Good year/bad year: 2014 in education

On the bright side, part-time teachers got a better deal and there were gains for women’s rights in academia; on the downside, Irish universities slipped in the rankings and there was little progress on pluralism in schools

It was a good year for DIT. Above, students at DIT’s Grangegorman campus. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It was a good year for DIT. Above, students at DIT’s Grangegorman campus. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

 

2014 WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR . . .

 

Dublin Institute of Technology

The €38 million first phase of DIT’s Grangegorman campus opened in September, and the college’s further redevelopment continues apace.

Along with the southern consortium of Cork IT and IT Tralee, DIT has jumped to the top of the queue for designation as a technological university under its partnership with IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght.

A survey of staff cited some concern about the upheaval. Only 38 per cent of staff felt the senior leadership had set out a clear vision for the college. But the Department of Education likes organisations that can hit targets, and the pace of change of DIT will help in its bid for funding future growth.

 

Part-time teachers

While the unions and the department remain at loggerheads over Junior Cycle reform, a significant deal was reached this year on casualisation.

From next September, part-time teachers will be able to qualify for a contract of indefinite duration (CID) after just two years in the job, down from four years prior to September 2013.

About half of second-level teachers under the age of 35, and one-third of all secondary teachers, are currently in temporary or part-time employment. A CID gives teachers the same rights as other permanent staff, although salary is based on number of hours teaching.

 

Women’s rights in academia

The Equality Tribunal’s landmark ruling against NUI Galway in the case of Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington – for discrimination in not promoting her – has sent shockwaves through campus administrations. The university was ordered to pay Dr Sheehy Skeffington €70,000 and to review its appointments system, and there’s no doubt other colleges are closely studying the ruling.

Less than a third of senior academic positions in the country’s seven universities and 14 institutes of technologies are held by women, the latest Higher Education Authority figures show. A report earlier this year by Prof Pat O’Connor from the University of Limerick worryingly showed that senior managers believe women themselves are the source of the “problem” for not sufficiently “leaning in”. Her research exposed an emphasis within management of “fixing the women” rather than the system.

There are winds of change. In March, historian Prof Mary Daly was elected as the first female president of the Royal Irish Academy in its 229-year history.

 

Teaching Council

After a tortured birth, the professional body for teachers is starting to assert itself.

Its annual showcase for teaching quality, Féilte, is going from strength to strength. Its register of teaching professionals is up and running. New standards on continuous professional development (CPD) are in the pipeline. And new fitness-to-teach inquiries are scheduled to begin next year, albeit in a watered-down form, with hearings likely to be almost entirely in private.

Probably the council’s biggest success to date has been the introduction of Droichead, the new model of induction and probation currently being piloted in schools. After a rocky start amid some hostility from the teacher unions, the programme is helping to put a renewed focus on teaching and learning standards in schools.

 

Jan O’Sullivan

After 30 years in politics, the Limerick TD finally landed a full ministerial portfolio in the summer reshuffle. She comes to the education brief with a similar background to her predecessor – privately schooled, liberal, left-wing – but with a different skill set to Ruairí Quinn.

O’Sullivan, a conciliator by nature, hopes to make an impact especially in preschool education and further education – two uncontroversial crusades. And she is showing some tactical nous in the Junior Cycle dispute. On leaving office, Quinn said, “I would hope to have pushed the boat out [on the reforms] so far that it can’t be recalled”.

O’Sullivan may have diluted his initial plan but she has isolated the teacher unions and rounded other stakeholders on to her side.

 

 

2014 WAS A BAD YEAR FOR . . .

 

Universities

The methodology behind global university rankings may be dubious, but students and employers take them seriously, which is bad news for Ireland’s leading colleges.

UCD fell out of the world’s top 200 universities in the prestigious Times Higher Education league table, just three years after it dropped out of the top 100.

Trinity also slipped down the rankings, falling to 138th place from as high as 76th in 2010.

Results were better in the other two leading surveys, the Shanghai and QS, but overall the trend for Ireland is southwards, a decline that has been linked by the university sector to years of funding cuts.

Stepping up its campaign for more cash, the Irish Universities Association, which represents the State’s seven universities, published figures showing income to the college per student had fallen 22 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

Sadly for them, plans to introduce a scheme of student loans has been kicked down the road.

One of the final acts of Ruairí Quinn as minister for education was to set up a working group on sustainability, displacing a planned HEA report on the matter, and thus pushing a decision on funding the sector well into the next administration.

 

ASTI

The teacher union’s Easter shindig did the teaching profession no favours. ASTI top brass were forced to apologise to then minister for education Ruairí Quinn for his treatment at the hands of hecklers, and claims and counter-claims circulated among officials and delegates of bullying and abuse, including an alleged death threat.

Perhaps of greater significance, however, was the ASTI’s special convention in November, when, at long last, the union’s unwieldy and antiquated decision-making structures were set to be reformed. But nothing happened. The monumental, 162-member central executive council remains in charge, and bizarrely, retired teachers can continue to vote on policy.

Union insiders talk of an ASTI leadership in fear of its membership. It faces a turbulent time ahead.

 

Pluralism

Amid all the fanfare around creating more diversity in school patronage, the bare facts tell a sobering truth.

Only two of the State’s 3,169 primary schools have been divested to new ownership: one Protestant and one Catholic.

Yes, a handful of new primary schools have been created under the Educate Together banner. But the reforms that promised to deliver more pluralism in school patronage have all but fizzled out. Lack of funding to pay for the transition has been blamed for the impasse, but Quinn may just have been outsmarted by the Catholic Church and more precisely his “partner” in reform, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

 

Language schools

Thousands of foreign-language students were left high and dry as an era of light-touch regulation in private colleges finally hit home. The collapse of Eden College, whose former president was former minister for education Batt O’Keeffe, was the first of a series of embarrassing and costly closures for Ireland Inc.

Department of justice officials confirmed some schools were operating as mere “visa factories”.

Ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Jan O’Sullivan jointly announced new visa controls and a fresh register of legitimate colleges, to take effect from January 1st.

 

University in the southeast

Who is to blame for the debacle over Waterford’s university bid? On the face of it, Waterford IT has orchestrated a fresh crisis by pulling out of merger talks with IT Carlow. The two institutions were already slow off the mark getting their joint bid in for redesignation under the forthcoming Technological Universities Act.

Dr Donie Ormonde stepped down as chair of WIT after a dressing-down by Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. She has now appointed Michael Kelly, former chair of the HEA, to negotiate a fresh path in the long-running campaign for a university in the southeast. The episode is raising fresh doubts about the merits of creating technological universities in the first place. As political temperatures rise, both Waterford and the Government could end up with pie on their faces.

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