Posted tagged ‘Green Party’

A Green electoral agenda?

November 22, 2010

According to various news reports, Ireland’s Green Party has indicated that it will pull out of the coalition government after the forthcoming Budget has been adopted and will call for a general election for January 2011. Curiously the Green Party’s website does not mention this development, but it appears to be genuine. It is clear from this that the party wants to regain a degree of political initiative in the light of recent developments to avoid being wiped out electorally.

As the Greens have made their opposition to higher education tuition fees such a key issue since the revised programme for government last year we can probably expect to see this feature as a priority in their election strategy; that is not particularly a bad thing, because in all the turmoil the country is now experiencing, it is likely that higher education will, for once, be a key election issue. I disagree fundamentally with the Greens’s approach to this, but I welcome the prospect of a proper public debate about the future of the country’s universities and colleges.


Higher education principles and values

November 2, 2010

Back in Ireland, amidst all the noise created by speculation about possible student registration charge hikes, or their replacement by something different, it would be easy to forget why we are concerned about higher education at all. It is clear that it has become a political football, and while at one level this may help to increase public interest and media attention, overall it is questionable whether the debate is helping to focus minds on what matters about our universities and colleges.

In all of the coverage of higher education issues, very little has been said about why it matters. This is being aggravated by the absence of any position of principle around the registration charge issue. According to a report in the Irish Times, Green Party spokesman on education, Paul Gogarty TD, warned that the party’s ‘educational commitments’ could not be compromised. But if you search for what these ‘commitments’ might be, they appear to extend no further than opposition to tuition fees. Even if you accept the party’s position on that issue, it cannot be said to amount to an overall perspective on higher education; that seems to be curiously lacking. The same is true of most of the political debate around the subject, and the position of most of the parties. Furthermore, these limitations of educational policy formulation have, I fear, infected the strategic reviews of higher education, which seem to focus on process issues rather than pedagogy, scholarship or values. A consequence of this focus is that the contribution that higher education makes to national prosperity and well-being is hardly recognised at all, and often the political commentary is, frankly, somewhat ignorant.

But the stakes are very high, and go far beyond the limited analysis we see presented in public.  One interesting angle might be to look at concerns currently being expressed in the United States about the future of the US knowledge sector, particularly in the light of strong advances currently being made in China. As recently as the late 1990s a review of American and Chinese R&D was able to point to the ‘excellence of the US university system’ as a basis for confidence that American technology would continue to lead, even in the context of China’s economic development. By the current year this sense of confidence has gone, and recent reports have suggested that US leadership may be at risk as China continues to invest aggressively. If this happens it will not just be a question of whose universities are winning, it will have an impact on economic growth and development, cultural leadership, political influence and so forth. Universities are key to stability, growth and innovation.

Balancing the books is of course vital during a recession, but it is not the only issue. Politicians who take views on higher education funding, or working methods, or structures, or governance, or accountability are saying nothing worth noting if they do not understand what higher education really does and why that matters. The quality of the Irish higher education debate needs to improve, and to improve fast.

A Green education

August 25, 2010

In yesterday’s Irish Times, the Green Party spokesperson on education, Paul Gogarty TD, described the commitment in the revised programme for government not to introduce tuition fees as being the result of a Green ‘veto’. What are we to make of this? It seems that this particular commitment, which according to Mr Gogarty was ‘agreed readily and without any difficulty by Fianna Fáil Ministers’, was the key demand by the Greens in the coalition re-negotiations. The reason for this was apparently as follows:

‘Mr Gogarty said new tuition charges or Australian-style “study now, pay later” loan schemes could lead to a “brain drain” of students. It would also act as a barrier to those from lower-income groups concerned about building up debt.’

I cannot help feeling that we should have a better basis for settling national policy on this vital topic than a Green Party ‘veto’, which appears to owe little to close analysis of the situation, but is probably more connected with the need for Green TDs to be re-elected in middle class constituencies. In this setting the fees issue appears to have taken on a highly symbolic role for the Greens. The party claims that its policy is based on a desire to protect ‘lower income groups’, but the evidence does not back this up.

