O'Keeffe: why should the rich go free?

 

In his first extensive interview, Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe has no regrets about raising the fees issues. His priority is to widen third-level access and build up strong supports for the disadvantaged

EDUCATION FUNDING

How do you think the education sector will emerge from the forthcoming Budget?

I am delighted that both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have indicated they see the school building programme as being a key infrastructural project. And I'm also reassured by the fact that both also see teachers and Special Needs Assistants as being exempted (from cutbacks).

I think the Taoiseach is right when he signalled on The Late Late Showrecently that the school building programme will remain a priority. We will need 100,000 new school places over the next seven years and, of course, the building programme will generate employment. At this stage, I can't definitively say that there will be any change in the building programme, but the signals seem very positive.

I know Ill be looking for better value for money. Im not prepared, and no board of management should be prepared to pay 13.5% to architectural companies to take over the running of projects. If architectural companies want to be involved in the building programme, they must realise we are in a different economic climate. I'll be saying to boards of management that they now also have the option of using a civil engineer or a quantity surveyor to cut down on costs.

I'm also doing some Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and they are going to form a fundamental part of my overall building programme…Im looking in particular at a form of PPP for primary schools as such.

How confident are you that education will emerge relatively unscathed from the Estimates process?

It's going to be a very tight fiscal situation in 2009. Like every other minister, I will be asked to make savings. I'll be indicating that the demographics suggest a continued increase in demand for school places. That will mean that the level of teachers and the number of teachers will continue to grow. I will be making my case in as forceful a way as I can. But I think every one of us will suffer pain. It is the extent of the pain which has yet to be resolved.

THIRD LEVEL

What is happening with the national strategy for higher education?

The national strategy will be rolled out over the next two months. We'll be looking at the use of existing resources, and how those resources are targeted, the managerial structure within the colleges, the interaction between research agencies, industry and the third-level sector, and the development and growth of the knowledge economy and the fourth (post-graduate) level.

And the audit of third-level spending?

I've asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine funding. It's important we look at what share of resources are going directly to students. We will be looking at the work programme, at the lecturing programme, at the interaction between student and staff. Well be looking at the value in terms of research spending.

We are now investing €2 billion into the sector. I think its appropriate for me - that I would be satisfied totally that the money were spending is being effectively directed, that were getting efficiency and accountability.

Your decision to re open the issue of third-level fees has generated great controversy. What have you made of the debate?

I made it clear at all times that I was talking about fees for those who can afford to pay. When I read about the Bank of Ireland wealth survey - where they stated quite clearly that there were 33,000 millionaires in Ireland - I just asked the question, why would we the taxpayer be funding the children of people who could well afford to pay themselves?

It also struck me that income generated by fees would help me to widen access from the deprived areas and give me give me an opportunity to increase student supports.

My intention was to stimulate debate and we have had a very high-quality debate. Just this week, I asked that we put together a compendium of all of the articles that had been written, all of the letters, all of the opinion, and we have dome that and we're going to look through the compendium and examine what the opinions are, what sense of direction has been given from those, because I think they're very valuable.

At the moment, we're examining what funding will come in if we set fees at a certain level. I also have a tax expert looking at the position of the self-employed. There was a the perception the last time that the self-employed are at a real advantage in terms of fees.

I've also asked my officials them to look at the loan system from Australia. I think information from these various reports will be available to me in about six months. But the wider question of fees is one which would have to be agreed by Cabinet.

What is your own position on fees?

Well, I wouldn't have initiated debate on the issue unless I felt that some contribution should come - particularly from those who can afford to pay. It seems to me that if I was in a position to get that contribution, I would be in a better position to widen access and build up supports.

OTHER ISSUES

On his appointment: "I hadn't expected it. I thought it would be another portfolio, but when they told me it was education, I was delighted because at least I knew I had a background in education and I felt I'd feel comfortable in the brief. But it was only when I got into the brief, I discovered how little I knew and how diverse education was.''

On fee-paying schools: "If I was to withdraw State funding from fee-paying schools, that would have a catastrophic effect. The issue is not under examination.''

On the new State-run primary school model: "I'm very encouraged that the Catholic bishops' pastoral was very positively disposed to the community primary model. There's a debate going on within the Catholic Church, and I welcome that debate.

I'm going to engage with the Catholic church in debate. I think we're going to have to look together at the viability of some of the Catholic schools. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin himself indicated there might be instances where the Catholic church may not be in a position to continue with a patronage role and would be divesting some schools.''

On the Programme for Research in Third-Level (PRTLI):Any announcement of funding for the next cycle is delayed until after the Budget.

The man behind the ministry

TWO WORDS repeatedly surface when you ask around about Batt O'Keeffe - modesty and affability.

O'Keeffe, who is 63, is a genial, good-humoured figure. Unlike many public figures, he does not take himself too seriously. Unusually, he is also very thick-skinnedabout incoming brickbats from the Opposition, the media or other detractors.

"That's part and parcel of politics. You don't mind that. None of these things are of a personal nature,'' he says.

A passionate sportsman, Batt - as everyone calls him - was an inter-country footballerat senior, minor and under-21 level for Cork. He is also a handball champion.

These days, greyhound racing is a passion although he confesses to owning " the worst greyhound in Ireland".

The name of one of his dogs gives you an indication of Batt's rogueish sense of humour. It's called "Three's a Crowd" a reference to Fianna Fáil's unwelcome decision to impose three candidates in his constituency some years ago.

O'Keeffe is at his most animated when talking about inequality and disadvantage. But there is another constant - he also wants better value for money and more accountabilityfrom all State agencies.

On a recent RTÉ Farm Weekprogramme he vividly recalled a happy childhood on the border of Cork and Kerry. His father was a local welfare officer and a "a jobber", who would buy and sell in cattle markets around his hometown of Cullen, Co Cork

He remembers being out of his bed before dawn and walking the five miles to the martwith his father and the herd. "We were hoping to God he said that we would sell the cattle and not face the long way back with them."

He was educated at St Brendan's, Killarney, Co Kerry, and at University College Cork, where he received a Bachelor of Arts.

He worked briefly as a World Book enclyclopedia salesman and later as a Lecturer in Cork Institute of Technology before becoming involved in politics. He was elected to Cork County Council in 1985. He has also served on a number of committees, including the Public Accounts Committee.

In 2007, O'Keeffe was appointed as Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for Housing and Urban Renewal.

In February of this year, he told the Mahon Tribunal that £9,000 he received as a political donationfrom a developer was lodged into a personal account.

But he said the £10,000 he received from developer Owen O'Callaghan during the 1992 General Election campaign went on political expenses.His evidence to Mahon has now ended.

O'Keeffe says he has spent much of the past five months reading and re-reading his brief on education. With characteristic modesty, he says he has much to learn.

One senior education figure who met the new minister recently as part of an official delegation came away impressed. O'Keeffe's political schtikis, he says, is to appear as the innocent outsider thrust into the troubled waters of education.

"But he won't accept the status quo. And he is canny and cute, he will shake things up"

- SEÁN FLYNN