Posted tagged ‘manifesto’

Party time: the Labour Party

February 17, 2011

Here is the final manifesto I shall be looking at: the Labour Party. In the education section of the document, the party puts forward a number of reasonable proposals to do with curriculum reform in schools, equity and fairness, and combatting illiteracy. The higher education element in all of this is summed up as follows:

‘Labour supports a vibrant, pluralist third level sector that offers both high quality research and high quality undergraduate teaching.’

For the moment this has not been taken beyond the rather vague rhetoric of that quotation. But there are some specifics, most notably the party’s desire to initiate a reform of the ‘academic contract’. On tuition fees the manifesto repeats the Labour commitment not to reintroduce them, while also suggesting that more radical reform is needed. This is part of a more general trend right now that appears to want to ‘compensate’ for less generous funding with higher levels of bureaucracy and control. Searching around for something to suggest that might bring in money, the manifesto echoes the Fine Gael commitment to seek more international students. Neither party seems to be particularly aware of the already existing level of international recruitment, nor of the complexities involved in any dramatic growth in the number of overseas students.

Overall, Labour’s manifesto has some interesting ideas and promises, but the passages on higher education are perhaps somewhat disappointing. The significant overlap with the equivalent passages in the Fine Gael manifesto suggests that, unless the sector can succeed in rational persuasion, the trend over the coming years will be a continuing erosion of autonomy, a further drop in the available resources and a decline in Ireland’s standing in pursuit of a knowledge society.

Party time: Fine Gael

February 16, 2011

It is widely presumed that, after the coming Irish general election, the new government will be led by Fine Gael. It is the only party that has entered a sufficient number of candidates in the election to allow it to govern on its own if the electorate so decides, as no other party will has enough candidates to win a majority even if all of them were elected. Furthermore, the opinion polls are strongly suggesting a very sold performance by the party.

In these circumstances, what the party says in its manifesto matters, and we can expect to see many of its promises become government policy shortly.

So as regards higher education, what are these promises? They are contained in section 9.9 of the document, and this provides an insight into what Fine Gael believes now constitute our priorities. This includes what is, in essence, an adoption of the proposals on funding made in England by Lord Browne’s review: there will be no up-front fees, but graduates will be required to make a ‘contribution’ amounting in total to about a third of the cost of their degree programme.

Secondly, Fine Gael wants the universities to pursue ‘greater pay and non-pay efficiencies in the third level system through greater flexibility in working arrangements, in line with the Croke Park Agreement.’

Thirdly, the party wants more coordination of the sector, and so it promises to ‘give students a better third level education by repositioning our universities and institutes to become world leaders in education through greater collaboration, specialisation and focus in every educational institution.’

Finally, the party is intending to double international student numbers. While no doubt there are several reasons, the manifesto emphasises the potential for ‘maximising the revenue potential of this rapidly growing.’

Over recent years the impression has grown amongst politicians that Ireland’s higher education system is too fragmented and inefficient. Fine Gael has been at the heart of this drive to introduce ‘reform’. While the detailed plans set out in the manifesto are somewhat  vague, they nevertheless paint a picture of system in which government will exercise greater control over institutions and change the nature of the academic employment relationship. Universities will need to engage with the party as a matter of urgency, with a good case.

I have seen the future, but does it work?

February 15, 2011

If we make certain assumptions about the likely composition of the next government in Ireland, we do well to study the manifestos of Fine Gael and Labour. Both are now available.

I shall examine the commitments made in these documents later, but it is worth pointing out that they contain a pattern regarding higher education. Leaving aside for a moment what they say on funding, the key objective of both parties is to bring about a reform of the sector, and in particular the reform of academic contracts and working conditions. It is therefore likely that current discussions around this issue (featured in this blog) will, if anything, step up a gear after the election.

A further more detailed analysis to follow.

Party time: Sinn Féin

February 15, 2011

Continuing with my posts examining higher education proposals by political parties in the Irish general election, let us have a look at what Sinn Féin has to offer. In fact, there is not very much of substance which we could assess. The main policy objective relevant to universities – actually, as far as I can tell the only one – is part of a more general policy of reducing or eliminating the cost to parents, students and families of education. This ambition is expressed in the party’s election manifesto as follows:

‘Every parent aspires to the best start for their children. We are committed to ensuring that is more than an aspiration – we are committed to delivering the best start for our children. Free primary, secondary and third-level education is a top priority for Sinn Féin. This will mean eliminating the growing parental contributions and other costs that have undermined the entitlement to free education.’

