Posted tagged ‘elections’

Higher education: voters uninterested?

February 8, 2016

In a somewhat downbeat (but realistic) assessment of the state of Irish universities and colleges, the outgoing chair of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, laments that there are ‘no votes’ in higher education. Politicians won’t take the decisions they should take, he may be suggesting, because they are not under any pressure from the electorate.

While understanding where he is coming from, it is nevertheless not necessarily a correct assessment. There are many votes in higher education, but they tend to  converge on certain issues that are hot buttons with the public. Tuition fees are an example: politicians know they will draw the wrath of the middle classes if they abandon free tuition, and so generally they don’t. And then of course there are the local higher education issues: ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issue, and you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region.

Nor is this confined to Ireland. In advance of the last UK general election, there was an interesting analysis in the Guardian newspaper about the higher education issues in England that would potentially have an impact on the vote. Indeed many people would suggest that the near-collapse in the vote for the Liberal Democrats was caused by their higher education policies. In the meantime in the United States student debt is gaining status as a key election issue.

The problem for universities is not that politicians aren’t interested and that voters don’t care. Rather it is that voters don’t much care about the key issue that drives much else: higher education funding. The narrative that has undermined much of higher education is that quality and global competitiveness can be achieved and maintained without anyone having to pay much for it, and that in any case there is too much waste in the system. There is little evidence that voters are concerned, for example, about institutional slippage in global university rankings. Politicians understand what voters care about and so they tend to those issues; and sometimes neglect the issues that really determine the success of a national higher education system.

Universities do register with politicians and voters; but not always in the way they would like. They will need to work out how to re-balance the political narrative, and how to do that in partnership (rather than in conflict) with the key politicians.

Second chamber blues

March 9, 2011

It’s that time of the Irish political cycle again: the engines are being revved up for the elections to Seanad Éireann (Senate). For those not familiar with the Irish political system, the Seanad is the upper house of the parliament (Oireachtas). Most of its 60 members are elected by an electorate of members of parliament (including outgoing Senators) and county councillors; 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach of the day; and 6 are elected by university graduates, three each by alumni of the National University of Ireland and of Trinity College Dublin.

Let me focus a little on the university seats. First, it has to be said that it is an utter disgrace and an insult to the Irish electorate that only NUI and TCD graduates get a vote. The people voted in a referendum in 1979 to open up the electorate to graduates of other institutions, and nothing has been done. This is wholly unacceptable, and those candidates who stand for the six seats should make that a key part of their campaign.

But actually, it could of course be asked whether university seats should be there at all. In considering the question it should be noted that the Seanad was designed to represent the views and interests of various vocational groups, as an expression of the kind of corporatism that was in vogue when the 1937 Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) was adopted. The university seats were part of that particular design. It should also be noted that it is widely recognised that the university Senators have often brought a different and more independent perspective to Irish political debate. One long-serving Senator (Mary Robinson) went on to become President of Ireland, and another (David Norris) is favourite to be the next President.

Whether the university seats should be there – though in any case not in this form – should perhaps depend on how a reformed Seanad would look, in the light of a widespread belief that the upper house has not necessarily been a very effective chamber. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that all the major parties, at the last election, argued for the abolition of the Seanad, and this now forms part of the programme for government of the coalition due to take office today.

As some readers of this blog will know, I was myself a candidate for one of the TCD seats in 1987. I didn’t succeed; the conventional wisdom was you had to make several attempts to get in, and I didn’t have the staying power to do that. Many of my friends who helped with my campaign back then suggested that, despite giving me support, they felt that this was the most rotten of rotten boroughs. But while I might seriously regret that the Irish parliament never had the benefit of my views in debate, I would still suggest that a second chamber is a useful aid to democracy and to more skillful legislating; and that the university senators have been important voices in the Irish political landscape. I wouldn’t throw it all out. But I would reform it.

PS. When the election materials of all the university candidates is available I shall review them here.

Do votes matter?

