How the new Minister for Education can hit the ground running


LEFTFIELD:If the new Minister is allowed to stay in the job long enough, and sticks to this six-point plan, then a real difference can be made in education

IT IS TIME to prepare for a new Minister for Education. During my time as president of DCU this was a depressingly regular occurrence. One of the absolute certainties of life – you know, like bankers’ bonuses, or traffic jams in Drumcondra – was that each minister would hang around just long enough to shed their anti-third-level prejudices before they were moved away in a re-shuffle.

Every new minister came in and made statements about under-performance and waste in the universities and colleges, and told us about letters they had received telling them how bad we were. Then they started telling us how some economics professors told them that academics actually never worked at all, ever, and spent all their time playing golf.

Then, after a while, they dropped a hint about how, perhaps, we are not quite so bad as all that. And just as they cleared their throats to tell us we might actually serve some national purpose, the Taoiseach of the day moved them somewhere else. Every time.

So maybe my first plea would be to the new Taoiseach to allow a bit of stability to develop and to keep the minister in place for a little longer.

I think it is my duty to offer the new minister, whoever that may turn out to be, some sound advice before they take up the post.

To start with, it may be worth emphasising that higher education does genuinely exist. In my experience this is not always recognised within the Department of Education.

Second, universities need funding and resources to function, and their capacity to absorb one “efficiency gain” after another is limited. Even before the current recession, they only got about half the money per student when compared with UK universities, and a smaller fraction of what most US universities enjoy. Now this has been further cut, substantially.

We need to offer a high-quality education experience, and we need to ensure that our graduates are seen as skilled and highly educated, creative and entrepreneurial. This cannot be achieved on a shoestring. We recognise the state of the public finances, and I accept that universities cannot escape the general need to cut spending; but in the end, a low-quality third-level education will be even more damaging.

Any commitment entered into to avoid tuition fees or student contributions is unsustainable. That is really a commitment to spend scarce resources on the better off and to force the universities to pay for it. Time is not on our side, and we need to look closely at the ways in which wealthier students can contribute, while protecting the disadvantaged. The current position is inflicting real damage on the sector.

Third, I would urge the new Minister to work closely with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation (or whatever name that department will now have) to protect the funding of research. Last year, the Innovation Taskforce recommended that Ireland should spend three per cent of GDP on research and development. That would be wonderful. But right now we are spending 1.4 per cent, and the amount is falling, and so I’d be quite happy initially just to see this decline arrested. Of course, an increase would be even better. We have no hope of economic recovery unless we can attract high-value investment from abroad and innovation-driven start-ups from home.

Fourth, we urgently need to reform the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system. Both encourage students to acquire inappropriate learning methods that don’t work once they get to university, and push them into the wrong careers for the wrong reasons. The curriculum also urgently needs an overhaul.

Fifth, the Minister might consider reinstating the “and Science” part of the departmental title. We need more people with science and mathematics skills, and the apparent suggestion in last year’s departmental name change that science is being downgraded even further, does not send a good signal. Indeed the Minister might want to have a look at the recommendations of the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, which reported in 2002 with some very sensible proposals. So far – and remember, this is nine years on – the Government has not even issued a response, never mind addressed the implementation.

Sixth, for the love of all that is holy, please abandon the totally crazy Employment Control Framework, a Soviet-style bureaucratisation of university recruitment practices that serves no purpose in reducing spending but which is making important university programmes non-viable.

Most of all, I invite the Minister to work closely with the colleges and universities. They will want to help, to be constructive, and to support the new Government in advancing education and the innovation agenda.

They can make a difference!

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU