Archive for August 2008

Social benefits: universal or targeted?

August 15, 2008

As anyone reading this blog – or indeed anyone living in Ireland – knows, there is now a major national debate here on whether tuition fees for higher education should be reintroduced. Leaving aside the specific issue of university fees for a moment, there is a wider issue that this debate touches upon, and which perhaps can do with a little analysis: should social benefits be ‘universal’ (i.e. made available to everyone) or should they be ‘targeted’ (with the resources directed specifically at those most in need of them)?

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

For all that, I might add that I do believe that universal benefits in some contexts are still right. I would strongly favour free secondary education, for example. But there are other areas where they have become of doubtful value and merit.


In praise of small bookshops

August 14, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, I have recently purchased and am using an Amazon Kindle e-book reader – despite the difficulties facing those trying to do so from an address outside the United States. However, while on my recent visit to the US (now concluded) I also took the time to visit several bookshops. I browsed in the usual Borders and Barnes & Noble book superstores, but my favourite shop on this occasion was a small bookstore called Indigo Books, close to Kiawah Island in South Carolina. It is, when compared with Borders, a very small shop, but it has a wonderful range of interesting books, with fiction veering more towards the literary, and some interesting history books, and other books with a local dimension. The owners are extremely pleasant and helpful, and I hope my custom repaid their good service.

In fact, I have a particular liking for small bookshops. There is another such shop in Mullingar, for example, with a similarly interesting collection of books and very helpful service. I find that when visiting such shops I invariably walk out with several purchases, whereas I can go to Borders, or Waterstones, and buy nothing.In fact, if I want to buy a book from a source with huge resources and choices, I will usually now go online to Amazon – where in terms of bulk I now buy most of my books.

So what is it that attracts me to little bookshops? Not the small size per se – I am not a particular fan of small shops generally, and find myself attracted to the big stores with the mega choices. But it’s different with books. What we read is something quite personal, something that tells us something about ourselves and how we relate to the community. And a small bookshop, run by someone who has an obvious passion for reading, makes that link to the community in a particularly satisfying way.

So wherever I go, if I see a small bookshop and if I have a few minutes, you’ll find me in there. And I shall almost never leave bearing the same aggregate weight. And while I hope that internet retailing continues to thrive, I shall always do what I can to support the small bookseller, and I hope others will, too.

On two wheels

August 13, 2008

Over the past ten days or so, I have been on vacation in the United States with my family. We have been staying in a coastal area of South Carolina, where it is impossibly hot and humid at this time of year. Nevertheless, we have greatly enjoyed ourselves, and I for one have been getting some much needed exercise by cycling some 20 miles or so every day – despite the heat, a rather pleasant activity.

What has struck me here as a cyclist is how well behaved my fellow cyclists are. They stop at a ‘stop’ sign, they do not cross a red traffic light, they stick consistently to the correct side of the road, they stop to let pedestrians cross. In short, cyclists here observe the traffic regulations and behave with great courtesy and consideration.

In Dublin, I routinely see cyclists behaving as if the rules of the road did not in any way apply to them. They cross red lights as a matter of course, cycle on pavements, go the wrong way down one way streets, and so forth. Just before I left on holiday, I saw a cyclist in Dublin go through a red light at a pedestrian crossing and collide with a pedestrian just going across the road; and rather than apologise or act guilty, he berated the (elderly) pedestrian. I acknowledge of course that there are many cyclists who do not behave in this manner, but on the whole we do not recognise sufficiently that cyclists can also be a danger both to themselves and to others.

I believe that, in the interests of fuel conservation, far more people should be encouraged to take to bicycles. But it is time that cyclists in Ireland learn that they too must be responsible road users and adhere both to the rules and also to the desirable practice of courtesy towards others.

Fees – the debate continues

August 13, 2008

A day or two since Batt O’Keeffe TD, Minister for Education and Science, put third level fees ‘back on the agenda’, it is not entirely easy to see what the ‘agenda’ may be. According to the latest report in the Irish Times, the Minister may now even be suggesting that fees would be for millionaires only.

