Doing the right thing in Irish politics frequently takes a lot of courage, but just sometimes requires a bit of good luck along the way. Richard Bruton may have stumbled across some good luck in trying to resolve the thorny issue of funding higher education in Ireland. For it is the perennial subject that every Minister for Education kicks into the long grass. Like national pension policy, it is always an issue for the next administration.
And despite the narrative that this Dail cannot or will not make difficult decisions, in a funny way the current composition of Dáil Éireann makes it possible for lasting reform in this area.
Two interesting things happened this week when Peter Cassells published his report.
Firstly Richard Bruton made it clear that the report is now very much the property of the new Education Committee. Because the government doesn't have a Dail majority, the real influence is now in the Dail Committee rather than around the cabinet table.
The second interesting thing of the week was the very constructive response of Fianna Fáil and especially their new Education Spokesperson Thomas Byrne. Byrne deserves credit for refusing to simply play politics on the issue. And as he rightly pointed out all parties, including Fine Gael, have a duty to state their preference rather than hide behind the report.
Richard Bruton cannot by himself or by weight of parliamentary arithmetic decide this issue. He must work with the new education committee. The fact that the report has been published so early in the life of this Dail is another piece of good fortune.
The danger for opposition figures in education has always been to over promise and that especially is the case in the area of funding for higher education. FF have shown a lot of backbone this week in their response to the Cassells Report.
Eight years ago as the FG Education Spokesperson I set out in a green paper why a new model of funding for higher education was needed. At the time I proposed a graduate tax, where a graduate paid a contribution up to 30% of the cost of their education into a ring fenced fund for higher education. The more expensive a course, like medicine for instance, meant that you paid more. But you only paid when you could afford it.
The contribution was made over 10 years and only after a graduate reached a salary threshold. Crucially that new system got rid of college fees upfront, fees that had nearly doubled over the last eight years. Of course there were problems with the scheme I proposed. But the graduate tax idea is not a million miles away from the student loans system proposed in the Cassells report. In fact over the last decade countries like the UK and Australia have introduced student loans, so we could learn a lot from their experience over that time.
I argued at the time that if we were asking young people to contribute to their education, it could revolutionize the relationship between college and students. Students would correctly demand more from their colleges and lecturers given they would be paying for part of it.
It’s also about time that we recognized that the introduction of free fees in the 1990s has made very little difference in terms of helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A new funding solution could do something significant for those poorer students that need more support to get to and stay in college.
The current funding arrangements for our universities and Institutes of Technology is utterly dysfunctional and has to be reformed. We simply cannot go on with more of the same.
The sector is being held together by a financial shoe string and is close to collapse. Looking in from the outside it’s all about numbers. In 1980 20% of the age cohort went to college, now it’s 60%. The highest level of participation in higher education of any member state in the EU.
In my view if a new funding arrangement can be found, it then allows a genuine debate to occur on the type of third level sector we need. Reforms on course quality and content, more student contact hours, helping students from poorer backgrounds with proper maintenance support, demanding that universities collaborate, offering pathways to meet labour force needs in new technologies and emerging business opportunities.
The status quo is not good enough. Simply ratcheting up every year or so the annual third level registration fees is no way to fund higher education and in fact acts as a barrier to entry for many potential students. The real scandal in Irish education is disadvantage, especially at primary level and post primary level where much greater levels of funding are required.
My proposal for higher ed still required a massive contribution from the state, but also a reasonable contribution from graduates who benefit from the education they receive and as a consequence, have much higher earning potential during their life. Peter Cassells also proposed in his report an additional contribution from employers towards the sector - this also should form some part of the overall funding solution.
Post crises Ireland at a political level, must have the capacity and show the willingness to confront problems - rather then run away from them. If we have learnt anything from the crises years it’s the need for honest debate. Politics can no longer be about the lowest common denominator as parties compete against each other in a pretend contest, where pretend options are presented to the electorate. This issue might give us some tangible proof of new politics?
Brian Hayes MEP Was Fine Gael education spokesperson from 2007-2010