EU-US trade deal to undermine education as ‘public good’

Upheaval in third-level sector escalates on Monday with industrial action at Cork IT

Students at work at Cork Institute of Technology. Industrial action begins at CIT on Monday over its plans to merge with IT Tralee. File photograph:  Joe St Leger/The Irish Times

Students at work at Cork Institute of Technology. Industrial action begins at CIT on Monday over its plans to merge with IT Tralee. File photograph: Joe St Leger/The Irish Times

 

The new trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and US will “enshrine increased rights for privatised education” at the expense of publicly-funded colleges, lecturers have claimed.

Trade unions IFUT and TUI, which represent lecturers at most universities and institutes of technology, said the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could impact on the Government’s ability to subsidise third-level education as well as regulate quality.

The unions jointly hosted a seminar on Saturday entitled Higher Education as a Public Good.

This is against a backdrop of increased upheaval in the sector, which is set to escalate on Monday when industrial action begins at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) over its plans to merge with IT Tralee.

CIT is one of a number of institutes of technology being merged to create technological universities under new legislation.

However, staff have expressed concern at the cost of the mergers, possible rationalisation and lack of consultation.

At the Cork institute, TUI academic and research staff will refuse to co-operate with any discussions or measures related to the planned merger.

They describe it as the first step in an escalating industrial action to include a work-to-rule and strike action unless the issues are resolved.

Years of austerity

Addressing the impact of several years of austerity at third-level, Annette Dolan, general secretary of the TUI (Teachers’ Union of Ireland) said: “If the state does not seismically increase its level of funding to higher education, pressure will grow for an increase in corporate funding and the imposition of steep fees.

“However, increased corporate funding may lead to a greater focus on certain courses, a focus which could have a negative effect on equally valid and important areas such as the humanities.”

She said another potential threat related to the inclusion of education in the proposed TTIP agreement between the EU and the US.

Such a move “would undoubtedly intensify the pressures of privatisation and commercialisation and restrict the ability of Ireland and other EU states to promote high quality standards.

“Under TTIP, rules in relation to market access could restrict the ability of EU member states to limit the entry or regulate the quality of private and for-profit schools and institutions.

‘Disguised barrier’

“Increased restrictions on domestic regulation could mean, for instance, that measures adopted to promote high quality standards in the licensing and accreditation of educational institutions could potentially be interpreted as a ‘disguised barrier to trade’.”

Mike Jennings, general secretary of IFUT (Irish Federation of University Teachers), said privatisation was also being driven by Government policy - and this was resulting in “an increasing drift towards social division, individualism and inequality”.

“The education of future generations is not only about the immediate needs of an ever-changing labour market.

“It must also assist development of critical thinking and promote the ability in graduates to think of new solutions to problems we don’t even know the existence of today,” he said.

“In this regard, maintaining the connection between teaching and research and giving adequate recognition to the role of our researchers must be made a priority.”