The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.

1940: when work camp trainees paraded through Dublin, saluting De Valera

On 8 December 1940, the 1st Battalion of the Construction Corps marched through Dublin. The 408 men wore uniform, had undergone initial training at the massive Curragh army camp, carried a blue flag bearing the Corps emblem, and were led by the Number 1 Army Band. As they passed Government Buildings on Merrion Street, they saluted the Taoiseach, Éamon DeValera, and four of his Ministers.

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

The Construction Corps was in fact a labour corps, recruited from the unemployed. Bryce Evans, writing in the Irish labour history journal Saothar, traced its origins to proposals from Seán Lemass, who had taken a keen interest in imitating the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. With rising unemployment following the outbreak of the Second World War, Lemass’ ideas were revived. The Construction Corps, run by Ministry of Defence, was the result.

Recruitment, of young unmarried unemployed men, began at the start of October 1940. As in Britain, the authorities argued that work, decent food and camp life would together help rebuild men’s bodies after the damaging effects of unemployment. The men lived in hutted or tented camps, far from the cities, and worked on land reclamation or peat digging in areas such as Connemara. And although born of war-time conditions, it lasted until 1948.

The Construction Corps badge

The Construction Corps badge

The Dublin parade took place early on in the Corp’s life. It is particularly interesting for me because this was such a public event, watched and applauded by thousands of Dubliners. There was much comment on the men’s bodies: according to an Irish Press reporter,

No onlooker could have failed to appraise these young men, their good colour, fitness and their smart military bearing.

The reporter duly drew a contrast with the unemployed ‘street corner’ city boys who were now ‘erect, healthy and determined’. In similar vein, the Catholic Herald thought that ‘This is what weakening bodies and minds have needed too long . . . we may hope for a better manhood when the trial is over’.

Ireland’s work camp system was distinctive, developing as it did in a nation where the land had historical resonance, where wartime conditions were leading to a steady flow of young men to Britain, and where severe economic disruption led to a series of significant but poorly co-ordinated government interventions. Nevertheless, as anyone familiar with work camp systems will know, manhood and health were pervasive themes: working men’s bodies degenerated if left idle for too long – hard work, solid food and outdoor living could ‘recondition’ these weakened frames.

Why taking part in the OECD Skills Survey is a good idea

OECD’s Adult Skills Survey has been hitting headlines across Europe. Newspapers and magazines in France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Korea and Canada have been full of it – as has much of the British press. But there is a curious silence north of the border, where the Scottish Government decided that it wanted no part of this particular piece of comparative research.

For all I know, the Scottish Government has extremely good reasons. A senior civil servant told me some time ago that the budget for social research had been cut back to the bone. As a result, the Government had decided to withdraw from some existing international surveys (the 2011 wave of the PIRLS survey of schools literacy, for example), and not to take part in the OECD survey of adult skills.

Further, I would expect the Government, if anyone asks, to point out that it published its own study of adult skills in 2009. But this survey used different instruments from OECD (it adopted the same instruments as those used for the previous OECD survey in 1996). Useful though this survey was, it took a different approach from the later survey, covered a more limited range of skills, and analysed them in less depth. And it was confined to one country, thought this did not stop the authors of the report from expressing satisfaction at Scotland’s ‘creditable placement’ against other countries’ performance in 1996.

Whatever the reason, Scotland did not form part of the 2011-12 Survey, which has now been published. On the plus side, the taxpayer has saved some money – or, more accurately, the citizens will enjoy the benefits of spending being allocated elsewhere. But there is a pretty massive down side as well.

Taking part provides a massive volume of data, collected using internationally agreed instruments that have been developed and tested over four years. This allows policy-makers, researchers and the wider public to undertake an informed benchmarking of their own country’s performance and to see how it stacks up against others.

