Free fees controversy a gift to the Opposition
Deaglán de Bréadún
In the course of a lengthy interview with myself about his political career, conducted back in the 1980s, the late Charles Haughey asked me to switch off my tape recorder as he was about to impart some information on an off-the-record basis. We had been discussing his deceased colleague Donogh O’Malley, who as Minister for Education brought in free secondary schooling in the late 1960s.
Mr Haughey proceeded to tell me, in more or less hushed tones, that O’Malley and the Taoiseach of the day, Seán Lemass had decided to go ahead with the scheme while Jack Lynch, who was then Minister of Finance, was on his holidays.
It wasn’t really a scoop though, because the well-known broadcaster and academic Brian Farrell had already told the story in a book about Lemass. But it provides yet another illustration of how there will always be someone in the system prepared to say “No” to any move towards extending rights and privileges to a wider array of the populace.
Haughey himself later became Minister for Finance and one of the measures he brought in was free travel for pensioners. He told me, on a subsequent occasion, that he had to face down serious opposition at the highest level in his department, with the issue being fought “all the way to the steps of the Dáil”.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take the latest kite-flying exercise on the abolition of universal free fees at university level. Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe seemed to be making fairly frantic efforts to haul the kite down again in the face of opposition from all sides of the political spectrum. But he is very close to Brian Cowen and would hardly have spoken out of turn.
It made a nice summer present for the Opposition, which will doubtless keep it going for a few months and ensure that it is imprinted on the public memory when they go to the polls in the European and local elections next summer. Watch out for a good row on the issue when the Dáil resumes after the summer recess.
The controversy has focused attention on the shortfall in university funding but there seems to be a consensus that any money accruing from the reintroduction of fees will simply be deducted from existing State funding for the sector. Already there is a disagreement in the pro-fees camp with the Minister setting a fairly high threshold and at least one senior academic arguing that this will reduce the financial return to an insignificant level.
Other issues are starting to come out of the woodwork: salary levels for senior college administrators; the balance between funding for postgraduate and undergraduate courses; and claims that some staff members are doing too much office work and not enough teaching.
There is nothing as frightening as middle-class parents seeking to do the best for their children and feeling that someone is standing in their way. That’s the position Fianna Fáil may be putting themselves in if they are not careful. Already the PDs appear to be in disarray on the issue.
Meanwhile, the media should make a special presentation to the Minister for Education for providing a decent story to tide them through the dog-days of midsummer!
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times