A newly released report by the Higher Education Authority proposes that third-level students should be treated as partners rather than as “detached consumers”. Rather than students purchasing a contract for education, it argues that institutions should foster a sense of allegiance and commitment.
It says a lot that this report was authored by a working group operating separately to that which once directly favoured fee increases and a loan scheme. After all, shoving these two messages – partnership versus increased privatisation – into a single report would be too blatantly contradictory. If, as the report indicates, the HEA prefers a “developmental” model to a UK or US-type consumer model, the next government will have a choice as to whether to give that preference any weight in actual policy. A rejection of consumerism conflicts, at least in perception and likely in practice, with the three related notions that higher education should be privately financed, that the current level of private financing is insufficient, and that one’s ability to privately finance higher education should be directly proportional to the wage they earn upon graduation.
Student participation in higher education decisions is unequivocally a worthwhile goal. Across the country, and at all levels of decision making, students from all backgrounds should be treated as equal stakeholders, along with staff, taxpayers, etc. But just as important as the relative esteem afforded to each of these groups is the overall respect afforded to higher education. Higher education is now, or will soon be, as fundamental to Irish society and the Irish economy as secondary education has been for decades. Yet one of these institutions is universally accessible, while the other is not.
Ultimately, sugar-coated idealism from the HEA is more welcome than the alternative, but it is far from sufficient to enact meaningful change. And the report’s recommendations are exactly that – recommendations. A 2012 report on the distribution of the student contribution charge recommended student representation on all third-level finance committees. At present this idea has still not been implemented. Recommendations are an easy way to placate voters, but students should not feel content until their government prioritises sensible and sustainable higher education funding.