Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn speaks to Conor McKenna regarding his plans for reform, generic university rankings and the student contribution

Labour stepped into government with a number of promises to students, medicine perhaps the most important being a vow to not increase the student contribution further. Recently they have come under pressure from student organisations such as FEE and the Union of Students in Ireland for refusing to state that they will stand by this pledge.

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has big plans for the future of education in Ireland: “It’s radical transformation at the entrance gate. The points system, the leaving certificate and the way the admissions policies of universities function has become distorted. There was a very impressive and comprehensive conference that took place in the O’Reilly Hall about three weeks ago between the NCCA and the HEA. I expect out from that very soon a report that will make a number of very significant recommendations for change in the CAO system of points.”

Quinn has remained critical of the CAO system: “ I thought that it [CAO points system] was an extension of the state examinations system which of course it isn’t: it’s owned by the universities and used by all the other participating third level colleges. A paper by Ainé Highland, former professor of education in Cork and a person involved in education most of her adult life, showed how over time this thing [CAO points system] has been gained by the universities and the college and has had a distorting, what she calls a ‘backwash effect’ into the way in which the senior cycle of curriculum for leaving certificate has been distorted and how that is even effecting the junior.” Quinn expects that while there should be a minimum points threshold for some college courses that the CAO entrance point will be changed, with the first reforms arriving for second level students filling out their CAO forms in 2012 and further intensive changes to be ready for the 2013 academic year.”

The Minister mentions the duplication of courses across the Institutes of Technologies [IOTs] as an area in which there should be reform: “I think what we’re looking at is greater collaboration and cooperation between the universities. There’s a duplication of courses in for example education and business studies right across the sector including the IOTs. The IOTs, in terms of time travel distance, are much closer to each other now than they were when they were geographically displayed and laid out in the early 1970s. Also modern technology between distance learning and IT in the form of just straightforward emails allows for greater collaboration and consolidation.” Quinn foresees the same number of students being catered for in conjoined groups of courses so that college-goers would receive the same range of topics but there would be little duplication.

Both University of Dublin and UCD have fallen out of the Top 100 universities according to the Times Higher Education rankings which has drawn criticism from Irish students who believe that not enough money is being allocated towards their education. Quinn explains: “This is a straightforward function of resources. The universities have been catering for more students with the same fixed overhead of academic staff. The ratio of academic staff to students numbers is one of the criteria that’s used… It doesn’t automatically mean that standards have fallen; what it does mean is from an international perspective, for people who don’t know the reality on the ground, we have in relative terms fallen.”

Many critics of the student contribution have stated that the €2000 charge is keeping students out of third level education, Quinn however states: “I don’t. It might keep some students out of education and I’ve always argued that there shouldn’t be a cash barrier at the entrance to third level education that prevents a student who would otherwise benefit from getting in there. It is a big issue. It’s a big problem.” Minister Quinn draws parallels with Great Britain and Northern Ireland, both of which have approved increases in student fees: “Fees are returning to these islands. University fees in the UK are going to be £9000, Sinn Fein Minister for Education in NI is introducing £3200 fee with effect from next year and that can’t be ignored.”

When asked was there any reason to that there will not be a further increase to the registration fee under the FG/Labour government, the Minister replies: “There isn’t a single item of expenditure across the country that isn’t going to be effected in some way or other. The one thing that we have from the Croke Park Agreement is that teachers and university lecturers salaries will not be effected further. 80% of my budget consists of salaries… Nothing has been decided yet. We’re in the budgetary process and it’s a time honoured tradition that you don’t – another way was from the NI peace process to talk – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” When pushed further on the topic, Quinn states simply: “Well you can do the sums”.

President of USI Gary Redmond gave Labour until the end of October to declare their willingness to honour the pledge to students with the threat of a student march, in response to this the Minister states: “Well the USI has to do what it feels it has to do.”

While Quinn accepts on behalf of the Department of Education that the student contribution is simply another name for fees, he remarks: “I still hold that view and I will do everything I can to ensure that there is no financial barrier that will prevent a student for want of means from getting in there. That’s what I aspire to do. But I do it in a republic that has lost its economic sovereignty. There’s a group of civil servants across this corridor, across that square, who are telling Irish civil servants what they can do and what they can’t do otherwise the money that pays the student grants, the money that pays the salaries of third level teachers, the money that pays people in here simply won’t come, it won’t be delivered.”

When asked would he apologise to the students of Ireland for promising something on which he couldn’t deliver, Quinn states: “I think we have to see what unfolds first. I don’t think you can be anticipating something and looking for responses until you know exactly what it is that’s going to happen.” As the pledge was mentioned Quinn was quick to respond: “I signed a pledge on behalf of the Labour Party, as Labour campaigned in the last election, I have no regrets about signing that pledge. I signed it on behalf of the Labour Party, not the new coalition government.” Quinn states categorically that Labour is not standing down on its position.

Parting words ring an ominous tone for students: “we have got to see what the shape of the budget for the next three years is going to be and everybody on this island in the Republic of Ireland is going to be effected, everybody.”