From Socialist Voice, October 2010

Class and education

Part 1

The president of UCD, Hugh Brady, spoke at this year’s MacGill Summer School in the Glenties, Co. Donegal. Patrick MacGill was known as the Navvy Poet and is most remembered for his book Children of the Dead End, which chronicled the life of the Irish itinerant labourers in Scotland in the early twentieth century. The book was disliked by many in Ireland because of its class-conscious criticism of landlords, clergy, and gombeen-men.
     While its organisers claim that the school was established to “celebrate the memory of [the] local writer Patrick MacGill,” it has been captured by the establishment and presents very little that even questions the orthodoxies of capitalism and imperialism today. This is a betrayal of MacGill and a travesty; it is also an example of how capitalism is able to incorporate and co-opt much that should be antithetical to it within its vast homogenising cultural processes.
     The president of UCD argued that the less well-off are subsiding third-level education for the better-off through the present tax system. He complained that universities are not allowed to charge fees to Irish students who could afford to pay. He offered himself as an example: he pays €6,000 each to send his three teenage children to private school but will have to pay only a “modest” student services charge when they enter university. Dr Brady wants to pay his fair share and also to ease the burden on those lower down the income ladder.
     Before we yield to cynicism, two things should be said. Firstly, within the narrow parameters of the ideology of capitalism and the market, which shape the structures of the world we live in, high fees for the better off would, in fact, be fairer. Secondly, the universities and other third-level institutions are committed to improving access for various disadvantaged groups: this is part of the equality agenda and is now a statutory obligation for those institutions.
     But we know that Dr Brady’s argument is hopelessly overburdened with ideology and an unthinking (as well as self-serving) approach; it takes very little interrogation to unpick it. Let’s start at the beginning. It has been estimated that Dr Brady’s total pay (including pension contributions) was more than €600,000 per year in 2008, including a basic salary of €215,549. The same paper estimated his total package at well over €500,000 a year later. Let’s look at the lower estimate of €500,000. A worker on the average industrial wage would need more than fifteen years to earn this much, while those on social welfare would need about forty-nine years to receive this amount.
     It doesn’t stop there. Dr Brady was among the university heads who refused to take a voluntary reduction in basic pay following a request from the Government in 2009: he pointed out that he had already had his pay reduced through the income and pension levies. To be fair, he was willing to accept whatever the Review Body on higher pay in the civil service recommended later that year. And in 2007 and 2008 Dr Brady had part of his salary withheld by UCD until he returned an unauthorised allowance of about €12,000 that he had received. In this light, his eagerness to relieve the less well off of the burden of supporting third-level education for the better off can be seen as quite a concession.
     Turning to the ideology that underlies this type of thinking, what Dr Brady is in fact doing is defending a class interest. Education, in this view, is a private good that can be purchased by those who are able to pay for it. All studies indicate that a third-level degree is an important gateway to higher-paid jobs, higher social status, and higher positions in the political hierarchy; in Britain the nexus between the elite public schools, the elite universities and positions in all parts of the establishment is well documented.
     By choosing to treat education as a private good, Dr Brady is seeking to purchase an advantage for his children and to reinforce privilege and the class structure. Far from benefiting the less well off, this ideology ensures that the present social order and inequalities are reproduced.
     Another aspect of this ideology is the way that family in capitalism is used as a means of enforcing and reproducing class society. Dr Brady does not propose that his children themselves pay appropriate fees. How could they? They are in full-time second-level education and, presumably, have little or no personal income. He will, instead, dip into his own carefully guarded income to pay their fees.
     This approach has two important effects and is well illustrated in other areas (such as the way young people are assessed on their parents’ income for social welfare, medical cards, and education grants). Firstly, it makes young people dependent on their parents and removes a level of freedom and autonomy from them. Secondly, it makes the family an important institution through which privilege and advantage are maintained under capitalism. Overcoming these constraints will be an essential task in the transition from capitalism to socialism.
     Nor should we be confused by the vogue for student loan schemes and a return of fees. This involves the imposition of fees, paid for through loans to the students, who will leave university with debts that will be repaid out of future earnings, which are expected to be at the higher rates earned by graduates.
     This will not eliminate the family advantage: parents of the better off will continue to pay fees for their children, while those who take out loans will be investing in a private good for future private advantage.
     It is also clear from studies that the less well off are deterred from pursuing third-level education by these schemes. They are unused to and unwilling to run up large debts, and they are unable to meet all the other costs of third-level education beyond fees: living expenses, computers, books, transport, etc. The loss of potential income from paid employment is a further important disincentive.
     Dr Brady is also among those managers and administrators in the third-level sector who are leading the drive to subordinate education to business and the market. The modern third-level institution, they insist, should provide the skills, knowledge and research base needed by industry and for the development of the economy. Rather than aiming to assist the development and full realisation of the student or to create an educational sector that conceives of itself as providing a social good to be used to create a better society for all, the supporters of this approach have succumbed to the ideology of the market.
     Industry and the market are determining the content of the curriculum and how it is developed, and an insistent vocationalism sets out to produce graduates equipped to meet the requirements of employers and become smoothly fitting cogs in the machines of capitalism.
     This is a far cry even from the idealistic visions of education held by bourgeois thinkers for centuries. When we see big business sponsoring schools and institutions in our universities we should not regard this as a positive development: it is a diminution of the already limited democracy in the education system and an extension of the sphere of direct intervention by capital.

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