Sinn Féin makes 19 election promises relevant to education as a whole, only one of which relates to higher education specifically; this states that the party will ‘oppose the reintroduction of third-level fees through any guise and reform the grants system to take into account the real costs of going to college.’ This is also repeated verbatim in a separate election leaflet entitled Time to Return to Free Education: 6 Simple Steps.

In a report by the Irish Independent on the launching of Sinn Féin’s education policy for the election, outgoing TD Aengus O Snodaigh is quoted as saying that the party is ‘committed to making free education a reality, with its plans to make the wealthier pay more towards the public purse.’

It seems clear that Sinn Féin has not so far given much thought to higher education, and that for the moment its priorities lie elsewhere. In the brief references to this area the impression is created that there is an easy path to a free and well funded system of higher education, but this is simply too vague to allow any kind of critique.

In order to get some more detail that could be assessed here, I have contacted the party with some specific questions on higher education. I shall report here what answers I get, if any.

Party time: Fianna Fáil

February 11, 2011

In the run-up to the Irish general election I propose to look a little at some of the party manifestos, and in particular at what they have to say about higher education. The first one to be considered is the manifesto of Fianna Fáil. Most people still assume that the party will have to leave government after the election. Indeed, mathematically it cannot get an overall majority as it has not put up enough candidates, even if every single one of them were to be elected. It is unlikely to be in coalition with anyone else, either – though you can never be absolutely sure.

Despite that, Fianna Fáil’s influence on higher education over the next few years will be profound, because during the past few years it took some of the key decisions that will shape the sector for some time to come. In government the party established the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation and put in place the funding to sustain it; it commissioned the Hunt strategic review – which may not matter a whole lot over the longer term; but it placed this review in the context of some strategic priorities which were communicated to the review team, in particular the drive towards rationalising the higher education sector. This latter objective is already being implemented, with various discussions under way between institutions that are likely to lead of strategic clusters within the sector. It has set targets for the expansion (admittedly without funding) of higher education participation, and various programmes for what has become known as ‘labour market activation’, under which universities and colleges are urged (and to some extent incentivised) to recruit the unemployed and those seeking to adapt their careers to new labour market conditions.

One could say that the manifesto of the party (Real Plan, Better Future) is a kind of epilogue to all that, a series of references to what was done and to the legacy that this will leave, under the guise of a programme for the future. The section on education is largely about re-skilling and upskilling, including the setting up of a fund to create opportunities for this within higher education. The manifesto also emphasises the importance of research, arguing for a clear focus on areas in which Ireland can lead, and for strong academic-industry links. The manifesto also appears to back continued funding for ‘fundamental research’ and, more generally, for research funding for universities.

Overall, the Fianna Fáil manifesto does not break new ground in relation to higher education, but suggests that the policies developed over recent years are right and should be continued. It is, as far as I am concerned, a not altogether unreasonable position, as the government has a good story to tell in this area; and indeed it should be acknowledged that Micheál Martin was an effective and far-sighted Minister for Education. But the manifesto wholly avoids addressing the huge problem of under-funding, which is threatening to turn our system into one that cannot compete internationally. Relieved of the burden of having to find compromises with the Greens in this matter, the party might have used the manifesto to put forward some imaginative proposals; it has not done so. Perhaps in opposition it will develop its thinking in this area and stimulate broader public debate.

The UK Liberal Democrats and higher education

April 17, 2010

Well, now that the pundits are saying that British Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was the outright winner in the television debate between the three party leaders, it may be time to have a look at what the Lib Dems are proposing for higher education in their manifesto. Here is the relevant extract, in full:

• Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
• Reform current bursary schemes to create a National Bursary Scheme for students, so that each university gets a bursary budget suited to the needs of its students. These bursaries would be awarded both on the basis of studying strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) and financial hardship.
• Replace wasteful quangos (the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England) with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education.
• Scrap the arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, focussing effort instead on a balance of college education, vocational training and apprenticeships.
• Start discussions with universities and schools about the design of a trial scheme whereby the best students from the lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in Higher Education.

Note the promise to abolish tuition fees, alongside the commitment to do so ‘without cutting university income’. Whatever views anyone might have on the acceptability of fees, the idea that they can be scrapped without reducing funding for the higher education institutions is almost certainly unrealistic – as the Irish experience has shown. A similar commitment was given in Ireland in 1995 and was manifestly not kept. It is probably a promise that is simply unaffordable.

Note also the suggestion that higher education participation targets are not helpful, and that some who are now being admitted to universities might have better vocational training elsewhere. Others are suggesting something similar, but whether it is really possible (or desirable) to reverse the massification of higher education may be questioned.

Overall, the chances are that the Lib Dems will have a major influence on the formation of the next British government, and so their election literature and their campaign are worth watching.