Sutherland urges 'Tallaght strategy' for college fees issue


POLITICIANS SHOULD adopt a "Tallaght strategy" approach to the introduction of third-level fees, former EU commissioner and attorney general Peter Sutherland has said.

Re-election concerns should be placed to one side to bring about radical, if unpopular, change - similar to Fine Gael's support of the economic policies of Fianna Fáil's minority government from 1987 to 1989, he said.

"Because of our history, we need a non-party political approach to dealing with the fees questions - a type of Tallaght strategy."

Mr Sutherland was delivering the inaugural Erasmus lecture, organised by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), at Dublin's City Hall yesterday evening.

He said the State's low expenditure on tertiary educational institutions was troubling. "If the Government cannot allocate additional resources, then we will have to get funding elsewhere. If you deny this - and we would all love to avoid the issue - you are forced to admit that our system will not remain fit for purpose."

Third-level institutions all over Europe were developing strategies to access more resources and improve performance.

"So it is clear that this is an urgent issue. It requires courage to address it. And this in particular raises the thorny issue of fees for those that can afford them."

Low-income families should remain exempt from fees and non-European students pay higher fees. He said governments all over the world were devising schemes for fee-paying through loan systems that ensured no reduction in access to third level from financially-disadvantaged students.

He praised Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe for raising the issue of third-level fees for debate, saying Ireland had been "paralysed" in confronting the matter until recently.

He noted that the HEA, university heads, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the Royal Irish Academy backed the introduction.

Meanwhile, Mr Sutherland said, poor teachers at second level should no longer be "untouchable", arguing that teaching unions needed to tackle the issue courageously.

"It is absolutely necessary to challenge poor performance and acknowledge and deal with these problems rather than by sweeping them under the carpet."

He said pupils and good teachers suffered if teachers who were unable to adequately discharge their duties were retained.

"It seems to me to be bizarre that a society which sees education as key to its future success and prosperity should have an educational system where teachers receive annual increments of fixed amounts independently of the quality of the work they do."

On salaries for third-level staff, he said institutions should have greater flexibility in setting individual wages. If salaries were automatically incremented independently of performance and kept within standard scales, it would be difficult to attract and retain "academic stars".

Reacting to developments affecting third-level institutions in the recent Budget, he said: "It must also be said that detailed investigation, auditing and command and control by government departments, thereby reducing autonomy, may seem like a good idea at a time of budgetary crisis but it is not."

Mr Sutherland said it was better for certain institutions to develop as centres of excellence rather than encouraging all to teach the same subjects.

Employers thought Irish graduates compared well with European counterparts, but not when it came to maths and accounting skills.