Irish students are up in arms after education minister Ruairi Quinn yesterday backtracked on a promiseto campaign against any increase in college fees by refusing to rule out such an increase, and confirming that the registration fee would rise by €500 ($720).
The pre-election pledge, prepared by national students' union the Union of Students in Ireland and signed before the Minister was elected to power, stated that “If elected, I will oppose and campaign against any new form of third level fees including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increase in the Student Contribution”.
Yet just yesterday, delivering a key education policy address to the Royal Irish Academy, Quinn indicated that the registration fee would increase by €500 and refused to rule out an introduction of tuition fees, leaving the door wide open for the sort of increase that's been seen in England and would almost undoubtedly make college unaffordable for many Irish students barely managing to foot the price of college education as it stands, and who continue to drop out in large number and seek jobs abroad.
The USI were quick to pounce on the Minister's policy u-turn, issuing a stern warning picked up by the media not to 'renege' on the vow, but as an Irish Times opinion writer pointed out today, with the rhetorical question 'how much are pre-election promises worth?', it really shouldn't come as a shock, albeit a bitter one, that politicians no matter what their stripe or party cannot be expected to keep to their word, especially one issued before election-time, but it is nevertheless disappointing.
Ireland's third level system currently finds itself in an unsustainable financial situation, with low funding, rock-bottom tuition fees, and record high student numbers combining to force universities into debt, and even the most optimistic of commentators would have to acknowledge that with the government's hands tied to servicing a massive IMF debt, the only way to solve the funding shortage is for student fees to go up.
Key voices in Irish higher education, including president of UCC Prof Michael Murphy, incoming TCD Provost Patrick Prendergast, and popular academic-cum-blogger Ferdinand von Prondzynski, have also been forecasting an introduction of tuition fees for months, and despite the reluctance to make it any harder for cash-strapped Irish students to pursue a college education, it seems fairly reasonable that if the system is going to need more money to stay afloat, let alone to return to solvency, it's the beneficiaries of that system, the students, that should be expected to foot the bill.
It was a bit short-sighted to say the least, then, that Quinn should have even entered into such an obviously untenable pledge which the country could so obviously not afford to keep, not to mention the naivete of doing so with an influential students' union and media breathing down your neck, but a cold reminder that whatever wonders and fireworks politicians promise to offer before voting day comes rarely if ever come to surface once the new political order comes to power.
Despite all the understandable anger, though, it would equally be a pity if the anger currently being justifiably directed at Quinn would overshadow the hard work he's putting in for third level and education at the moment.
In just the last week alone the Minister has called for a revision of the antiquated college points admissions system (the CAO), granted a key non-denominational educator permission to run secondary schools (for the first time in the history of the State), launched a comprehensive reform of the Leaving Certificate including some clever ideas to incentivize entry into the courses industry are most eagerly seeking skills in, and commissioned a new report into the 'funding crisis' currently besetting the sector to look at a variety of possible ways of getting third level back on its financial feet.
Just today in Dublin he's launching the world's first ever third level degree in 'cloud computing', to begin this year at Cork Institute of Technology, which may provide Ireland with over 8,000 jobs in the sector over the coming years.
In a country used to languishing under the effects of Fianna Fail's 'laissez faire' approach to education policy-setting for far too long, it would be a pity to overlook reforms that could have a real benefit on Irish third level in the course of -- even if a promise, even a pledge, was broken.