But I suppose what I might really be inclined to question is whether a very small minority partner in a coalition government should be allowed to assert that one particular national policy has to be subject to their ‘veto’. If this position is accepted, as Mr Gogarty claims it readily was, by the larger coalition partner, it suggests that higher education is not getting the kind of serious attention that it needs.

It is time, perhaps, to explain to the Green Party what the impact of their decision is and will be. It is time to point out that what we are creating is a middle class education system, but with inadequate resources, and that the necessary supports for the disadvantaged will be neglected if money for the middle classes has to be priotised over the needs of the disadvantaged. It is time to explain that ‘free fees’ have been wholly unhelpful to the poor, while at the same time they have created an unhealthy dependence of the universities on the increasingly unreliable taxpayer.

The Greens appear to be proud of this particular ‘veto’. They shouldn’t be.

OK, another ‘no-fees’ statement

August 17, 2010

A few months ago the government, having (courtesy of the Green Party) committed itself to a position of not having third level tuition fees during the lifetime of the present coalition, passed the whole thing on to Colin Hunt’s strategic review group. The latter was then expected to report in March, but didn’t do so, and right now we expect to see a report in October or thereabouts. While waiting for that to happen, the Tánaiste (Minister for Education Mary Coughlan TD) has come out with a statement confirming that ‘there will be no reintroduction of third-level tuition fees in the Budget.’

I don’t really know what this statement is supposed to communicate. If you take it at face value, she is obviously right. First, it is not just inconceivable but actually impossible for fees to be reintroduced to take effect during the academic year about to begin. If they were to be reintroduced, the very earliest date for them to take effect would be September 2011, but realistically it would probably be a year later than that. Secondly, even if they were to be reintroduced tomorrow afternoon I don’t see that this would have any effect on the Budget. Fees, if they really were fees, would be paid to the universities and colleges. No change to the Budget would be needed (or sought).

So what is this statement about? The only thing that the Tánaiste can have intended with her statement was to send out some general mood music to reassure those worried about fees, presumably in particular middle class voters. Otherwise, what was the point? Or are we to see this as a general statement of intent suggesting longer term Fianna Fail opposition to fees, maybe beyond the next general election? Curious.

Ireland’s EU Commissioner: Research, Innovation and Science

January 17, 2010

The European Commissioner-designate for Research, Innovation and Science, Ms Máire Geoghegan Quinn, had her confirmation hearings before the European Parliament last week, and by all accounts acquitted herself very well – the Irish Times described her as ‘unshakeable in her self-confidence’, which perhaps is the more remarkable as this is a new area for her. But she was clear and emphatic in her views, by all accounts well informed, and she drew a favourable response from the MEPs present.

However, her views are also reported to have created some tensions between Fianna Fail and the Green Party back in Ireland. The Commissioner designate does not of course represent Ireland at the Commission, much less the government parties, but of course she was nominated by the Taoiseach and to that extent what she says can have a political dimension back home. At the confirmation hearings she is reported to have expressed support for research into nuclear energy and genetically modified crops, both of which were rejected by the original FF/Green programme for government, presumably at the instigation of the Green Party.

If the reports of her statements at the hearing are correct, I think it is important to express strong support for the Commissioner designate. As I have mentioned previously, I am extremely uneasy about a commitment (for whatever reason) not to undertake research on something: rejecting additional knowledge for ideological reasons is not a respectable position and should not find its way into anyone’s programme. In fairness, individual Green politicians have been open to research and debate on nuclear power, while however still declaring that they will remain opposed to its use. I am not aware of any similar openness to a GM foods debate.

It would be hugely damaging for Ireland to be seen as a place that is hostile to innovation and research, and these elements of the programme for government always seemed to me to be counter-productive in our current ambition to develop an effective knowledge economy. I hope that Ms Geoghegan Quinn’s strongly stated views have an impact back in Ireland and that they prompt us to redouble our efforts to provide ethically aware research leadership in all areas, even those that make some of our politicians uncomfortable.

The government, fees and such stuff: some last comments

October 11, 2009

Of course the dust will settle over the past few days, and normal business will resume. But when that happens, we will need to know how to plan for a future for higher education that is sustainable and that delivers acceptable quality. Right now it seems to me that the government parties have entered into a commitment – i.e. the commitment not to introduce higher education tuition fees – that is really about protecting people from a cost, but they have not considered what that will mean for the higher education sector and how it can remain viable.

