Funding third-level education: Outdated models must be examined

WITH the first of this year’s CAO offers coming on Monday, students will be hoping that the points they scored in the Leaving Certificate will be enough to allow them take the course of their choice.

But the chances are that this will not be uppermost in the minds of their parents, some of whom take to using their credit cards to help fund their child in college while others resort to moneylenders.

A survey undertaken by the Irish League of Credit Unions has revealed that 60% of parents will get into debt to cover the cost of their child’s third-level education.

The Cost of Third Level Education survey shows that nearly three-quarters of parents struggle to cover costs and are spending €447 a month putting a child through college.

That is an enormous burden for them and makes a mockery of our so-called free university education. There is nothing free about it and it is about time that we accepted that fact, put in a system of proper funding for higher education, and plan properly for the future.

Last month’s Cassells report on third-level financing did not recommend any single method over another but it was clear that increased spending is required if our advanced education system is even to stand still, let alone improve.

Before we do that, though, it would be wise to consider whether our second-level education system is fit for purpose. It is governed, defined, and dominated by the Leaving Certificate, a high-stakes exam that is a test of endurance, medium-term memory, and writing skills. It is a crude and outmoded system that fails to test analytical or critical faculties and does little to prepare students for third level or the wider world of work.

When he was education minister, Ruairi Quinn acknowledged publicly that the common perception Ireland has a world class education system was a delusion. He said a belief that the Irish education system was among the best in the world was an “assertion based on no evidence whatsoever other than something of a feelgood factor that was communicated to us at home by the greater Irish diaspora who felt, for whatever reason, that it was better than what their children were experiencing in other parts of the world”.

Made in September 2013, that was a brave admission but the pity of it is that it wasn’t followed up with serious improvements since then.

We could do worse than follow the example of Finland, a country with a similar population and one that is also dominated by a large and sometimes domineering neighbour. Finland responded to its economic crisis in the early 1990s with a radical overhaul of its education system, helping it to move from 15th to first in global competitiveness.

Part of any education reform must consider funding. It is simply intolerable that out current third-level system should impoverish both parents and their children. A state-assisted loan system for students would be a good start. It is a system that works well in many wealthy countries like Sweden and ensures that higher education facilities are properly funded.

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