After the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, that third level fees were ‘back on the agenda’, there has been a mixed reaction from politicians, as was to be expected. The reaction has been largely negative from the Opposition, and sceptical from some other government sources.
Nevertheless, it is good that we are to have a debate, and it is to be hoped that politicians will not be driven too much in this debate by a fear of how middle class voters may react. Maybe one way of starting such a debate with at least some point of consensus would be to agree that everyone wants to increase participation in third level education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to secure a world class higher education sector in Ireland, able to compete effectively in both teaching and research.
Whatever may happen in this debate, any benefits that may flow from it will not be felt for a year or two. But in the meantime we have a more immediate problem, and the stated intention by government to impose dramatic cuts on the sector, accompanied by greater bureaucratic controls, will if implemented cause severe damage, not just to universities but to Ireland’s economic infrastructure. To allow us to avoid a recession and to resume significant growth requires a successful higher education sector.
I would want to express my admiration for the Minister for having the courage to raise an issue which, as a country, we really do need to address. In passing, I might also pay tribute to Noel Dempsey, who raised this also when Minister earlier in the decade, and to Sean Flynn, Education Editor of the Irish Times, for his work in stimulating the debate. But we also have immediate needs, and we need to avoid a situation where Irish universities are crippled by financial burden just at a time when we need to support the country in its need to create a strong knowledge society and economy.
There are interesting times ahead.