Those of us lucky enough to receive a higher education in Ireland derive benefit from it, as do our families and our communities. Indeed, over time the economy and the state are fundamentally shaped by successive generations of graduates.
The higher education system must function to provide benefit to our society and our economy, as well as to the individuals who receive that education. Our education system can – and must – promote the societal cohesion that underpins economic development and the wellbeing of citizens.
More people from more diverse backgrounds have to be able to access higher education, or else the gap between those who can access higher education and those who can’t will grow. This in turn will undermine the cohesion of the society we live in and will pose a fundamental threat to our economy and our political system.
While we still enjoy relatively good levels of cohesion in this country, there may be salutary lessons from overseas. For example, analysts and researchers point towards the “education gap” in the USA as a possible cause for the growth of disaffection in that society and similar trends are possibly being identified in the UK. Some people are linking this in turn with the rise of reactionary politics in both countries.
It can change lives enormously, transforming someone’s economic expectations, their sense of self-worth, their aspirations for themselves and their families
I believe that it is of fundamental importance that access to higher education in Ireland should continue to increase. We in the technological education sector provide higher education to a range of people – from those who undertake apprenticeships right through to PhD’s. Our function is based on the belief that higher education is a public good, not a private commodity.
The point is that the lower steps on the higher education ladder benefit society in a disproportionate way. Higher certificates, diplomas, apprenticeships, ordinary degrees – these qualifications tend to have huge meaning in communities where higher education is not commonplace. Higher degrees, master’s degrees, doctorates – these qualifications are very beneficial, but tend to have a stronger relationship with an individual’s career or earning power than the relationship they have with the public good of a given community.
For example, if we can educate a person from a non-traditional background to accreditation level, then the benefit to society of that person’s higher education is likely to be proportionally greater than of that of someone from a family or community where degrees are commonplace.
Higher education gives people a chance to change their lives. It changes communities, it changes societies for the better. We need it
The reason for this is that the arrival of a higher qualification in a family or community where higher education has not been commonplace can help break cycles of deprivation that absorb whole generations. There is a positive intergenerational outcome.
It can change lives enormously, transforming someone’s economic expectations, their sense of self-worth, their aspirations for themselves and their families. It can make earning a qualification something to aspire to, rather than something that is beyond such aspiration.
As Ireland’s policymakers address the dilemma of how to fund our chronically under-funded system of higher education, they must ensure that access to higher education will increase, not decrease.
We would be taking a major step backwards as a nation if we were to start making it harder to get into higher education. That’s bad for everyone. Higher education gives people a chance to change their lives. It changes communities, it changes societies for the better. We need it.
What I believe we need to do is to continue to grant-fund education at certificate, diploma and ordinary degree level. These are the qualifications that provide most benefit to society and therefore provide an efficient return on the taxpayer’s investment. Qualifications above this level benefit the individual above society and opens up the possibility to be funded by way of deferred debt.
This approach will ensure that we continue to make higher education accessible to those who come from non-traditional backgrounds, while at the same time secure the country’s supply of the educated labour that underpins our economic recovery. As I’ve said previously, this is good for society and for our economy. I am afraid of what might happen if we decide to fund Irish higher education by means of a loan scheme alone.
The better educated we are as a people, the better our society becomes. We need to ensure that people don’t have to take on large debts to get a higher education
In the first instance, the people who have a hard time accessing higher education often come from backgrounds where taking on debt is difficult, particularly for something intangible and long-term like higher education. Erecting cost barriers is not going to encourage people through college doors – even if the cost of education is deferred.
Such funding models can turn higher education into a private commodity rather than a public good, orienting our higher education model towards the higher qualifications that provide proportionally more benefit to the individual. This in turn may generate a larger “education gap” than we have at the moment and may also threaten social cohesion.
Significantly, this may well threaten the supply of educated labour that foreign direct investment has been largely predicated on in Ireland for a long number of years.
Are we really going to make our society and our economy better by imposing the same financial burden on the person who is coming from a non-traditional background – and whose qualification will benefit their community disproportionately – as on the person whose qualification will increase their earning power without necessarily contributing to the cohesion of our society?
What we need to do is back ourselves, to invest in higher education so that it becomes more open to more people. The better educated we are as a people, the better our society becomes. We need to ensure that people don’t have to take on large debts to get a higher education. We need to ensure there are enough places to cater for the growth in our population.
Our policy makers cannot hand the cost of higher education back to all the families of those who aspire to get such an education. This is something that nobody can afford – least of all an Irish state facing uncertain times.