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:
• 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.