On the way to the Senate
If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin, or if you are a member of the Oireachtas, or if you are an elected local authority member, or if you are the Taoiseach, then you are a voter in the second phase of the Irish parliamentary elections of 2011: the election of members of Seanad Éireann (Senate). This phase is about to conclude with the counting of votes on Wednesday of this week. The easiest vote to count will be that of the Taoiseach, who has the power to appoint 11 members of the Upper House. 43 Senators will be elected by special vocational ‘panels’; or rather that’s how they are described, but in reality they are just members of parliament and county councillors. Whether any of this makes sense is a question for another time.
What I want to focus on here is the election of six Senators by the graduates of the universities. I won’t however go into the question of whether this is justifiable at all as a way of electing members of parliament; nor will I dwell on the extraordinary contempt of the electorate shown by the political system in not extending the franchise to graduates of other higher education institutions (not least the two excluded universities) despite an instruction by the people in a referendum decades ago to do so. Nor am I going to talk about the 27 candidates competing for the three NUI seats.
Instead, I am going to look at some of the 20 candidates for the University of Dublin (Trinity College) seats. In fact, I am going to do something even more specific than that: I am going to ask what plans if any they have for higher education. I am myself a voter in this constituency, and have just posted my ballot paper. When I received it, I was faced with having to work out what some of these candidates actually stand for. I had never heard of some of them, and I have received no election literature from 11 of the 20 candidates. However, there is always the internet.
The first candidate I looked at more closely was Marc Coleman, economics editor of radio station Newstalk and columnist in the Sunday Independent. He has made rather a name for himself criticising academic pay and conditions and pouring scorn on the value of university-led research. Funnily enough none of this makes any appearance on his election website, though it dominates the exchanges on his Twitter account. But overall it is impossible to say for sure what position he will adopt on higher education if elected.
Sean Barrett, another economist and TCD senior lecturer, is arguing the case for more investment in education, but principally earlier education rather than universities. His fairly intelligent analysis is rather let down by a website that is full or the most extraordinary typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, which might not be a good way or presenting his case.
Outgoing Senator (and TCD academic) Ivana Bacik shows a fair degree of passion about university access for the disadvantaged, but does not particularly put forward any overall higher education perspective.
Outgoing Senator David Norris, whom I genuinely admire, seems not to be presenting himself very actively for the Seanad; his website does not disclose any of his policies or plans – perhaps because his attention is now more directed at the presidential elections later this year, for which he is a declared candidate.
Barrister Graham Quinn declares on his website he wants to maintain ‘free fees’, but apart from that I cannot find anything of substance about higher education. Unusually for the candidates, homemaker Bart Connolly expresses strong views on research funding, declaring his support for it.
What is my point? It is that we are talking about an election in which candidates are standing for university seats, but really none of them appear to have any overall policies on higher education. The manifestos are extraordinary collections of policies on this and that, but actually very little on the issue that should have driven them more than any other.
So what have I done? I have taken my role seriously, and have voted in accordance with what I know about the candidates that will be of relevance to the university sector. It has not been the easiest of tasks.