Wednesday’s Royal Irish Academy dialogue on the future funding of higher education in Ireland made some things obvious: for one, the eagerly awaited upcoming working group report will not be recommending the introduction of a graduate tax, and that we will get the report by the end of December, as planned. It also made clear that the problem widely referred to as the “higher education funding problem” won’t exactly be countered with a radical or progressive solution, simply because the working group has been overly conscious of what has been done elsewhere, and how exactly things have worked in other countries.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, universities have suffered a dramatic reduction in funding. Tom Boland, the CEO of the Higher Education Authority, and a member of the working group, referred to it as “managed decline” on Wednesday – a managed decline where “everything is gradually being pared back to a bare minimum”. So, something has to change.
Peter Cassells, the chair of the working group, in setting the tone for the discussion on the day, pointed out that a graduate tax had never been successfully implemented anywhere, and said that they looked widely at how various proposals had been implemented across the world. As such, from listening to Cassells and Boland, it became pretty clear that the only proposal under serious consideration was a combination of tuition fees and a loan scheme. While it seems sort of inherently logical to only consider things that have been implemented well elsewhere, it also fails to recognise that, if we were to do this every time we need to come up with a solution to something, we will only ever end up with a version of something that has already been implemented elsewhere – a minor alteration of an existing proposal.
The Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger put this well recently. Saying that we have “lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history”, he said that we tend to fall back on a “bastardised conception of political realism”, in the sense that a proposal is only realistic to “the extent that it approaches what already exists”. As such, because this working group seems to have fallen into the trap of only considering things that have been done elsewhere, it becomes pretty clear that we are only going to be presented with some sort of proposal that is the “least bad”, picked from the heap of already existing proposals. And as such, anyone expecting something innovative, or something that would bring about actual change, needs to dial back their expectations.