This was brought home to me strongly in listening to both John Gormley (Leader of the Greens) and Mary Hanafin (Fianna Fail, and former Minister for Education) on RTE’s This Week today (you can hear the interviews here). John Gormley described his party as the ‘party of education’, and stated that the country needed to ‘invest in education’ – but from the uncertain nature of his answers it became clear that he had given no thought whatsoever to the implications for higher education of the removal of fees as an option and that he had no formed opinions as to how the sector might be funded. Curiously he implied that the universities might lessen the impact of the decision by raising the registration charge, though he hoped they wouldn’t.

Of course before yesterday none of us knew whether the government would drop the ‘free fees’ scheme. But we understood that as part of the discussion about the future national strategy for higher education the option of including student contributions to the cost of education was being considered. The revised programme for government has resulted in this option being removed from the table. John Gormley’s emphasis on the need to ‘invest’ in education might suggest that increased funding will be considered as an option, but we all know it won’t. Realistically the government really couldn’t do that, the national finances won’t allow it. But in any case, we know that higher education is always an early casualty of national budgetary problems, and as a result the state has been an increasingly unreliable funder, combining funding reductions with a desire to impose ever greater controls. This is not unique to the current government and the parties that make up the coalition: I recall the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the 1980s doing exactly the same thing.

What we have is a political system that claims to want world class higher education but which is prepared to do very little to help bring that about. Only in developing a programme for high value research have politicians in recent times shown some imagination and innovation. But even that imposed pressures on the system because the full costs of research were never wholly met.

And now, as part of an attempt to justify budget reductions, we are subjected to criticism and innuendo that suggests that we are wasting resources and perpetuating inefficiencies, and that only government control can improve this. We are a sector in peril. This will be the time for the university sector to show decisive and strong leadership, not just in our interests but in the interests of the country and future generations. Higher education quality, on which our economic prospects depend, is easily destroyed and only very laboriously restored over a lengthy period of time. Let us hope we don’t now produce the evidence for that proposition.

OK, definitely no tuition fees …

October 10, 2009

The revised programme for government is now out, but oddly enough has (as far as I can tell) so far been made available only by the Green Party. Understandable perhaps, as it’s the result of their initiative. So it’s not surprising also that party members have adopted the programme enthusiastically. Here’s what it has to say on higher education:

Higher Education

• Conscious of the economic pressures on parents today, this Government will not proceed with any new scheme of student contribution for Third Level education.

• We will develop Higher Education Strategy to deliver a longer term vision and shorter term policy objectives for the sector.

• Examine the potential for greater co-operation and/or amalgamations between institutions to enhance system-wide performance reflecting the current economic reality

• Establish a new statutory agency to carry out the current functions of NQAI, HETAC and FETAC as well taking on responsibility for the external quality assurance of universities. Related functions of the NUI are also being examined in this regard.

The only one of these bullet points that matters is the first – the others describe processes already under way anyway, and don’t represent a change – though I might argue with the implications of the third point, suggesting current under-performance, and as I have mentioned before, the merging of quality assurance bodies may turn out to be damaging.

The decision regarding fees, however, will come back to haunt us. It is a bad decision, made for the wrong reasons. I have always accepted that the motives for the original introduction of the ‘free fees’ scheme were honourable, and that the parties at the time believed that this would widen participation and make available an equitable system of higher education. But now we know that is not the case, and this time the reasons are, I suspect, purely electoral. As the taxpayer is in no position to increase funding, or even maintain the existing totally inadequate levels, we are now facing a situation where the increasingly scarce resources will be concentrated on the wealthier sections of the population and the disadvantaged will be neglected. In addition, the sector as a whole will be asset stripped and will be unable to compete.

I know that there are others who, for perfectly understandable reasons, will not agree with this analysis. But I have been at the coalface now for a decade of trying to maintain a world class system of education with the resources that increasingly reflect the aspirations of a developing country. This decision may save votes, but will do long term damage to the sector. It is a bad day for higher education.

