Last week’s fake debate over the reintroduction of university fees had me shouting at the radio – always a bad sign. At one point Ciaran Cannon, the leader of the Progressive Democrats, claimed he was not in disagreement with Mary Harney even though he was ruling out bringing back third-level fees while the health minister said she was ruling nothing out. Shouting is the only valid response.
The Labour party, meanwhile, deserves an Olympic gold medal for managing to pirouette their way out of a controversy which exposes their bizarre position as a supposedly left wing party determined to represent the upper middle class. Michael D Higgins screeched about the principle of equality of citizenship having to be respected. The richer the citizen the more respect they need, apparently.
There is no equality anywhere in the Irish education system. Not at 18 years, when the children of millionaires graduate from expensive private schools into free university places; not at 12, when affluent parents work themselves into a frenzy to get their over-achieving darlings into the best private schools; not even at four, when the notion of “free” primary education is at its most farcical.
Equality disappears as early as Day 1. Baby may be born into a home where he’ll be weaned on organic fruits and Montessori methods, or one in which his parents and theirs have no experience of employment let alone university education. For a significant minority, achieving literacy will be their educational high point – not taking a commerce or arts degree in University College Dublin. If a poor but talented student manages to cross every hurdle in her path and make it to university, she’ll be entitled to free tuition anyway under the grant system. All that free third-level fees has done is create a boom for private schools in south Dublin. What poor people need is the nanny state to do some nannying when there is hope of making an impact. Free pre-school would make a difference; free university doesn’t.
Labour’s position is even more curious when you consider that Eamonn Gilmore’s party opposes the automatic award of medical cards to all OAPs. Labour, rightly, reckons it’s unfair that rich OAPs should get free medical care. So why should rich students get a free education?
Fianna Fail argued that means-testing the medical card for OAPs would cost more than universal provision. So it defends giving the medical card to millionaire pensioners but says it’s time to means-test parents on third-level fees. Is any Irish political party capable of holding a consistent position on who should get what for free?
Let me save everyone a lot of time – university fees are not coming back. Why? There are 50,000 reasons, roughly the number of votes Fianna Fail TDs picked up in the last general election in south Dublin, home of the golden circle of private schools. The good news is that the proposal may still amount to more than idle kite-flying by Batt O’Keeffe. There are many who suspect that the education minister’s apparent willingness to put fees back on the agenda at the request of the money-hungry university heads was a ruse. On Monday he kicked off the debate by assuring the college administrators that he’d be happy to talk about giving them what they want – an independent revenue stream. By Wednesday the sweet talk was over. O’Keeffe would talk about fees if the university administrators would talk about their salaries. “I want to make sure that the senior people in our universities who are the most professional, [who] have the greatest experience and who can make a valuable contribution to students, are actually in the classroom from time to time,” he said. Ouch. Did I just hear the sound of backfire?
Universities have been radically transformed in the past ten years, and not for the better. Here’s what happened. Some academics abhor students and dislike arts subjects. They can’t stand teaching or otherwise consorting with the immature undergraduates on whose existence they unfortunately depend. In previous days they could hide out in research and grudgingly fulfil their lecturing obligations. But the 1990s presented them with a new opportunity: they could sit on committees instead. Consultants were sent for, reports drawn up, reviewed and implemented. Honestly, this committee business got totally out of hand and they simply didn’t have time to teach students any longer. What a shame.
So what did these reports say? Well, consultants are business people so it was hardly a surprise when they recommended that the universities should turn themselves into businesses. Though our finest colleges have traditionally fought to preserve their autonomy from governments so that their work could be truly independent, universities now worked furiously to make themselves slaves to the corporations who would fund them. Corporations who donate money for research demand success metrics. Big business has no interest in history, philosophy, geography or languages: the subjects the vast majority of students want to study. Their focus is business and applied sciences. The result is that instead of being islands of independent thought, universities became commercial projects designed to please donors.
Eventually the language of business was co-opted. There was talk of strategic restructuring, change management, league tables and deliverables. Then business titles were awarded. Where once there were Deans and Bursars, now Vice-Presidents and Chief Operating Officers were inserted into an increasingly layered bureaucracy. Finally, the COOs and the VPs argued that it was unfair that they should make do on the stingy salary of academics. They deserved to be paid like business titans, and so they awarded themselves massive pay hikes.
The only problem was that if taxpayers and academics found out how much the administrators were paying themselves, there’d be war. So the ex-academics, now full-time bureaucrats, tried to keep the pay increases secret. Even though it is now a well established principle that people paid from the public purse should have their salaries made public, the Irish Federation of University Teachers had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act to find out just how significant campus pay packets actually are.
They discovered that a chosen minority of administrators were given secret pay deals in six out of our seven universities, with one individual getting a package of €400,000 a year. As one academic told me: “They’ve been rumbled.”
Then this highly remunerated cabal of universities chiefs decided they needed a large income stream, but in their demand for a reintroduction of fees, they may have over-reached themselves. They have allowed O’Keeffe onto campus. The government does need to provide adequate funding for third-level education, but it wants the recipients of any extra largesse to get out of the committee room and back into the classroom. Any extra money will have to be spent on “chalk and talk” and not feathering the nests or strengthening the empires of self-perpetuating bureaucrats.
Now that I wouldn’t mind shouting about.