The ongoing events in the National College of Art and Design (N.C.A.D.) speak to a larger and slowly emerging crisis in the Irish educational system. Having endured increases in fees, an escalating dearth of studio space, and an ever more obstinate college bureaucracy and leadership, the students took it upon themselves to offer a list to demands to the college management. The college ignored the requests of the students, even going so far as to pull out of a meeting with the students where their concerns and objections would be voiced in person. The students responded by occupying a room in the college on Tuesday, March 24th, with further similar actions, including public lectures, having taken place in the last few days, and with more actions planned. A petition has also been circulated and signed by a number of Irish academics and graduate students, declaring solidarity with the students and the need for “another model of what higher education might be — one guided by the pursuit of learning rather than the pursuit of profit, driven by radical enquiry rather than bogus metrics”. Events in the N.C.A.D. are a microcosm of what the education system in Ireland is currently enduring.
Although having to meet certain economic and financial requirements have always been part and parcel of the lives of academics and students, such requirements were not as threatening and all-encompassing as they are now. An obvious starting point for the current attack that the education system is under is the sinking of the economy due to financial malfeasance on the part of banks, civil servants, and governments. In fact, and to my knowledge something that has never been reported on, the education system, particularly third level, was always going to be one of the first areas that would come under attack in order to save the banking system. Reading the transcripts of the MacGill Summer School of 2009, in which over forty Irish intellectuals, government ministers, and elites gathered together to discuss what needed to be done to fix the economy, demonstrates this. Of particular note was the speech given by Dermot Gleeson, the then Chairman of Allied Irish Bank (A.I.B.), and who also happened to have a meeting with the Taoiseach and Minister of Finance on the evening before and night of the bank guarantee. Gleeson, blaming the public as much as the banks for the economy collapsing, pointed out that something needed to be done in order to increase government revenue. He laid out the corrective plan as follows:
“We need to broaden the tax base by cutting out reliefs which are no longer justified; this is very much preferable to raising tax rates. Property taxes need to be less dependent on transactions and a property tax of some sort, needs to replace stamp duty, at least in part. There may be need for more user charges to fund high quality infrastructure in the form of road tolls, water charges and university fees. A carbon tax needs to balance the demands of climate change and competitiveness. In relation to expenditure we need more difficult decisions while maintaining investment in research and infrastructure. The cost of public services needs to be brought into line with costs in the rest of the economy. Excessive regulation and outdated work practices need to be eliminated. We need to reduce the long term inflation expectation back to the Euro average and we are well advanced on that project…. We need to implement public sector reform with real urgency” [emphasis added].
University fees are far from the only thing we have to worry about, however. Third level has not only had fees reintroduced in all but name, as per Gleeson’s suggestion, but cutbacks have been made across the system as a whole. In spite of such cutbacks, student numbers have increased, putting the system under even more pressure. An obvious result of such pressure is that it makes universities and colleges more pliable. They simply need the funding and will do what they can to attract such funding.