We need to claw our way to recovery by focusing on knowledge


LEFTFIELD:WHEN I WAS a boy my parents took me to a circus and I have vivid memories of the trip. I was fascinated by the clowns and their ability to mix rational conduct with absurd behaviour but, more particularly, I remember a strange incident that occurred, probably towards the end of the show. There were a number of acts going on at once. Performers were swinging on the trapeze, some were standing on horses and others were on the high wire. There was even a lion tamer in the ring.

Suddenly the ringmaster became seriously ill and the audience’s attention shifted to him. All the other people, animals and objects in the air or elsewhere were forgotten. By the time the ringmaster had recovered, all the others had disappeared. I remember wondering as I left the circus what had happened to them while we weren’t looking.

For the past couple of weeks, I have felt a little bit like I did that day. Something similar seems to have happened again. Leaving aside the clowns with their obvious resonance, here I am watching in utter fascination as the political system self-destructs.

While the rest of the population is preoccupied with the sick politicians and the folks from the International Monetary Fund providing emergency treatment, I am beginning to wonder what is happening to the issues in higher education.

Over the past year or two, the political establishment here has called almost everything we take for granted in the university world into question.

We have been told that there are too many universities, or too many university programmes duplicated around the sector; that in resourcing terms we need to do “more with less”; that the standards of our degrees are not adequate; that lecturers are work-shy and overpaid; that universities waste money; that universities cannot have student contributions but that non-tuition service charges can increase.

To deal with these problems, a number of processes were put in train, including a strategic review of higher education chaired by Dr Colin Hunt; a forensic audit of the sector to be carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and an amalgamation of a number of public agencies dealing with accreditation and quality in higher education.

But now what? As the politicians focus on next week’s Budget and the subsequent general election, what will happen to the reform and review processes that have been chugging along in the background?

I confess I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I believe our education system, including third-level, is in serious need of reform.

On the other hand, I believe the review processes under way have been approaching this all wrong.

It might be better to wait for all the current excitement to pass and then to undertake a more reasoned assessment of what we need.

In the end, though, the issues that concern us in higher education are not separate from the problems caused by the recession and the banking crisis.

Dr Craig Barrett, the former chairman and chief executive of Intel, said a couple of weeks ago that Ireland needs to focus on higher education and research in order to recapture economic growth and development.

However much we may have been brought back to earth after the flights of fancy of the Celtic Tiger period, we will not return to being a low-cost manufacturing and farming economy, with a few call centres thrown in. Those days are gone. We need to claw our way back to economic recovery by focusing on the potential of knowledge and discovery.

Whatever dissatisfaction people may feel with the Fianna Fáil governments of recent years, they provided support for and investment in our knowledge infrastructure, and that is our best hope right now.

But it needs to be set in a national context of strong backing for a modernised system of education. This is not a long-term project that we can put on the back burner.

We must reform secondary education, starting with the Leaving Certificate, and abolish the Central Applications Office points system. We must secure a properly resourced higher education sector that will be a magnet for investment and whose graduates attract international respect.

Overall we must have a vision for education that respects learning and scholarship, but also nurtures innovation, initiative and entrepreneurship.

My fear is that the various reviews that are up in the air while the ringmaster is feeling a bit sick are not what we need. We don’t need groups of people coming up with more convoluted administrative processes and new forms of centralised bureaucracy.

The Governments four-year National Recovery Plan published last week shows some understanding of the importance of higher education and research. The rather unexpected abandoning of the student registration charge and its replacement with a student contribution may be a step in the right direction, but it needs to be set in a proper policy context. Nothing we know to be happening now is likely to deliver that.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of Dublin City University