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Sixth Year Overall Winner :Cian Dunne of Rice College, Westport, Co. Mayo.

Sixth Year Overall Winner: Cian Dunne, Rice College,Co. Mayo

In Cormac Mc Carthy’s dystopian novel The Road, published in 2006, the unnamed father encourages his son to ‘carry the fire.’ Fire, that elemental power, becomes the symbol of hope in a landscape that has been devastated by an unknown cataclysmic force. Sociologists, astrophysicists, intellectual property lawyers and university professors among others will have no currency in such a world. All of the good work by the Skills and Labour Market Research Unit in SOLAS will be lost in the mists of time. The new skills will be rooted in an ability to kill or be killed as terror stalks the land. It is a chilling vision, one that some feel may be moving from the pages of fiction to reality in our increasingly fragmented world. Yet, we are entitled to the hope that civilisation can continue, at least for a while longer. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, in stating that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ would affirm the importance of education in developing and sustaining civilised values.

It is reasonable to suggest that education offers enormous individual and societal benefits. Ireland’s recent history is a very good case study where Sean Lemass’ vision of ‘free education’ has truly transformed the country. The Statistical Yearbook of Ireland 2015 states that there were ‘173,649 persons in full-time third level education in 2014/2015, an increase of 840% since 1965/66.’ This is an astonishing figure and the Department of Education and Skills’ own projections suggest that participation rates are expected to reach 207,544 students in 2029 due to demographic pressures, the need to enhance each citizen’s skills profile and policy initiatives to widen access to third level education.

Education costs money. This is a small phrase with huge implications. If education offers so much value to a society, it seems reasonable to conclude that it is a public good and should be funded from the public purse. That’s an attractive proposition, particularly for the families who do not receive grants. Clearly, using public monies is a recognition that we are all interdependent, so a universally publicly funded third level education system is a rational model.

Of course, even if Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that death and taxes are the only certainties in life were true, needless to say, nothing in 2017 is that simple. The dismal science of Economics reminds us that resources are scarce. So while we can accept the value of education in philosophical terms as well as the need to pay for it, the relentless push for STEM subjects raises an interesting question. Should students pursuing courses in STEM subjects be priortised at the expense of a person who might be drawn to a subject like Philosophy? Clearly, some disciplines have a little more cachet than others and are certainly perceived to generate a better financial payback over an individual’s working life. At the moment, STEM subjects are driving the agenda. Education is assuming a mechanised value which would put Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind to shame. Yet, the notion of fairness suggests a need to respect each individual citizen to develop his or her talents. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, if we accept that society exists, then this strengthens the need for public funds to cover the cost of education whether that is an apprenticeship, a pass degree or a PhD.

At this stage, we can agree that education matters and that ‘someone’ has to pay for it. The current model in Ireland involves a combination of public money and some registration charges for those that are judged to be able to afford them as well as the occasional philanthropic contribution. The universities indicate that this model is no longer tenable. The university league tables seem to support this view given that so many institutions are suffering a fall in their position. This suggests a journey into mediocrity where Ireland will pay a high price if the intellectual traditions stretching back to monastic times are further weakened. ‘Oileán na Naomh is na nOllúna?’ It is time we justified the billing.

It is a perfect storm where the third level institutions have seen constant reductions in funding even as their student population continues to grow. Limiting student places seems unjust and would probably be politically unacceptable. The Report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, published in March 2016, offers interesting ideas to resolve this financial dilemma. Accepting that everyone in society benefits from a high quality third-level system, the report affirms the need for taxpayer funding. However, public funding on its own is clearly inadequate. Consequently, there is a role for employers to provide financial resources. Finally, a student loan system will give each young person a stake in their own future. Such a system poses many problems when we examine the experience in the United States with unsustainable levels of student debt.

Perhaps the land of saints and scholars could generate a new model. It might be interesting to incentivise Irish graduates to build their long term future in the country by linking their student loans to a viable pension system. Tax credits should be made available when Irish graduates are making a valuable economic contribution to the country, thereby offseting the cost of their student loan. In the long term, a loan is a vote of confidence in each citizen and their ability to repay it. They won’t need to repay it if they make the kind of economic impact over a lifetime that helps to build the country as a society and as an attractive place to live. This will become more important given the likely negative impact of disruptive technologies on future employment rates.

Unleashing the creative and intellectual capital of the maximum number of Irish citizens offers the best hope of sustainable living in the long term. Otherwise, we may all be travelling on Cormac Mc Carthy’s road and the view won’t be quite as pretty as the one that is currently visible on the Wild Atlantic Way.

 

 

[1] Dylan Scully. (2016). Is it time for Ireland to reintroduce fees?. Available: http://trinitynews.ie/is-it-time-for-ireland-to-reintroduce-fees/. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017

[2] Abby Jackson. (2015). 'Free' college in Europe isn't really free. Available: http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-do-european-countries-afford-free-college-2015-6?r=US&IR=T. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017.

[3]Sean Melly. (2016). The abolition of fees for third level was a regressive step. Available: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/the-abolition-of-fees-for-third-level-was-a-regressive-step-1.2610894. Last accessed 15th Feb 2017.