May 11, 2010

Right now in the UK the political parties are having to face serious questions – you could almost say for the first time ever – about how people’s votes in an election should count. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are going to enter into an arrangement for government only with a party committed to some voting reform, and this won’t be an easy sell when the other parties have managed to get lots and lots of seats on a minority of the vote. As has been seen in news reports, the backwoodsmen (and they seem to be all men) in both the Conservative Party and in Labour are lining up to tell the people that the present system is not only fine but the best there is, and why should it matter if people’s votes don’t count when, after all, the system delivers such nice majorities in parliament. This is the argument that strong government trumps democracy, which seems more appropriate for 1930s dictatorships than a modern liberal state. It will be interesting to see if the Lib Dems can achieve change.

So how should we view all this from Ireland? Are we really much better? Well, we do have proportional representation (ironically first introduced here under British rule), and it takes the form of the single transferable vote. This allows us to have multi-seat constituencies with real fun and games on election night. It gives us the ‘tallymen’ at the count, and hours and hours of counting with unpredictable results. In the end it provides us with a distribution of seats which more closely resembles the distribution of voting preferences, but it doesn’t reflect those preferences precisely. It is possible, and not wholly unusual, for a party to get more seats but less first preference votes than another party. In addition, the STV system has a curious effect on candidates: at an election your main enemy is not a candidate from another party – in fact on the whole you couldn’t care less about them – it’s any other candidate from your own party. If there is a reasonably clearly defined vote for your party, then you must fight your own colleagues to ensure it goes to you rather than to them. And this leads to all kinds of dirty dealing behind the scenes which occasionally comes into full view.

It seems to me that in Ireland too the issue of what is a good voting system should be addressed, and I don’t think we have one right now. Perhaps the best system is the German one, whereby parliament is filled from a combination of directly elected MPs and party representatives on a list, so that each constituency has its political representative but the distribution within parliament as a whole reflects popular preferences.

It is time we all became more politically mature.

Talking our way out of the crisis

June 8, 2009

Here is an interesting news item from yesterday, referring to the political crisis in Britain in the aftermath of the local and European elections and the future of Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Labour MP Tony Wright said that while Mr Brown was a “clunky communicator”, he was a “towering figure” in the aftermath of the financial crisis.’

Well yes, a ‘clunky communicator’ (an expression I’ll remember and use). What the statement doesn’t acknowledge – indeed, what it denies – is that you can’t really be a ‘towering figure’ in politics if you have difficulty communicating the message. Politics is all about ‘the message’, the ability to persuade the public and key decision-makers in industry and public life that you have a strategy and that this strategy will make a difference. A tongue-tied Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg would probably not be remembered today; or Winston Churchill, if he had been unable to express to his people the sense of determination and courage that carried them through the dark days of 1940 and 1941. In politics, communication is not an optional extra, it is everything.

In Ireland, we have similar issues to address. I would argue that the losses suffered by Fianna Fail in the elections are to a major extent about communication. I suspect that by and large the government has the right policies. But it has not so much been bad at communicating them, it hasn’t really tried at all. I cannot begin to understand why, in Ireland’s worst crisis since independence, the Taoiseach has not been addressing the nation on television and radio, indeed several times. We need to know where we are going, and why it’s worth making sacrifices, and how the government is going down this hard road with us, and what the rewards will be at the end. We don’t need to read that from Dail reports, or from newspaper accounts of party meetings – we need to hear it directly, addressed to us. Without that, all we see and feel is the pain, and all we want to do is lash out at whoever is inflicting that.

There are big lessons to be learned from Barack Obama, who has understood all this really well, and who is a master at having a good message and communicating it skilfully. Here in these islands, and for that matter in Europe, we seem to have lost sight of this. We had better catch on quickly, for widespread popular anger is a very dangerous thing.

The Upper House

May 7, 2009

Today’s Irish Times carried an article by Senator David Norris in which he assessed the desirability and likelihood of reform of the Irish Upper House of Parliament, Seanad Eireann (the Senate). This included the following:

At the first meeting of a recently convened committee to examine reform, the first and virtually only target was the university element. I indicated vigorously that as far as I was concerned, it was either all or nothing. All constituencies or none should be up for review.

