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The price of education
The increasing privatisation of third-level colleges is a cause for concern.
Eamonn McCann, 01 Oct 2004
Up in the morning and out to school the teacher is teaching the golden rule, that nothing ain’t worth nothing if it’s free.
Anything you don’t have to pay for is worthless. Things unmeasurable in money don’t matter.
Free education? If you get it for free you’ll have learnt nothing of life.
Thus the rationale for putting colleges and schools – and hospitals and water and sewerage and anything else you foolishly imagined a civilised necessity of life – at the mercy of the market.
A few years back, a disgruntled British Labour MP, listening to a Tory minister threaten privatisation of water, growled that, “The next thing you know, they’ll come after the air.”
The next thing I knew he was a Labour minister (Dennis McShane) applauding at conference as some policy wonk wittered about air space being a “resource” to be subjected like any other to the rigours of the real business world.
If they can flog off fresh air, what price the school round the corner? There’s no ready answer to that: the price will be set by supply and demand.
It’s not long ago – it can’t be, I remember it well – that the argument which raged in the academies was whether the point of education was to blossom all the potential within every individual or to benefit “society as a whole”. Nobody that I recall mentioned boosting the profits of this or that outfit so as to incline them to set up shop or stay put in these parts. Now, no payback for the economy means no place on the prospectus.
The policy consensus is that education must meet the needs of business, and business, therefore, should pay and play its part. So, Public Private Partnerships. Under PPPs, the private sector builds colleges or schools and runs them for 25 or 30 years, collecting annual payments from the State for its services. Because the initial costs don’t appear on Exchequer accounts, ministers can claim a saving. But annual payments have to be set at a level which guarantees significant profit: otherwise, what would be the point? Some say it’s like buying a house on a mortgage. Experience suggests it’s more like on a credit card. The key point is: in the end, it’s the public purse which pays, the private sector that profits.
Five secondary schools have been built in the Republic on a PPP basis by Jarvis Plc. Yes, the same Jarvis whose performance in the privatised railway service in Britain (the Hatfield disaster springs to mind) was a factor in forcing the effective re-nationalisation of Railtrack. Jarvis has also won the contract to build and run the new Cork College of Music. The deal envisages profits of E23 million. That’s almost 23 million more than Rory Gallagher ever made from music in Cork. And by an outfit with a rock-bottom reputation in its own country, headed by serial Tory adulterer Stephen “Shagger” Norris. Shagger and the shareholders will pocket an additional E11 million from the secondary schools scam.
Education is Not for Sale (ENS) suggests that this money might better be spent on education. The group was established last month by teachers, students, journalists and others to oppose the commodification of Irish education. Its immediate aim is to “highlight the corporate takeover of universities and schools.”
PPPs are not the only path towards commodification. ENS has highlighted the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at NUI Galway, a joint enterprise between the university and US corporation Hewlett Packard. Researchers from the company work within the university, studying and advancing web technology.
Or consider the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) (no, I haven’t a clue, either) at Trinity. Its industry partner is Intel, whose website explains: “By building technical leadership and research capability, CRANN allows Intel Ireland to add value to its existing operation.”
Science Foundation Ireland (aka, the tax-payer) has kicked in 12 million to DERI and 10 million to CRANN. The tax-payer is subsidising the companies’ R&D through the State educational system. The areas of research and content of associated courses are dictated by the companies’ needs.
The activity and ethos of sections of our leading universities is thus shaped by the requirements of individual global corporations. Against this background, intellectual freedom, the idea of untrammelled search for knowledge and truth, seems silly indulgence. A project or course with no potential to give the relevant company an edge over rivals has no point.
Other paths, too, open up towards the market. Companies sponsor specific facilities or posts. The practice is commonly presented as charitable donation. ENS points to the more banal truth exemplified in that fact that British Petroleum sponsors operations at seven British universities at which five times more money is spent on devising new means of using oil and gas than on renewable sources of energy.
It’s scarcely surprising in these circumstances that a notion emerges that universities themselves should compete in the market-place. An official Irish report on enterprise strategy suggests that, “An element of...public funding should be tied to performance and allocated on a competitive basis.” Courses attractive to large numbers would readily win funding, specialised and minority subjects scramble for the little that’s left. Going with the flow would attract a premium, cutting against the grain endanger your grant. Classics have already largely been ditched. Subjects like social anthropology are under severe threat. The existence of small specialised departments, even regional instututions, is put in jeopardy.
We are far away and receding farther from the idea of a university as a space where research, study and thinking outside and even against the prevailing pressures of society is not just permitted but encouraged to take place.
Government is avid to attract business into universities so as to bridge a funding gap. Despite no end of blather about the role of education in the gestation of the Tiger, the Republic spends less than five percent of Gross Domestic Product on education, compared with six point one in the comparable countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).
The revival of the idea of student fees points one way towards filling the shortfall. This would meet with resistance, but may be brought forward piece-meal. Another way is to go further and faster down the privatisation road. Private universities, or fully private departments within universities, could sell their courses at whatever rate the market might stand. Don’t doubt that this possibility is being pondered in predictable places right now. The chairman of the Higher Education Authority, Don Thornhill, recently mused in public on the attraction of some Irish universities shifting wholly into the private sector, modelling themselves on self-sufficient Harvard or Yale, where this year’s average annual student fees are respectively set at $40,450 and $37,000.
In political and business circles all across the western world, the idea of education as a right is in retreat. European Union documents on education, as on health, now casually refer to students and patients as “customers.” An organised fight-back against this coarsening of our cultural and intellectual life and the curtailment of the rights of generations to come is well overdue.
ENS is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.