The following interview with Ruairi Quinn TD, Labour Party front bench spokesperson on education and science, was conducted on July 27, 2009, by Ferdinand von Prondzynski
FvP: Can I ask you first about your general perspective on education at this point? What are your priorities right now, and the priorities of your party?
RQ: Well, let me give it a bit of historical perspective. The Labour Party was the first political party in Ireland after 1921 to publish a policy on education, and it was always seen within the wider labour movement as an integral part of liberation for working people. Access to education was very much part of that. I think the Party currently would have two major concerns regarding education. One would be about access to the educational system at primary and secondary level, and the quality of the system as perceived by all of the stakeholders. The second is a concern, which I certainly have, that we still have an unacceptably high drop-out rate, and we have a very high illiteracy rate. The movement from primary school into secondary is very traumatic. It occurs at a critical age of maturation, and you go from a relatively secure environment to navigating something much more complex. Moving into secondary education can be very disconcerting; if in addition to that your literacy levels are poor, you can very quickly begin to drift, and within six to eighteen months some young people, particularly working class boys, are heading for the exit. Given the nature of Irish society and the labour market, they are heading for a lifetime of periodic, poorly paid employment, and very close to the edge of crime and drug addiction.
FvP: What steps are you suggesting should be taken to address these concerns?
RQ: All of the evidence shows that some form of pre-school education for children is an essential pre-requisite, and we have argued that there should be one year of guaranteed pre-schooling provided for our primary system, preferably on the campus of the primary schools so that it is a seamless journey, particularly if there is more than one child in the family. In this way the pre-school child gets oriented and made familiar with the school.
FvP: The National Competitiveness Council has, for some years now, suggested a focus on pre-school education, with a particular focus initially on disadvantaged areas. Would you agree with that approach?
RQ: That’s where I would start, because the children of middle class families will receive support at home – for example, they will be read to virtually every night, and will be encouraged to read. But in my constituency I might go to a house where there are ten electronic devices, including two or three flat screen televisions, but not a single book. That’s where the target should be.
FvP: Two weeks ago the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’) issued its report. What are your views on what it had to say about higher education?
RQ: The whole of the ‘Bord Snip’ exercise is a bit black and white, and maybe a little crude. It has to be seen in the context of what taxation proposals may emerge and what the substance will of the Budget later this year. I read the Bord Snip report really as the Department of Finance seeking to regain control over the economy from the Taoiseach’s Department, and indeed from the social partners.
That said, the McCarthy analysis is quite useful and identifies a variety of savings, but particularly in the education sector it displays a certain amount of naivety. That may have been inevitable in the context of how the Group had to work. But for example, the proposal to scrap the Grangegorman project for DIT is naïve and indeed ill-informed. After all, the continuation of maintenance in Bolton Street, Cathal Brugha Street, and all the other DIT locations has a cost, and the savings that would therefore arise from not proceeding with Grangegorman might not be that great, given a whole lot of postponed maintenance work that will have to be done, and so forth.
One other suggestion that they made – moving the Higher Education Authority into the Department of Education and Science – might benefit from some detailed discussion. The Department of Education could perhaps be described as the ‘Department of Schools’ (it’s not my phrase, but has been used by several commentators). If the HEA were to be merged into the Department, it might have a qualitative impact on the rest of the Department; whether it would lift the Department, or whether the Department would pull it down, really is the dilemma. The view has been expressed that perhaps the HEA should be moved under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; I have mixed views about that. I would like to hear some dialogue on this.
The higher education system has to improve the quality of its teaching. Its primary function is teaching. We have not satisfactorily developed our opportunity as a native English speaking country to develop and expand cultural tourism. Ireland represents 1 per cent of the population for whom English is their mother tongue, but our cultural impact is utterly disproportionate compared with others. Maybe we should be looking more at our opportunities and develop the teaching of English, which is not capital intensive. Perhaps the continuing focus in public discourse on R&D, on Science Foundation Ireland, and on Fourth Level is slightly unbalanced. It seems to me we need to cherish what we are good at and to develop it, because it has an economic dimension to it as well as improving overall education.
FvP: Does that mean you might go along with the view expressed by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes that university research has had no visible economic benefit?
RQ: I think, in the words of the former Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai when asked about the benefits of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to say. The evidence from other economies would suggest that it does create employment – for example, the United States and Israel. But at a time of economic stress, maybe you could look at some the programmes and decide which ones are more likely to have an employment impact. I would prefer to see the culture of commercialisation of research being extended within the third level system. The attitude to commercialisation varies across the sector. Applied research clearly has a more direct prospect of job creation than pure research. But I also suspect that you need an element of pure research, if only to provide for the educational requirements of the system overall.
FvP: Would you support the McCarthy Group proposal to discontinue the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI)?
RQ: I would be slow to do that. I would prefer to hear the arguments for this first, and whether a greater focus within PRTLI would help. What I do welcome, by the way, is the way in which PRTLI and SFI have pushed the institutions in the direction of alliance and cooperation. That clearly is the way to go, particularly when modern communications make such relationships much easier.
FvP: If I can turn to the question of higher education and funding, if the proposal for fees backed by loans emerges as the formal government position, what is your approach likely to be?
RQ: We will still hold the view that this will not deal with or solve the immediate funding problems. It may even aggravate them. If the new €1500 student registration charge is incorporated into it, and you have a student loan that kicks in after the graduate starts working and their income rises above a certain threshold, there is a time lag in the availability of money to the system. There could then be a massive cash flow problem, and I would be interested to see how the government proposes to deal with that. Dedicated taxes, by the way, are not terribly popular in the Department of Finance, and they don’t tend to have a long life as history shows.
Historically speaking, it was easy for us to abolish third level fees back in 1995/96, because of the explosion in the covenant arrangements and their impact on taxation. The cost of free fees at the time was around £42 million per annum, but we were previously losing something in the order of £38 million through tax covenants, so we were able to show that the net cost was low. The real tragedy is that the Department of Education didn’t consistently argue for a stronger subvention to maintain the value of funding for third level.
FvP: So what in your view is the solution to what I believe you accept is the current under-funding problem? If you were in government now, what would you be aiming to do?
RQ: Well, the basic raw financial data would not change by virtue of our being in government, and we would have to juggle between increases in overall taxation and economies in staffing and operating costs. We might also have to ‘cool’ certain courses. If you take the entire third level sector, could you perhaps get economies of scale, could you locate certain kinds of facilities together to improve efficiencies? I don’t know what savings could be achieved through that, but colleges may be able to operate more effectively and more sensitively.
FvP: If in a couple of years time the economy is better and the recession is over, what then, in terms of the funding envelope for higher education, could be done to give institutions reasonable financial security and the opportunity to undertake more effective financial planning?
RQ: To be frank, 100 per cent funding from the state is not realistic; there has to be more money from industry, there has to be more private money, hopefully more philanthropy. I think the tax system should be looked at in terms of how you would encourage people to make money available to higher education. Perhaps there could be some kind of ‘intellectual BES scheme’ (Business Expansion Scheme), so that a fund could be created that would own intellectual property rights from what was developed by research teams. If this is going to be an area of economic resource, then people need to be attracted to invest in it.
One of the problems I see is that the career prospects of some students – say, those doing science, as distinct from those doing accountancy or law – are very poor and very erratic. There will have to be better careers for scientists, including those on post-doc contracts.