Free second level education in Ireland: a near escape

It takes a special kind of talent to propose a policy which is at once the political equivalent of a dirty bomb, economically retrograde, socially regressive, and fiscally meaningless.  The revelations today in the Irish Times that the Dept of education proposed  the beginning of the abolition of free second level education suggests that such talents do exist within the buildings on Marlborough Street.

In 1966 the then Minister for education Donnagh O’Malley  went on a not quite in solo run  and announced in effect that second level education would no longer be, for the vast majority students, a fee-based service.   There is considerable opacity still as to the extent to which this was his own initiative, was discussed at Cabinet.   The late great John Healy,  was book on the death of Irish country towns No One Shouted Stop  has disturbing echoes of the reality on the ground again, wrote an article in Magill magazine where he reflected on the political machinations around the initiative.

regardless of the political aspects, the reality is this ;  despite the fact that there are “voluntary”  contributions of a fairly sizeable amount expected from parents there is no formal fee-based mechanism for accessing second level education in Ireland.   Kevin Denny  in University College Dublin has written on education extensively, and is of the opinion  that while the trends were towards greater participation in second level education the 1967 68 period saw step change.  It is not the average number of people attending second level education but distribution that counts.   Prior to the removal of fees students at the lower socio-economic cohorts were priced out of the market.  They were not able to access second level education, and so their talents were squandered.   Unlike the removal of university fees, where much of the spending by middle-class parents that would otherwise have gone they was diverted to grind schools in order to ensure that students guaranteed a place in University, in 1967 and 1968 this was an ambiguous transfer of money and resources from the taxpaying class.

Four days before the Fianna Fail  and Green party decided to give up to €450 billion to support private capital the Cabinet was looking at saving €32 million,  or .007%  by reversing 40 years of social inclusion.  This continued on the agenda for cabinets and budget discussions through to 2010.   It really shows how desperate, in every sense of the word, that Cabinet must have been.   Starting at €200 this compulsory charge would inevitably have expanded.  We have seen a third level that charges, under whatever guise, creep upwards.  Once there is a fee for use then the government can begin to wash its hands of providing sufficient resources, in the knowledge that you can continue to boil the frog.   This proposal would, if carried through, have resulted in the existing voluntary charges plus a compulsory charge of several hundred euro being levied on all parents per child to access second level education.  Combined with the effects of the fiscal and banking crisis over the last four or five years this would have had the consequence of reducing the number of students at second level.  The students would have dropped out, as soon as they were legally able to do so, and would have either emigrated or gone  onto one of the myriad of “job activation” positions.  It would have been socially calamitous, and economically in the medium term ruinous.  However it would have saved €32 million, which would buy a bond holder a nice yacht.

The Dept of education in the 1960s was aware of the arguments in favour of free second level education.  They sat on the reports, or at very least did not advance them to the ministers priority.  It would seem that that attitude, the Christian Bros and feepaying schools boys, the attitudes that the children of the poor don’t really deserve education, the “sure what would they need that for” approach, this hasn’t gone away.  Somebody somewhere in the Dept of education proposed this measure.  This then went to the Dept of Finance, who saw sufficient merit in this odious plan, while being busy missing the meltdown of the departments core responsibility namely the finances of the state, to advances through the Dept of the Taoiseach and the office of the Cabinet on to the Cabinet table.   That Cabinet then rather than flinging it back as something that was in fact beyond the pale tabled it, and revisited it indeed.   Desperate stuff indeed.

It is often argued that  nothing is off the table when it comes to budget discussions.  This is palpable nonsense.  Governments do not decide as to the merits of executing the old, before they become a burden on the state.  Perhaps this is because the elderly tend to vote a lot but still… Yes, hard choices have to be made.  It’s very easy for commentators such as myself to sit outside and pick holes.  To some extent however that the duty of informed citizens, to hold up a mirror to the government and to ask them whether or not they recognise the people therein.  That this proposal even made it to Cabinet suggests to me that one of two things is in operation.

First, it could represent a serial failure of sense, that nowhere along the way that somebody have the common sense or wit to ask whether or not this was a good idea,  from a holistic perspective.  Second, it represents the re-emergence of the dreary attitudes that we thought we had got rid of, the class-based, them and us, the frank “croppy lie down”  attitude which the conservative revolutionaries of the 1920s embedded into the Irish psyche.  The two of these are indistinguishable from the outside.   It would be tremendously helpful were some minister from that Cabinet to stand up and outlined to us what exactly happened in relation to this proposal.  It is odious, it’s iniquitous, and I suspect that it hasn’t gone away.


2 thoughts on “Free second level education in Ireland: a near escape

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Free second level education in Ireland: a near escape

  2. cormac

    Sigh. Even John Healy gets this story wrong; in Ireland, we are almost incapable of giving credit to civil servants.
    The truth is that O’ Malley was not at first the great advocate of free second level education he is made out to be; in fact he was a slow convert. I know this because my grandfather was secretary of the dept of education at the time. Senior civil servants had been trying to persuade politicians for *years* that the proposal would be relatively inexpensive and make a huge difference. George Colley was the first to listen, but lost his position. And so the O’Malley myth was born.
    Needless to say, no journalist or academic has ever made the effort to find out which civil servants came up with the policy


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