Here we go again with another round of debate on third level fees. And again we all climb back into our ideological boxes. Free fees are fair because education should be free to all, scream the egalitarian idealists, or at least those who made a politicial stroke out of free fees. Too right, scream the rich and upper middle class, who happen to benefit most from the largesse. We already pay our taxes, they continue, and higher taxes than the poor. No, cry those for whom individual responsibility is the supreme virtue, we should all have to pay, if we pay the price, we know the value. In the end, the politicians look at the voting numbers and decide to leave it all as it is.
And so we are for the forseeable future stuck with the absurdity of free fees. It is absurd because we live in a time when all kinds of forces have made it extremely difficult for governments to argue the case for higher spending - even if they wanted to! We lived through an unprecidented boom in Ireland, and coming from a low base we saw absolute spending figures grow rapidly on education, health, and other services, such as transport. yet we remain at or below, mostly below, OECD averages in all of these areas. And let's face it, in reality, the boom is over, and even if we return to sustainable growth, our per capita spend on education and health is not going to rise rapidly any time soon. That leaves us with the reality that our current per capita education spend is going to stay where it is. Given the shortage of government cash then, it is utterly absurd for the state to pay for expensive higher education for children of the rich ( for whom our country is configured to favour in so many other ways already ). We simply cannot afford it.
Meanwhile reality gnaws at us from another direciton. It is this: our universities are relatively low in international rankings and that position is likely to decline. If indeed we are serious about hooking in to a global knowledge economy, and frankly, for a small open economy, there is little option, we need to push our universities up the rankings. This does not mean that we are going to compete with Oxford or Harvard. The elite universities are a class apart and we don't have to worry about them. What we need to do is to be as good as the plain ordinary universities in Europe or the US. I'm thinking of say matching the University of Helsinki, or Oslo, or some of the mid ranking State universities in the US. (The only Irish University which features in these lists is Trinity, which does pretty well on the THES listing at about 53, and on the Shanghai Listing at between 200-300) This cannot be done without vastly greater funding to build up world class facilities, to attract top academics, and to fund pioneering research programs.
How do we get that vastly increased funding? First, by abandoning our entrenched positions and examing the reality of Irish third and fourth level education and asking where we need to go. For funding we need to think of flexible and innovative ways of raising money. We need to pull industry into the sector far tighter. Industry in Ireland, including the multinationals, simply point the finger at government. "We don't have enough high quality graduates". "People are deserting science". If so, industry too needs to get stuck in. They need to work with government - not in a token way, but in long term partnerships, to turn things around.
But there are other options. Fees cannot be ruled out (Actually I believe that the abolition of fees was a terribly regressive move, though I acknowledge that the old means tested system was chronically abused and deeply unfair to PAYE workers) We need to come up with a fair and sensible way of promoting university attendance among lower earning families. But grants, graduate taxes, scholarships, and student loans are all options. Perhaps we also need to foster a culture of philanthropy and of the university as a place which launches a person on their path to prosperity. In this way, alumni might be persuaded to pay something back afterwards. The universities too need more autonomy - to raise funds themselves like businesses.
Some fear the introduction of business practices in University. But there is nothing to fear if the sector, government, and business make clear goals and objectives together and come up with solutions which match our economic and yes, social goals. This means that history and Irish language don't need to disappear. The American university system is a complex mix of public, private and with a fair dose of market forces. It is not ideal and is elitist and too expensive for many students. But it demonstrates that its mix doesn't mean the death of humanities or the end of studies which don't feed directly to the economy. American universities are pioneers in anthropology, geology, literature. There is nothing to fear by borrowing some of the things they have done to become world class.
Our university sector has been transformed over the last 15 years. When I began in UCG (NUIG) in 1991 I arrived at a campus that was chronically underfunded. Buildings were overcrowded and decrepit. Class sizes in some cases were horrendous - students crammed into the isles in theatres. Facilities were from the 70s - our engineering facility had clapped out mainframes, a handful of groaning PCs, and old poorly equiped labs. There were many prefabs. The library was pathetic. Since then whole new buildings have sprung up - a new IT wing (god bless them), a brand new Irish language centre, a new engineering building, a new millenium arts wing, a brand new sports centre, etc.
All of this was necessary and is welcome, but it brought NUIG from the 70s to the 90s. But that push in our sector stagnated around 2003/2004 and funding was again cut. Since then there has been a constant battle by university heads to re-ignite the funding debate, but each time we get drawn in to the fees quagmire and ferociously entrenched positions. Sadly we will squander the great progress made unless we open up our minds again and accept that we live in a time when complex and innovate solutions are required. We also need to realise that we cannot continue to live in the fantasy where we crave a top class university sector but refuse to pay for it. We seem to want first rate eductation, but no one wants to pay - not students, not the tax payer, not business. The first challenge is to shatter this fantasy and to face reality.