From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Knifing of NUI facilitates commercialisation of colleges

The announcement by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, that the National University of Ireland is to be abolished is another step in the commercialisation of third-level education in Ireland.
     When the NUI was founded, just over a hundred years ago, it was seen as appropriate recognition of Irish nationality and a step towards the democratisation of higher education. The Government’s decision came like a bolt from the blue, without any consultation with the NUI chancellor, Senate, or other relevant parties. As Richard Butler, emeritus professor of chemistry at NUI, Galway, has put it, “It is the height of educational and legal ignorance for any politician to announce the abolition of a university at short notice.”
     Even O’Keeffe admits there will be no financial advantage in the abolition—the usual excuse for killing off institutions—because it is intended to set up “an amalgamated qualifications and quality assurance agency.” The worst part of the new agency is not so much that it will be peopled by the usual expensive complement of party hacks but that it will deal with education as a “product,” and the graduates themselves will be considered products, with appropriate “quality assurance” labels attached.
     About the time of the establishment of the NUI, Patrick Pearse gave an early warning signal about the commoditisation of education. Fianna Fáil (which sometimes claims to respect the memory of Pearse) talks nowadays about “the achievement of quality-assurance objectives” and “quality imperatives.” This sort of chatter is an indication of how Americanised our public culture is.
     The abolition of the NUI takes away one important non-commercial element in third-level education and leaves the constituent colleges at the mercy of the O’Reillys, Smurfits, and Denis O’Briens. Increasingly, colleges are dependent on private donations, a lot of which come from the United States, with the pharmaceutical producers and the military-industrial complex being particularly keen to gain control of educational bodies for their research and development projects, for recruitment, for PR, and for sheer indoctrination of students.
     The result is that faculties that provide services to “enterprise” are fairly well endowed. On the other hand, university departments such as those dealing with the humanities are being constantly downgraded, and some are being closed. As things develop, we might end up with the Dunne’s Stores Chair of Industrial Relations, the Ryanair Degree in Consumer Rights, or the Bono Faculty of Cultural Development. We could even have whole colleges sponsored by transnationals—Shell UCG or Google UCD.
     All universities have had huge deficits since fees were abolished by a Labour minister without any kind of thought-out alternative source of income. The abolition of fees itself was a good and inevitable step but was done for the wrong reason: to play up to the Labour Party’s core middle-class vote. Now we have the worst of two worlds: fees are being reintroduced under a number of guises, and the commercial influence over institutions has greatly increased.
     In most colleges the president is seen now as an upmarket fund-raiser who spends more time wining and dining prospective subscribers than looking after the educational needs of students or society.
     Has any current college president given any intellectual leadership to the nation in its various crises? They are too busy licking up to fat cats who might be sweet-talked into parting with a little cash.
     To make it worse, this effort is seldom aimed at enhancing essential projects that are badly funded, but the academic management is more than willing to take any money and allow the donors to decide where it goes—and, therefore, what constitutes university education. One donor to the University of Limerick has given the money to build a multi-million “official residence” for the university president. The only outcome of such a project is the legitimisation of vulgarity.
     There is, of course, an urgent need for the reorganisation of third-level education—the whole area of post-Leaving Cert and adult education, including the university sector—but the thoughtless abolition of the NUI is a step backwards. Part of that reorganisation would require coherent decisions on the needs of Irish society and how the third-level institutions can serve those needs.
     The detachment of the universities from the general system must be tackled, and there should be no support for the oilman Peter Sutherland’s arrogant outburst, complaining there was uneven distribution between universities and what he called “Ballygobackwards RTCs.”
     The president of Athlone Institute of Technology, Prof. Ciarán Ó Catháin, has rightly pointed out that there is nothing backward about institutes of technology. A mildly progressive or half-baked social-democratic Government would also set about creating conditions that would mean not only that working-class students would have easy access to all such institutions but that universities, in particular, would have a majority working-class student body. The issue is democratisation versus commercialisation.
[CDF]

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