Gerard Howlin: Returning college students are the next unexploded timebomb

This is much more complicated than school. There is no time-out chair in college, and time is running out
Gerard Howlin: Returning college students are the next unexploded timebomb

There are conflicting responses to reopening third-level institutions. Picture: Maura Hickey

The focus this week is on schools reopening. Next Monday it will shift to the Leaving Certificate. In about a fortnight, the spotlight moves on to third level. 

Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) set the pace, in a story broken in this newspaper, announcing that all lectures, tutorials, and practical classes will be delivered remotely for this academic year because of Covid-19.  The few exceptions will be laboratory work.

And, no, fees won’t be reduced. Costs are overwhelmingly fixed, with staff accounting for over 75% of the total. That’s before another 2% public sector pay increase on October 1.

What’s emerging in third level are conflicting responses to reopening on-campus, to social distancing, and growing concern from staff and trade unions. There are two fundamental differences between third level and the rest of education. First is the older age of the students, and in Covid-19 terms that is a critical difference. 

Secondly, whatever the funding difficulties in school, by comparison, the model for funding third level is basically broken.

Those two issues have collided as colleges reopen. Irish students feel short-changed by sub-standard online education. It is not the college experience anyone imagines when swotting for points in secondary school.  It is also the exact moment that increasingly necessary resources from non-EU students who subsidise the system by paying double what we do, for the same course, vanishes. And that’s only the start of it. 

Income from conferences and high-end student accommodation often rented to foreign students in-term, and foreign visitors otherwise, is gone. We are a country with an economic model based on tax and talent. The competitiveness of our tax offering is diminishing and will do so further. 

Our future increasingly rests on the talent of our people. Irish education has a great deal to show for itself. 

The story of increased participation at higher level is astonishing. It now comprises about 60% of 20-year-olds. In 1904 on the first Bloomsday, there were just 1,773 students in Irish universities on the island.

At third level, with exceptions, standards, however, have plateaued or even fallen. It is not too late, but the issue is urgent. It is not just about the quality of education over the next few years that matters, it is the capacity of our people over the next 50 years that is at stake. 

As fewer younger, working people must support more and mainly older dependents, ever more falls on their shoulders. An immediate issue that must be sorted in the next two weeks is confusion about the physical distancing required in third level.  

Government guidelines emphasise that 2m is expected.  If that is the expected norm, the guidelines say 1m can be used in exceptional circumstances. Some colleges with capacity issues are taking a liberal approach to exceptional circumstances and are trying to use 1m across the board, arguing that Covid in itself is exceptional so 1m can be used everywhere. 

In the UK, a university and college union leader representing staff, said on the BBC on Sunday that “the mass migration of a million students could prompt a silent avalanche of infections”.

That level of concern exists in Irish colleges too. Managing concern, as demonstrated successfully in schools for now, is essential.

Clarity and reassurance are urgently required. Different colleges nationally, and different campuses within colleges, are taking different approaches. Confusion reigns as ambiguity in the guidelines is interpreted differently. 

Public confidence is one issue. Student and staff safety is another. There is little option except for some form of locked-down learning for the next academic year. 

This question is whether as the prop of foreign income is kicked out from under the system, lasting lessons will be learnt? Politically, if schools reopen successfully, if the Leaving Cert results land reasonably safely, the next unexploded grenade are the colleges.

Establishment of a Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science is potentially a good thing. 

If is simply manages the status quo, it is pointless. On third level specifically, the fact that the funding model is broken is long recognised. That’s why we asked for, and as long ago as 2016, got the Cassells Report  — to advise on options. 

Faced with a decision, every minister since has long fingered all the options. It is now out for consultation with the OECD. 

Needless to say, they won’t take any hard political decisions for us. The parcel will be passed back, and end up in the lap of Simon Harris.

It costs on average €8,000 a year — with wide disparities — to educate an undergraduate. There is a charge of €3,000. 

Some 40% don’t pay that, so the cost is carried by the taxpayer too. 

The options are increased state funding, have more students pay more, or a loan system based on the Australian model, as distinct from very different UK and US models. 

Third level would be free at the point of entry. The loans will be backed by the state and payback would be income-contingent. In other words, you start repayments, when you reach above a certain threshold.

Unsurprisingly, there is no free lunch. Someone must pay. The solution so far has been to do nothing and put ever higher numbers of students into an increasingly stretched system. The quality of education is under strain. That in a nutshell is our future capacity as a country. It is very important stuff. Right now, no will to do anything is in sight. The backlight of Covid-19 on third level shows up the consequences of that indecision.

The inevitable vulnerability of state funding, and a waste of resources for purely political purposes commensurate in their consequences with the abolition of domestic rates in 1977, was apparent when Labour in government abolished third-level fees in the 1990s. It buttered the backsides of the better off. It led to a boom in fee-paying second-level schools, as third-level fees were reapplied to social climbing different rungs of the ladder.

The then opposition spokesman on education Micheál Martin lambasted the decision. Now a quarter of a century later, the chickens have come home to roost. They are generally about 20 years of age. They have an innate instinct to diminish social distance, with every opportunity provided by nature. It takes a special discipline at that age to be stand-offish. And they are not children, who are less likely to convey the virus. They are gathered from all corners of the country, frequently live together in close proximity, and regularly disperse and re-converge between home and college. This is much more complicated than school. There is no time-out chair in college, and time is running out to settle on what the new normal will be.

Getting colleges through this year must be the priority of the coming days. Getting third level education fit for the next generation must be the work of the coming months.

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