There are some worrying implications in such statements. First, there is no point having a framework for fees at all if we are only envisaging a very small number of people who would be asked to pay them. The cost and complications of such an infrastructure would be horrendous, and the game would not be worth the candle. Secondly, there is just a hint in all this that what the Minister may have in mind is a system under which fees are used to off-set the government’s contribution to the sector, rather than to add resources. Any hint that fees will be clawed back would make the whole idea useless in addressing the funding needs of the sector.

A sensible way of looking at fees is to identify three groups of people: (i) those who can afford to pay fees, either because of family incomes or through appropriate loan systems; (ii) those who cannot realistically afford to pay fees; and (iii) those who cannot afford to pay and who may also need additional financial support. There also needs to be an understanding that the purpose of introducing fees is to secure additional valuable resources for the third level sector.

It is to be hoped that the terms of the discussion will be set out shortly in a succinct manner.

Tuition fees and funding

August 12, 2008

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.

University tuition fees – the Minister moves?

August 11, 2008

Sean Flynn in today’s Irish Times has a very interesting piece on tuition fees – the Minister for Education is considering their reintroduction. It is vital that we do indeed have this discussion – it is, as I have said previously in this blog, difficult to see how we can address the resourcing deficit for higher education in Ireland unless this step is taken.

As we assess the next steps and undertake this debate, we shall need to ensure the overall funding issue for higher education is properly addressed, seen in the context also of Ireland’s international competitiveness; in other words, fees should produce added value, not replace government funding. And secondly, we need to ensure that there is a proper framework to support those who cannot afford to pay fees.

But this is good news, all in all. I am sure the universities will work constructively with the government in advancing this agenda.

Ireland and America – the future

August 11, 2008

For the past week or so, this blog has been coming to you from the United States of America. For many years now, I have been a regular traveller to the States, both on business and vacation. During that time, some subtle changes have been taking place in the relations between both countries. Of course, a very substantial proportion of the American people have, or believe they have, an Irish heritage, and one of the consequences has been a strong engagement by them in Irish issues. This was at its most active during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s. It would be fair to say that US interest and support helped secure the peace in Ulster.

Ironically, the end of the Troubles moved Ireland off the radar a little for many Americans. In addition, the prosperity which followed the Celtic Tiger also meant that Ireland was a much less obvious recipient for US generosity and financial support. And on top of that again, the same prosperity has resulted in what is more or less the end of mass emigration from Ireland, so that a new generation of Irish Americans with direct experience of the home country is not being formed in the same way as before. This has led some to conclude that the strong ties between both countries will inevitably be loosened over the years ahead.

Maybe they will. But it has to be aid that US interest in Ireland has been a very important part of Ireland’s success, and it will continue to be needed if that success is to be sustainable. The Celtic Tiger was nurtured through American investment in Irish industry, and while we must accept that some of that investment will move elsewhere in the global economy, we must try to ensure that the conditions are right for attracting new interest. It is in this context that the higher education sector in Ireland is so important a point made also by the then US Ambassador to Ireland in 2005 in an interview.

In the future, it will be much harder for us to persuade American investors that Ireland can provide the optimal environment for manufacturing plants and call centres – we are not as low cost a location as we used to be. However, as some recent investment decisions have shown, we can still persuade our US friends and partners that we have some critical mass in knowledge intensive areas, with a strong research performance that will provide a perfect home for R&D, and highly skilled people trained to PhD level in sufficient numbers. For Ireland to avoid the risk of recession, investment in universities is a critical condition; any ambivalence could have hugely detrimental consequences.

For the Irish universities, it is also important that we continue to develop direct links with US businesses and universities, so that a knowledge partnership between both countries is seen to be growing. My university actively pursues such links constantly, and we have joint research teams with both industry and higher education partners in the States.

In the overall matter of Irish-American relations, I am an optimist. I believe that Irish-American links will continue to grow. But we need to work at it. And I am sure we will.