painful but necessary step. It had the benefit of providing clarity so that participants could make provision.” His brief mention of possible solutions to the funding crises had all the typical suggestions: a graduate income tax, a student loan system, a unilateral fee increase. There was little new to garner from these discussions, where the Minister’s insight was lacking compared to his thoughts on vocational education.
To hear the talk as a student was to hear much left unsaid of the typical student’s experience. When discussing the choice between a university education and a vocational education, there was nuance lacking. The line between the two are increasingly blurred, with a changing economic base making subjects like computer science and engineering, as well as many research sciences, far more vocationally focused and sustainable than many traditional options. Subjects like architecture (Deputy Quinn’s background) were once deemed among the most sensible routes from an employment perspective and are now seen as much riskier choices. As far as the average student is concerned, those binaries are historical and not as clear as might be suggested. All of us are entitled to a holistic education, one that develops our character as well as our skills.
All that said, there is much credit due to Quinn for his speech. His eagerness to provide alternative routes to education more suited to the most vulnerable in our society is deeply admirable, and something we can only hope to see taken on by those policy makers in attendance.