Education funding - Hard choices will define our future

THIS should be an exciting time of the year in education. Students face new experiences and teachers, hopefully, return to work re-energised and enthusiastic about the challenges ahead.

Sadly, like every other ambition held dear by this society, delusional Government and the consequential economic crisis have limited our capacity to deliver the kind of education we should be able to offer every young person in this country.

School managers and teaching unions have said that 2,000 jobs will be lost in primary and secondary schools as cutbacks take effect. Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has revised upwards his estimates accepting that over 1,000 jobs could go over a longer period. Yet more jobs may be lost in third-level colleges.

Most of those losing jobs are young, newly qualified teachers on temporary contracts. Many face emigration and union sources say up to 500 candidates apply for every primary-school teaching job advertised.

This has implications for a generation of students. Special needs students and those who need support in learning English seem to be most adversely affected.

But what is to be done? We don’t have the money to carry on as we did when Bertie Ahern and his enthusiastic supporters promised we’d never again see a bad day. Yet, we have the reasonable expectation that every child in this society gets an appropriate education.

One of the ways we could start to realise those basic ambitions is to start at the top. Just as in other areas — health and justice for instance — some of the high-end pay deals must be cut back considerably.

Last week it was confirmed that one UCD academic — Prof Des Fitzgerald, vice-president for research — enjoyed a €400,000 pay deal. Even the cut — €80,000 — faced by Prof Fitzgerald after talks between UCD and the Higher Education Authority is not enough to give the package the authority of reality. Those talks saw the abolition of allowances for 60 UCD staff. Seven vice-presidents and five college principals will each forfeit up to €25,000 in allowances. These figures represent amazing indulgences and it must be assumed that they are replicated in one shape or another across all colleges. This offers considerable potential for savings.

The old argument — that colleges must match what the private sector might pay — must now be applied by Government with the vigour it was once advanced by academics and other public employees but in reverse. If they do they will identify considerable savings.

Nevertheless, our ability to support an education system we can be proud of has been diminished greatly. As in so many other areas, we must separate what is essential from that which is aspirational. This is, after all, an exercise we will have to repeat many times in the coming months and years. If we make the right choices now we may eventually have the education system we all — taxpayers and teachers — want for our children.

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