This in turn turns a spotlight onto adult learning. Berni Brady, director of the Irish adult education organisation AONTAS, appeared on prime time explaining what the results meant for Ireland, and calling for the government to recognise the needs of adult learners in its new strategy for further education and training. In Britain, the BBC’s chief business editor, Robert Peston, wrote and spoke about competitiveness and adult skills.

The Survey has also shed light on some discrepancies in national performance levels. In England, media attention quickly seized on the literacy and numeracy scores of young adults, who did notable worse than older generations. Matthew Hancock, the Coalition Minister for Skills, promptly blamed the previous government’s schools policies, neatly side-stepping the fact that whoever is to blame, these 16-24-olds are already of working age.

Incidentally, Hancock’s claim doesn’t say much about his own numeracy skills. Someone who was 24 when the survey took place in 2011 would have entered school in 1991 or 1992, well before Labour came to power. However, there is enough basis in his claim to pose a few uncomfortable questions for Labour education ministers, along with those academics and others who advised them. But at least we have the data. In Scotland, where there would be huge interest in knowing how schoolchildren fared under devolution, we simply lack comparable information.

Of course, the OECD Survey can easily become a flash in the pan. Having bowed and danced in the spotlight, adult learning could soon find itself in the familiar gloom of the margins, as all the fuss and debate moves back to schools and universities. But that is partly up to those who are interested in adult learners and the institutions that support them. The OECD’s results provide us with plenty of material to nourish debate for some time to come – if we want it.

Learning our way out? Ireland’s presidential election

 I’ m in Dublin this week, attending AONTAS’ annual conference on community education. Ireland’s economic woes have tended to overshadow everything else in recent years, so it will be a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues and listen to what is going on in the adult education community. And to find out what the Irish think of their new president.

 As a nation, Ireland exercises an influence out of all proportion to its size. This is partly due to the size of its ‘diaspora’, and their continuing attachment to their ancestral home; partly to its history, which has placed it at a crossroads between Europe and North America; and partly to the wider appeal of a set of symbols and values that many people think of as distinctively Irish. One of these symbols, in recent years, has been the office of President of Ireland.

 The Uachtarain na hÉireann has few real political powers; but the sheer intelligence, grace and force of personality of Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese have endowed the role with real standing in the world. At first sight, Ireland’s latest President looks set to strengthen his role’s symbolic authority. Michael D. Higgins is, among other things, a scholar, intellectual and poet. And although he is also a veteran Labour Party politician, he has signalled a willingness to reach out and include all Ireland’s citizens, in a modern manner (one small symbol of this was his invitation to the Humanist Association to join the inauguration, alongside representatives of Ireland’s main faiths).

 It isn’t for me to judge or predict his likely impact on Irish politics, but I do want to draw attention to two aspects of his inaugural speech. First is his emphasis on social solidarity. In telling terms, he argued that the banking collapse, and the financial damage that followed, ‘has left us fragile as an economy, but most of all wounded as a society’. Building a sustainable economy and an inclusive society will, he suggested, require a common search for new values based on ‘an active, inclusive citizenship’. He quoted the Irish proverb: ní neart go cur le chéile, ‘our strength lies in our common weal’.

 Second, President Higgins signalled a new approach to the presidency’s leadership role.  In promoting inclusion and creative thinking, he announced plans for a series of presidency seminars to explore themes that go beyond a particular and specific political agenda. The first is to focus on ‘being young in Ireland’ – a raw topic, at a time when one young adult in eight is unemployed, with lasting scarring consequences that will follow these young people through their life course, and when emigration is again evoking memories of past despair over Ireland’s future. Other topics pencilled in include the restoration of trust in public institutions, and the ethical compact between economy and society. 

 This is more than a hint at the idea of a learning presidency, and hopefully also the broader ambition of a learning society. Of course, not all of the inaugural speech was new: Michael D. Higgins is far too experienced a politician to forget the importance of emphasising a common past, a unifying heritage. Nor is this the end. Inaugurations are a beginning, and much remains to be done. But for once, an inclusive dialogue, and an open approach to social and political learning, could move to the top of the political agenda.