A new Department of Higher Education risks creating a two-tier education system

Opinion: It is difficult to see how a stand-alone department will have a systemic impact on supporting educational equality

 

We need to foreground educational equality in the public debate as we seek to rebuild Ireland. More equal societies invariably do better; now is the time to tackle systemic issues of disadvantage to create a fairer, more inclusive Ireland. Indeed, as part of the social contract, we are obliged to strive for equality and social justice.

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, communities across Ireland came together demonstrating immense solidarity, particularly for those most vulnerable in society who experienced an exacerbation of disadvantage.

Those with lower levels of qualifications are most likely to have lost their job, have poorer health and have fewer resources to engage in the seismic shift to remote learning.

On the one hand, education has a systemic impact beyond learning. It promotes social inclusion; mental health and wellbeing; civic engagement and equality. However, impediments are complex and negatively impacted by poverty, poor housing, domestic violence, isolation, mental health, marginalisation and lack of essential supports.

Accessible

Further education and training not only offers clear routes to education and employment, it is essentially inclusive and accessible. A vital part of this is community education, which effectively engages people who are most socially excluded in a local, supportive centre that is committed to addressing the multiple forms of disadvantage that learners experience.

Community education must be part of rebuilding an Ireland for all. However, within the tertiary education landscape, glaring inequalities in funding are undeniable. The average spend on a community education learner, those most disadvantaged, averages euro181 compared to the euro5,000 in higher education.

It is not a matter of polarising the issue; we need greater cross-governmental support for educational equality from primary to adult education, increased solidarity of purpose across the education system and sharing knowledge, expertise and resources. Mitigating educational disadvantage must take precedence, thereby requiring investment as different people need different supports to reach the same levels of advantage.

Supports

If you want to see an example of this in action, Southill Family Resource Centre - based in two adjoining houses in O’Malley Park in Limerick - is a good place to start.

It offers a package of supports that enable local people to engage in a range of accredited and non-accredited courses, with a focus on learning in and for the community.

With less than 5 per cent of the local population having a third level qualification, together with high unemployment and approximately 80 per cent lone parent households, education plays an essential role out of poverty.

During the Covid-19 crisis, co-ordinator Jimmy Prior and his staff team have demonstrated exceptional agility in responding to the diverse range of challenges the community faces.

The centre has been supporting 220 people weekly via Zoom, WhatsApp, telephone calls and, where possible, classes have also migrated online which teach basic IT as well as focusing on mental health and wellbeing.

Jimmy notes that for many learners digital literacy and access to digital technology is a real barrier to engaging in courses. “There are still people who do not have a laptop, and who are not aware that you can use your phone fantastically if it’s a smart phone,” he says. “We still have people, particularly in this area, that do not have internet.”

With opportunities for fundraising diminished for addressing the unanticipated demand for IT, the centre has endeavoured to loan a small number of iPads and laptops to learners but many more still lack personal devices. Additionally, demand for learner supports has increased, with a 60 percent increase in counselling requests, offered online or via phone. Building opportunities for people is an ongoing commitment.“When the office closes at 5 o’clock the phone is switched over to my phone,” adds Jimmy.

The Southill Family Resource Centre has also facilitated a number of outdoor meet-ups for the women’s group where they gather in fours. Some learners have lost loved ones to Covid-19. “The fact that they can come here, talk and say ‘I’m really struggling’ has made such a difference,” he says.

There had been an increase in those expressing an interest in courses, many with a view to upskilling. “Because we’re local and most people would know us, or know somebody here, they’re able to ring us and say, well actually I’m thinking of doing a course and how do you think I can do it?” he says.

In addition to supporting access to learning, Jimmy says the value of community education runs deeper. “It becomes a lot more than the classes and the courses, if I’m honest, and for our learners, it’s a lot more; it’s the social contacts, it’s the personal contacts. For some people and families, it’s their lifeline,” he says.

Equality

This is an opportune time to ask ourselves, what kind of society do we want to build? As the new government is forming, we need a clear political commitment to educational equality.

As community education innovatively responded to the Covid-19 crisis, we cannot turn our back on the good will, care and support it has shown. As we face an uncertain future, where do we best spend limited resources?

In imagining a renewed, inclusive Ireland that enables greater educational access we must prioritise people who are on the fringes of society, who have suffered most from Covid-19 and who are most likely to be hit by a recession.

There has been speculation this week about the creation of a new Department of Higher Education - but it is difficult to see how such a stand-alone department will have a systemic impact on supporting educational equality across the system.

In making way for such a department, by way of the abolition of the Minister for Children cabinet position, would most certainly create a two-tier education system.

Educational experiences are connected across the system. Educational disadvantage is connected across the system. A new Government must prioritise educational equality from children to adulthood, as all research tells us that inequalities in schooling have a knock-on effect in later life.

We must collaborate across the education system to build a better Ireland after this crisis that leaves no one behind. It is time to be brave, and work towards creating a more equitable society. We know more equal societies are better for the economy too, what’s there to lose? We need to build back better, together.

Niamh O’Reilly is chief executive of Aontas, the National Adult Learning Organisation.