Teacher's pet

An insider’s guide to education

An insider’s guide to education

** Mary Coughlan, her secretary general Brigid McManus and a small coterie of senior officials have been burning the midnight oil at the Department of Education as they cast around for those cutbacks.

The shape of the cuts is becoming clearer. They will probably include: fees/charges of about €2,200 at third level; a one-point increase in the class size schedule at primary; a 0.5-point increase at second level; and a range of other cuts in teacher numbers and capitation.

The department is also anxious to cut some of the 10,200 special-needs assistants (SNAs). Apparently it’s none too pleased that these SNAs can earn up to €38,000 per year working school hours, even though many have no special qualifications.

The whole SNA area, however, remains politically sensitive. Privately, senior figures across the education sector admit that the number has grown excessively and should be cut back. But Mary Coughlan will not want to be remembered as the Minister for Education who took an axe to special needs.

Clearly, there will be some pain for many in the Budget. But overall (although no one is saying this publicly) the education sector will emerge reasonably well from what is expected to be the most severe Budget in the history of the State. In total, education will lose around €235 million from its €8.5 billion budget.

There is a bigger issue , of course. Education remains chronically underfunded in this State. But that’s another story.

** Last week’s list of the top 100 earners in education drew a phenomenal response from readers. Many alerted us to scores of others on €150,000-plus who have slipped below the radar.

But how come the main Opposition parties, who push out PR statements on all sorts of trivia every day, kept the head down? Could it be that they are shy of turning the spotlight back on their own extravagant pay and allowances?

** There has been much publicity about the race to be the next provost of Trinity College Dublin and some deserved focus on the manner in which outsiders are virtually excluded from the process. But we hear that some senior education figures also have concerns about the governance of TCD, where the provost is both chief executive and chairman of the governing board. The soon-to-be-published Hunt report on higher education has much to say on these governance issues.

** Last week's Times Highereducation supplement had a perceptive piece by Hannah Fearn about the Hunt report. It reported on "internal squabbles'' among members of the expert group who prepared the report, and noted a widespread dissatisfaction with the entire process. It all adds to the general sense of unease in education circles about the national strategy for higher education.

The Hunt report, trumpeted by the Government as the way forward for higher education in Ireland, already seems to have come up short. And that’s even before it is published at the end of this month!

** RTÉ’s Pat Kenny did a good job at the annual UCD foundation dinner recently when former Airtricity boss Eddie O’Connor was honoured. Kenny told a funny story about how he and his good friend O’Connor once “kidnapped” Gay Byrne as part of a student caper in the 1960s. The story even made the front pages at the time.

Despite the downturn and those mounting debts, the mood seems reasonably good at UCD where (unusually) there are plenty of cranes on the skyline. Projects underway or nearing completion include the new science block, the new student centre (complete with 50-metre pool) and the Sutherland law school. Also on the horizon is the Gateway project, which will revamp the entrance, and a new arts building to replace the grim east European-style block built in the 1970s.

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