Learning a lesson on education spending

LAST week, “ideology” was bandied about like a term of abuse. Two ongoing stories on education were peppered with references to ideology as if it was something that the cat dragged in. In education, it would seem, the only ideology that should be applied is “what we have we hold.”

In the wake of a report on the fee income of fee paying schools, the spectre was raised once more of cutting the near €100m subsidy that is paid to these 55 institutions. Reaction among those who defend the subsidy was uniform. Any change would cost the State more, and it was based on the ideology prevalent in the Labour party, to the detriment of economics and fairness.

Commentators, Fine Gael TDs, and school principals all stormed the media to denounce any move as if it was something that might have been dreamed up by the late Hugo Chavez.

A similar theme informed a meeting of Fine Gael TDs concerning plans to change college grant entitlements for farmers and the self-employed. North Cork’s Tom Barry was reported as telling the meeting that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn wanted to turn the country into “a communist state”.

Strangely enough, none of these denizens noted in recent days that Brendan Howlin, a long standing Labour party stalwart, has just overseen the Croke Park II agreement cutting public service pay. If ever there was an example of an alleged left-wing ideologue abandoning ideology, surely this was it. Howlin, presumably, squared away the move with himself on the basis that the State is strapped, and that predicament trumps any ideology he may have about how society should be run.

Similarly, Quinn finds himself with a bare cupboard in education. Last week he told an Oireachtas committee that there was no more money for minor upkeep work in schools. The buildings that leak, the heating systems within that are broken, will have to stay that way.

In such a time of austerity, how could Quinn not target the paying of a subsidy to the wealthiest cohort in society? Nobody would call the economist Colm McCarthy a left-wing ideologue. Far from it. Yet it was McCarthy’s An Bord Snip report in 2009 which recommended raising the pupil teacher ratio in fee paying schools from 1:19 to 1:28 in the interests of fairness. Last week’s report noted that fee paying schools have discretionary spending of €81m, but even after raising the pupil teacher ratio to 1:28, they would still have €63m. (The ratio currently stands at 21:1) .

Inevitably, the pressure will now come on to take another major chunk from the subsidy, which will see the ratio increase again. What would be so wrong with that? Those who defend the subsidy say this will force all the schools into the public system and cost, according to last week’s report, the state an extra €23m, thus defeating the purpose. But would it? Does anybody believe that all, or even most, of the schools would take that route if another chunk came out of the subsidy? So far, three years in, just two schools have reverted to the public system. One of those was a Protestant institution, which has been subjected to other demographic and cultural forces in recent decades.

And on the subject of ideology, what ideology could be applied to actually paying such a major subsidy? In practically all Western states private education is funded privately. The only reason it differs here is because of the evolution of education in a relatively young state. When Donagh O’Malley introduced free education in 1967, provision had to be made for the Protestant schools, which would not have been otherwise viable. Depriving those of a minority religion of an education in their beliefs, in a State that was oppressively Catholic, would have been gist to the mill of those who saw the Republic as sectarian. So, quite correctly, provision was thus made.

Onto the back of that horse leaped the bulk of fee paying schools, run by Catholic orders, which saw their primary function as educating the relatively well-off. Those who benefited most from this system were drawn from the heart of the electorate, the political classes, and the cohort which funds politics. No politician was ever going to mess around with that constituency. Now, though, the State is in receivership, the cupboard is bare, and such an anomaly is no longer palatable.

If the prevailing system of providing the subsidy were to be defined in ideological terms, it would be more right-wing than that which governs most Western states. Providing a huge subsidy for private education is something that would be too right wing even for the likes of the Tories in the UK or the American Republican party. Yet plans to tamper with it here are portrayed as pursuing some redundant socialist ideal.

In any event, the Labour party has long shown itself to be devoid of any ideology when it comes to education. That party oversaw the abolition of third-level fees in 1996. It was a cynical move designed to garner votes from those who already paid fees, rather than widen access to lower socio-economic groups. The abolition was probably the most regressive move in education in the last 30 years.

When, in 2001, then Education Minister Noel Dempsey mooted the reintroduction of fees the greatest resistance came from the alleged right-wing PDs, and the allegedly left wing Labour party. There’s ideology for you.

No, the current contrempts is all about ‘What we have, we hold”, nothing more. A similar theme informs the resistance to changing rules for third-level grants among farmers. When the rules were introduced, the farming lobby was all-powerful. No politician was going to mess with that.

Now, though, the cupboard is bare. Last year, the Higher Education Authority published figures which showed that farmers and the self employed were more than twice as likely to get college grants for their children as PAYE workers.

Over 40% of farmers, and nearly 50% of the self-employed secured college grants for their offsprings. Yet only 17% from those headed “lower professionals” got one, and 27% of workers classified as non manual workers.

Is that fair? Back in the boom and bubble days, some farmers who received grants were flogging sites for housing at exorbitant prices, while their offsprings were subsidised by the State in college.

Many farmers are feeling the financial pain being inflicted on large tracts of society, but enough of them are hiding under the cloak of austerity to ensure that the State continues to dole out to them, irrespective of their true financial standing.

What we have, we hold. That’s the only ideology informing resistance to the moves being made to effect a fairer distribution of resources. It’s dressed up in all sorts of guises, throwing in economic rationale, pleas of poverty, and, ludicrously, ideology.

Quinn is no communist. He won’t like it said, but he isn’t even a socialist, if his stints in power are anything to go by. He’s just being forced to introduce a little fairness and equity to education.

And how bad is that?

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