James Grannell sits down with Ruairi Quinn to talk revolution and reform

UCD 1968 – a group of students occupy Earlsfort Terrace demanding their voice be listened to on how the university should be run. Among the leaders were Kevin Myers, pilule Úna Claffey, mind and Ruairi Quinn. All three went on to hold prominent positions in their own right; Myers as a contrary columnist, Claffey as an advisor to Bertie Aherne, and last but not least Quinn was elected to Dáil Eireann as a Labour TD for Dublin South-East in 1977. He currently serves as Minister for Education and Skills.

Reminiscing on those heady days when gentle revolution was in the air Quinn comments, “It wasn't a university as far as I was concerned, it was a Catholic academy.”

“Philosophy was taught from the benchmark of Thomism, economics likewise, and sociology, all in accordance with Catholic social teaching. There was an informal kind of understanding, basically Fianna Fáil saw UCD and to a lesser extent the other two universities as basically the retreat for Fine Gael people and they didn't intervene very much with it…it was just poor. I mean the occupation in UCD in the school of architecture was about academic excellence.”

“We realized we were in serious danger of losing it so there was, basically an occupation designed to concentrate everybody's energies around reforming it and improving it, which is what subsequently happened.”

As part of this reform Quinn and his comrades backed a student by the name of Eddie O’Connor in his bid for the presidency of the Student Representative Council, the precursor to the Students’ Union. O’Connor went on to win the election and after his UCD days had a glittering career, he is co-founder and chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power as well as being the founder of Eirtricity.

When asked about the future for current students Quinn, who served as Minister for Finance from 1994-1997, responds by pointing out all that is positive for Ireland’s youth. He points to the markets and to the ease at which communication can take place in the modern world with its global market.

“The education they get is portable,” states Quinn. “The world is shrunk in terms of communications…I think the broad second and third level education system is good and the access that people have internationally is extremely good. There's an awful lot of academic collaborative work now taking place over the internet where people in fact don't physically even get to meet on occasions. They might have a Skype telephone conversation, but a lot of it is collaborative work done on a shared platform and shared e-mail.”

Quinn admits that there is a problem with third level funding that needs to be shored up. “I would maintain that view and sustain it by saying 42%-43% of people going into undergraduate courses in third level get some form of grant assistance, from 100% down to a limited amount. That's pretty high statistic by any standard,” he adds.

“We do have to look at the funding model for third level education and what I've said on a number of occasions is let's proceed with the implementation of the Hunt Report – that's going out to the next stage this coming calendar year – and see where we can get synergies and can get economies, where we can avoid

duplication and drive down costs and maintain standards and then look at what the viability in terms of funding actually is.”

Quinn points the finger of blame for the hikes at his successor as Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy. “When he came into Finance after I was Minister for Finance he did not index the value of the Student contribution, the replacement for the fees and so towards the end of the Fianna Fáil period the fees went up by over 900% in terms of student charge,” he states.

“What I’ve done now and I did it with a heavy heart, but never-the-less had to do it, was to say yes, we have to fill this gap and we’re going to do it. To give people notice we’re going to do it over four years and this is the way it’s working out.”

With recent talk of collaborations and mergers at third level in the national media, the Minister questions the need for duplication of courses and, given improved transportation, the need for so many smaller third level institutes.

“There's a question mark as to whether we need, given the modern technology and communications that I've already referred to, plus the transportation infrastructure which has transformed time/travel distance we’ll say from Dundalk to Dublin or from Dublin to Galway, whether we would, if you were starting today, have 14 Institutes of Technology and seven universities plus DIT. And do we need all those courses? Does Dublin city, for example, need to have three different business schools or could those business schools actually combine and share facilities, because they’re all being funded publicly.”

The Minister is also a believer that the access route for third level has to be reformed, that the junior and leaving certificate exams have to be changed and that the points system needs to be reformed.  He is committed to accomplishing these changes during the term of this government.

“Other access models have to be looked at, because while Ireland is a very unequal society in terms of power and wealth and the distribution of income, there’s no evidence to suggest that intelligence and creativity is confined to those people who also have money and status. We have to find more ways of opening the doors for people to get into third level, it’s not just the conventional route of primary school, secondary school, leaving certificate and then into college,” remarks Quinn.

The sixty-six year old Minister for Education believes that it is understandable that the USI campaign is focused at his party.“I happen to be the political minister and I happen to be from the Labour Party. If it was a Fine Gael minister it might very well be Fine Gael. But I think that’s understandable and inevitable,” says Quinn.

In relation to the USI pledge signed by the labour Party before the last general election in which that party gave a commitment not to increase fees, Quinn states: “you can’t change history, you can’t change the past and it was a decision, I didn’t take it on my own…We wanted to send as clear a signal as possible that the need for a change of government was absolutely imperative.”

Ruairi Quinn is a prime example that participation in radicalism during your student days won’t hurt your future career. However, after speaking to the man who broke the pledge and raised fees while cutting maintenance grants for third level education, I think he is perhaps a better model of how youthful optimism can so easily be crushed by a determined political career.