FERGUS FINLAY: Student loans for higher fees encourages elitism in education

Every third level college in Ireland keeps the points for a number of their courses artificially high, with the points system nothing more than a rationing process, writes Fergus Finlay.

THERE’S 80,000 of you out there. I hope by now you’re happy, or reasonably happy. Most of you have spent the last two years working as hard as you possibly can to get a decent Leaving Cert, and a good number of you are mature students, giving it another go. On last night’s news, there were loads of shots of smiling happy faces. A few tears, but in the main, it seemed, most of you got what you wanted. Or as close as dammit anyway.

All I can say is bloody well done. I know if I were trying to do what you have done now — even as a more than mature student — I’d be really struggling. In my day, we didn’t have the work ethos you have — and we didn’t need it. We had to attain a minimum standard, and once we got there, we were on our way.

The reward you’ve been after — the only thing you’re looking for — is a place in higher education. You’ve not only had to work hard, but you’ve been subjected to a form of cruel and unusual punishment: The rationing process known as the CAO points system.

I have spent the greater part of my life in immediate contemplation of the most grotesque and horrible of the English inventions for the debasement of Ireland. I mean their education system. Its object is the precise contrary of the object of an education system. Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate. The English are too wise a people to attempt to educate the Irish, in any worthy sense ... The education system here was designed by our masters in order to make us willing or at least manageable slaves.

That last paragraph wasn’t me talking. It was Padraig Pearse, in his famous essay known as ‘The Murder Machine’. Mr Pearse, a teacher himself of course, had strong views on all aspects of education. But particular ire was reserved in his essay for the school leaving exams, whose immediate abolition he called for. Good men will curse it in its passing, he said. It is the most evil thing that Ireland has ever known. He wanted the relevant boards sent straight to hell, where as far as he was concerned they could design competitive exams for the underworld.

There’s strong rhetoric here, of course. But I suspect if Padraig were still around today — more than a hundred years after he coined the famous phrase about cherishing all the children of the nation equally — it would be worth reading what he had to say about the points system.

Everyone knows that the points system has nothing whatsoever to do with quality in education. The president of one of our universities — a decent honest man — helpfully let it slip a few years ago that every third level college in Ireland keeps the points for a number of their courses artificially high, in order to create an illusion of prestige. He also admitted that the points system is nothing more than a rationing process. It mediates between supply and demand.

Every now and again I get a text from a golf shop near me. Amazing offers, it says. Whole sets of golf clubs with their prices cut in half. Golf balls being given away for practically nothing. Canny retailers know that there’s a new season coming, when golf addicts will fall for the latest gimmick in clubs. So they’ll be left with the stock they have unless they sell it off cheap.

That’s the law of supply and demand. And we apply it brutally to the third level education system. If a lot of people want to do a course, the points will be high. If there’s less demand, the points will drop.

So every year, thousands of young people are systematically tortured to get these points, judged as failures if they don’t get enough of them. It has nothing to do with equipping young people for the rest of their lives, or with building the confidence they’ll need to cope with adversity. Pearse called it a factory system, and a hundred years later that’s exactly what it is.

The specialists and experts will tell you that it has to be that way, because we don’t fund third level education enough. And there is no doubt that, in the worst years of our economic crisis public, spending on third-level education in Ireland fell as a proportion of our national wealth. Up to then, according to the OECD, third-level had been the best-funded sector in our country, and pre-school by far the worst.

The other thing the OECD figures tell us is that the main reason the state investment in third level and second level education is so high is because teaching salaries in those levels are high — and also because people who work academically in third level spend so much of their time teaching (this is a point made again and again in OECD reports.) On the other hand, the main reason investment in pre-school is so low is because the vast majority of the people who work in that sector live on or near the minimum wage, irrespective of their qualifications.

I’ve always believe that a good teacher, at any level, is worth his or her weight in gold. So I’m not criticising higher salaries. I do think it’s long past time that we had an in-depth look at salary structures in the higher education sectors, however. There are huge disparities between really highly-paid and secure people at the top, and highly qualified younger academics with short-term contracts and miserable salaries at the bottom.

For me, though, the bottom line is that we spend the OECD average, as a proportion of our national wealth, on educating our children, on equipping them for their futures, on enabling them to keep our economy strong. It’s a little over 5% of our national wealth, and a third of it goes on higher education.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want to see more spent on higher education — at least not without thorough-going reform. And I certainly don’t believe there is any case for making entry to third-level even more forbidding through the introduction of higher fees or student loans.

AS we all know, there is a huge lobby to pour more money into third level education, and the principal apologists for that lobby keep insisting that putting students into debt to enable them to pay more is the way to go. It isn’t. It’s just another way to encourage elitism back into the third level system.

We should be doing the opposite. Education is an investment we essentially make in ourselves and our own future. We should be working harder to make it more accessible to more people.

The last thing we should be doing is subjecting our young people to the cruelty and brutality of a rationing system. And then telling them, if they make it through that, they’re going to have to mortgage their futures to pay for their hard-won place in third-level education.

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