January 2014        

A front for youth’s struggle

In times of economic crisis and relentless austerity such as these, it is crucial to take a step back from the situation in which we find ourselves and examine the bigger picture. While many of us are used to the typical news digest concerning the Government’s quest for jobs and the public finances, one sector of our society is undergoing major “reforms” that receive little critical coverage: education.
      The state’s budget deficits over the past few years have been used as an excuse for the ruling class, both here and in the real centre of power, the EU, to implement fundamental changes in the way our education systems are funded. This unquestionably means the privatisation of our academic institutions, particularly at third level, as well as an increased role by businesses and “philanthropists” (i.e. wealthy private investors) in how they are run.
      The consequences of such measures will be grave for young people and society in general if we leave our centres of learning at the mercy of market forces and the destructive demands of profit.
       Last November the EU Parliament passed a resolution establishing a programme called Erasmus+, which will operate in all member-states of the European Education Area for the next six years.
      While RTE dressed the initiative up as a “€14 billion fund to help young people to study in other European countries,” its scope and aims have a far wider reach. The preamble emphasises the importance of co-operation between higher-education institutions and businesses, and apprenticeships are advocated as a means of bridging the gap between knowledge acquired through education and the skills needed for work.
      Such policies are casualising young people’s entry into the labour market, making them grateful for the opportunity to work for nothing.
      If anyone was under the illusion that the Irish Government is the only authority to have concentrated on internship schemes such as Job Bridge, they’re wrong. It’s an official EU policy line, designed to provide businesses with a free supply of highly qualified labour. It is not for young people upgrading their skills. What is usually referred to in the media as “labour mobility” has now been given the seemingly innocuous title “learning mobility” by the EU Parliament.
       The EU’s attitude towards the cost of education is contemptible. In a resolution of April 2012 third-level institutions were encouraged “to expand scholarship and funding programmes,” but in a resolution of October 2013 member-states were called on to “uphold the right of all persons, whatever their economic circumstances, to free and universal education of high quality.”
      The “social Europe” we hear of so often clearly has no concrete plan regarding the provision of accessible, affordable education services in the future.
       The position is unambiguous, however, when it comes to the more mercenary aspects of the EU’s ambitions. The Bologna Declaration states: “We must in particular look at the objective of increasing the international competitiveness of the European system of higher education . . . We need to ensure that the European higher education system acquires a world-wide degree of attraction.”
      The Bologna Process aims to standardise qualifications throughout the European Education Area, a move that benefits employers seeking graduates from countries with cheaper labour costs. It also gives support to “universities’ independence and autonomy,” which is simply a way of inviting private interests in through the front door, instead of a university being funded by taxes and subject to government supervision.
       To bring the issue home, consider Dick Ahlstrom’s article in the Irish Times of 28 October last. State funding for our universities is fast falling towards the 50 per cent mark, and this article discussed the state’s possible future role as a minority stakeholder in third-level education. The outgoing president of UCD, Hugh Brady, expressed his opposition to what he perceives to be “state command and control,” arguing that universities should be allowed to pay their own way in the world.
      How has UCD embarked on these plans? With the help of those ever-so-independent individuals, the philanthropists. Who are they? Peter Sutherland, for one, chairman of Goldman Sachs, who part-financed a €25 million development, the Sutherland School of Law. Denis O’Brien is another, after whom the O’Brien Centre for Science is named, a development supported by numerous industry partners that will cost €300 million in total.
      The sky’s the limit for these universities once they tap into the vast amounts of private capital at their fingertips. Companies such as Intel and Accenture hand over the funds, and dictate the areas where the investment should go, and where the graduates should come from. These projects will help UCD to “compete internationally for the best staff and researchers and the top rated graduates and post-doctoral researchers,” according to Dr Brady.
      The industry partners will receive a fine return on their investments, and with the means of international graduates at the disposal of the universities the question of affordable education for the Irish people will be ignored.
      Those who actually provide education are suffering as well. Both Dublin and London have used the crisis as an excuse to target teachers and, particularly in the case of the South, to break the back of the resolute teachers’ unions. The Haddington Road Agreement is simply condemning teachers and lecturers to unpaid labour. Just like their students, they are expected to work for nothing. All payments under the supervision and substitution scheme have been abolished for secondary teachers, with a minimum of forty-three hours of such unpaid work to be put in every year. Third-level staff have to contribute an extra seventy-five hours of work per year, and they will receive only 75 per cent of their former rate for marking exams.
      What is less known is the amount by which workers’ pay in the education system has declined. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that between the third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2013 their weekly wages were reduced by a shocking 13 per cent—more than any other employment sector in the country.
      A recent strike in Belfast by lecturers’ and students’ unions was supported by the Connolly Youth Movement. The CYM opposes the reforms in the education system that have taken place during the present crisis. We reject the EU agenda of privatising our educational institutions, of exposing the education system to the brutality of market forces. We oppose the continued growth of private funding in education, a development that will render our third-level institutions unaccountable and out of public hands.
      We express our strongest solidarity with the struggle of teachers and lecturers who have suffered as a result of government policies in the education system and with their unions that strive to defend their working conditions. The quality of our education suffers as a result of the exploitation of these workers. The government is not acting in the students’ interest, because it is beholden to the interests of its private creditors and the EU. Young people must act in their interest.
      The CYM supports the constitutions of Cuba and Venezuela, which guarantee their peoples an education system free of charge, democratic, and obligatory. We call on all young people to engage in a struggle for this objective.

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