What David Norris was referring to was the possibility that the university constituencies might be reformed without reform of any other part of the Seanad. And he was saying that if the rest of the House was not being reformed, then neither should the university seats. So perhaps we need to explain the context of all this a little.

The Seanad is, as noted above, the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas. Under article 18 of the 1937 Constitution, it has 60 members. Six of these are elected by university graduates, three by graduates of the University of Dublin (Trinity College) and three by graduates of the National University of Ireland. The special position given to TCD graduates dates from the time when most of these would have been Protestants, so that through this device the Irish parliament would contain at least elements of the religious minority on the island; and at the time the National University of Ireland would have contained all other Irish higher education institutions. Of course since then two other universities have been established (including my own, DCU), and there are also the institutes of technology, many of whose alumni graduated with third level degrees. None of these have a vote for the Seanad.

For the past few years the Seanad has been engaged in a somewhat leisurely process of reviewing itself, and one of the issues at the heart of the discussion has been the status of the university seats. Other issues have been addressed (eleven members of the Seanad are not elected at all, by anyone , and the rest are elected by panels consisting chiefly of county councillors), but without anyone showing much urgency in these matters. And so now Senator Norris, in an attempt to push the wider reform agenda, has argued that unless everything changes, nothing should change.

There is of course a debate to be had about whether we need the Seanad at all. For most of its life, the usefulness of the upper house has been challenged from time to time, but it has remained in place. However, in 1979, in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution passed by the people in a referendum, a framework was put in place that would allow for the election of Senators by graduates of other third level institutions also. This amendment was passed by the people 30 years ago, but absolutely nothing has happened to give it effect. At the last election it was still only graduates of TCD and the NUI that had the vote.

This position cannot be defended. And while I am a huge admirer of David Norris, and acknowledge that he has himself repeatedly called for an extension of the franchise, I cannot agree with him at all that it is acceptable to maintain the existing representation if other aspects of Seanad reform are not tackled. The people voted for change in 1979, and it is not acceptable to make the implementation of this vote conditional on other things. I hope that the necessary reform takes place forthwith – and I would suggest that graduates of universities which are excluded under the present system make their views felt by writing to their political representatives. It is a form of contempt of the electorate that this reform has still not been undertaken.

Election mess

May 7, 2009

Here we go again! In a month or so we will be going to the polls, this time to vote for members of the European Parliament and of local authorities. More about the elections themselves another time. For now, this question: do the parties – and more importantly, do we – need all these election posters? Uniquely in Ireland the parties smother the country with smaller posters on every lamp post. It creates a horrible mess. And does it actually persuade anyone to vote in a particular way?

Vice-Presidential debate

October 2, 2008

I’m not absolutely sure what my motives are, but I think I shall stay up late tonight to watch the US Vice-Presidential debate on television. I didn’t watch the first debate between Senators Obama and McCain (though I saw highlights afterwards), but somehow this particular debate fascinates me enough to want to miss some of my sleeping time. I cannot be quite sure whether it is because I am keen to follow the issues, or whether I am one of those terrible people hanging around to witness a car crash.

But I would still reiterate that the current American election campaign must be good for stimulating political engagement by citizens and voters, both in the US and elsewhere. The biggest threat to democracy is voter cynicism and apathy, as we should all have learnt from the fate of the Weimar Republic. So in the end I hope that the debate tonight is a good contribution to serious political debate that engages the public.

Political engagement

September 4, 2008

A colleague of mine remarked today that, perhaps, Irish people were more knowledgeable about the coming US elections than many Americans. Certainly it appears to be the case that the American presidential election campaign has galvanised popular opinion here, and in particular the candidacy of Barack Obama has attracted interest amongst people who had previously become disengaged from politics.

However the US election may end, political stability and progress across the world can only be achieved if the people participate. The biggest risk western societies have run recently is political apathy and cynicism. If the US election campaign can help overcome that and bring about renewed interest, particularly amongst younger people, then there is hope.