So no fees, then

October 10, 2009

According to media reports, the revised programme for government agreed between Fianna Fail and the Green Party includes a commitment not to reintroduce third level tuition fees. We had already known that this was one of the demands that the Greens were making in the negotiations, and now it appears that this was accepted by Fianna Fail. It is probably wise not to comment in detail until we have seen exactly what has been agreed, and in particular what arrangements (if any) for funding higher education have been included.

If however there is no commitment to increase funding – and in the current economic circumstances I don’t know how any such commitment could be given – then the decision to abandon the possibility of fees could in the end amount to a decision to abandon the project of a high value knowledge economy. But I’ll wait for the details and then comment further.

Interesting times.

After Saturday, le déluge?

October 9, 2009

I think we had better start looking at what may be about to happen in Ireland. As I have mentioned in a previous post, right now negotiations are taking place between the two parties who (with some independent members of the parliament) make up the government of this country right now. The Fianna Fail negotiators have been presented by the Greens with a list of demands, most of which are focused on more public expenditure and fewer or even no cuts. This is, as far as I can see, balanced only by demands for higher taxation for the rich. I have no idea what Fianna Fail is taking to these discussions, but I imagine that fiscal prudence is right there in the party’s folder. Actually in truth I don’t really know what anyone is bringing to the discussions, because the Fianna Fail and the Green Party websites aren’t disclosing anything. In fact, they don’t have as much as a brief comment on all this, so you might actually begin to believe it’s not happening at all. But it’s happening all right, and the outcome of all this will be settled on Saturday, when Green Party members have to approve that revised programme by a two-thirds majority if it is to be adopted.

What rather scares me in all this is that the Greens appear to me to have issued a set of completely impossible demands, which they must have known are likely to prove unacceptable to their partners. So either Fianna Fail reject them, in which case the Green Party leadership will surely find it hard to persuade members to vote for staying in government; or else Fianna Fall agrees, or there is a compromise, in which case various changes and reforms come to an end, with perhaps damaging consequences for Ireland’s reputation.

Why does all this matter to me? Because there are several processes under way in the higher education sector that have the capacity to subject it to fundamental change. They are the higher education strategic review, the discussion about tuition fees (and a decision on this expected very shortly), the reform of quality assurance oversight, and so on. Some of these initiatives will fall with the government, if this is what happens. As a result, it would be likely that urgent higher education decisions will be long-fingered. Of course there will be no pause in the impact of the recession. And this is a combination of things that we cannot afford.

Well, all we can do is wait and see.

Green education

October 1, 2009

Some people who might have thought that there has been a Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition for the past couple of years with an agreed programme for government  might be surprised that, with no general election in sight, there are new negotiations between the parties for a new coalition programme. In fact, the formal reason for the demand by the Greens for a new programme is that we now have radically changed economic conditions; but I suspect it is in reality not unconnected with the Greens’ concerns they could be mauled by the electorate should there be a voters’ backlash against Fianna Fail at the next election.

Anyway, whatever the real reason, the Greens have announced a party convention on October 10 at which they will put any agreed new programme to a vote. But the implication is that if they cannot get agreed revisions or if the convention does not support any such revisions, then the coalition is over and we are then going to have new elections. Oh well.

Back to the substance. Yesterday the Greens issued their proposals, or rather their demands for the new programme. Well, more a shopping list. As far as I can see, they want to see all spending up and all taxes down (except for taxes on the nasty rich). And amongst the new or restored spending would be education spending. Generally they want education spending restored to what it was before the cuts of autumn last year, they want no tuition fees for third level and no increased registration charge. And whatever you’re having yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see all education spending restored to its former state (and preferably then some more). As readers of this blog know, I’d be more sceptical about the merits of continuing with free fees. But in any case, we need to stay real. I cannot see how all this can be achieved, either politically or economically. And so I am now beginning to wonder what the outcome of this approach is intended to be; and what we can now expect in terms of education policy.

It all seems curious to me, because whatever the trend in the opinion polls may be, Green Party ministers have been rather good, and have I think enhanced the quality of the government. That government in turn is currently weighing up major proposals on higher education. And now I am concerned that everything will be up in the air, and I fear for what will happen to us.