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Education Heads The Hit List

Posted on: October 28th, 2008

WHO speaks with forked tongue? Last Wednesday I watched the action in the Dail. Brian Cowen, the guardian of the nation, was in China. Batt O’Keeffe, the minister for the besieged Department of Education, was with the boss in Beijing. Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Finance, was absent, perhaps still chatting with his chums after a far too friendly speech to the Government’s new masters, the Irish Bankers Federation. Three key players in the current financial crisis were engaged elsewhere. Detached. Any TD who wanted a Dail question answered about Ireland’s crumbling finances had to rely on the wobbly words of Tanaiste Mary Coughlan. Mary was in charge of Ireland in Brian’s absence. A scary spectacle which evoked words once attributed to former Labour Party leader, Frank Cluskey. The socialist cynic of the Eighties would habitually survey the latest brazen folly of Fianna Fail and mutter, “That’s confidence for you!” Leaving poor Mary in charge of Ireland comes into the Cluskey ‘confidence’ category.

While Mary, flanked by Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern — two ministers with little association with the recent fiascos — was fielding Dail questions, the world outside was in militant mood about the Budget.

Old people were demonstrating at the gates of Leinster House. Students were gathering to protest about higher fees. Never since the Eighties had citizens been in such foul form with the Government.

The citizens were right. A Budget of staggering stupidity had just been passed.

Most of us were braced to become victims of the slide in the economy. Instead, Brian Cowen had decided to take shortcuts in a rush to rescue the nation from a mess of his own making.

Last Wednesday, while Brian and Batt were slumming it out in China, their poor troops were forced to file through the lobbies in Leinster House. He and Batt will be back this Wednesday when the same sorry soldiers will slavishly support the savage cuts in education.

It will be fascinating to hear what he and Batt say in the education debate; but first, let us hear what Brian had to say about his commitment to education in distant Beijing last week.

He began blandly enough.

“The development of our education system has meant we have a highly educated English-speaking workforce,” he claimed, no doubt aware of the storm breaking among parents and teachers at home.

Fair enough, but a little out of date. Surely these are not the soothing words of the same Brian and Batt, who launched an all-out assault on education a week earlier in the Budget? Not a whisper of the head of steam building up among parents and teachers about the treacherous cuts set to axe over 1,000 jobs? Or the withdrawn grants? No mention of Batt’s decision to raise the pupil-teacher ratio in the Budget?

Slick salesmanship: there is no point in telling the gullible Chinese that Irish education is in retreat; that we will no longer keep educational standards at their high levels. Peddle the positive and just hope the guys out in the Far East do not use the internet, read Irish newspapers or listen to RTE.

Probably just a salesman’s omission, but perhaps Brian’s hosts got wind of the reason for his late arrival, which he glossed over as “unfortunately I had to alter my plans at short notice”, making a government in peril sound like the death of a distant relative. But the next line in the same speech is a porkie.

“My Government is implementing new strategies which devote substantial resources to Research and Development and Innovation.”

Innovation? Research and Development activities? Ahem.

God forbid that the Chinese rumble the Budget numbers.

Page 25 of the Budget Book would need a bit of explaining. Research and Development is cut by 15 per cent. The Strategic Innovation Fund is cut by 30 per cent.

Such third-level cuts could scare off our multinationals, persuade possible arrivals to look elsewhere for better qualified employees. Next stop, emigration.

In another speech on Thursday, the Taoiseach told a trade mission breakfast: “We are taking important steps to strengthen the research, innovation and commercialisation chain across the economy in collaboration with our higher education sector.”

What a brass neck. Ireland’s third-level lecturers are in despair. And primary and secondary teachers are gutted. Far from “collaborating”, they are preparing to go to war.

The message could have been so different. Brian and Batt could have told their Chinese hosts that they had ring-fenced education because it was the soundest long-term investment Ireland had ever made. They could have demonstrated the direct link between Donogh O’Malley’s announcement of free secondary education in the Sixties and the arrival of multinationals in the Eighties and Nineties. They could have found the vision to reduce — not increase — the pupil-teacher ratio to strengthen the economy, to announce that Irish politicians saw investment in learning at all levels as sacrosanct and as permanent capital, not flexible current, expenditure.

Now, that would have impressed their inscrutable hosts. Ireland would be a candidate for long-term investment.

They could have told their Chinese comrades that we are not big spenders; that we are going to cull the quangos; that we would save €500m by halving the FAS budget; that we would suspend payments to the National Pension Reserve Fund (a gain of €1.6bn); that we would sell our 25 per cent stake in Aer Lingus to a Chinese sovereign fund; and that we would disband the great oxymoron of the semi-state sector, Enterprise Ireland.

This would be deliciously ungrateful at the breakfast, especially as Enterprise Ireland organised Brian and Batt’s little jaunt.

Sadly Enterprise Ireland is almost in the FAS league of wasted money. It talks a good book. It can organise happy jaunts — but it costs about €100m simply to run it every year.

It hands out grants to Irish companies, but has not recently produced a credible valuation of its investments. By now they must be hopelessly underwater. Its board is full of old bankers, posers and political appointees.

Unlike the IDA — the relentless pursuer of foreign investment — Enterprise Ireland is a bloated state agency seeking a role.

Brian Cowen and his colleagues bottled a Budget setting this — and other quangos — on fire. Instead, they chose to hit education, treating it as a numbers game.

Unfair? Surely Enterprise Ireland showcases Ireland’s deep interest in technology — a devotion echoed by Brian Cowen in his speeches in China last week.

He was at it again at the China Foreign Affairs University when he claimed we were a “high technology, knowledge economy with a keen emphasis on innovation and enterprise”.

On the same day that he preached the gospel of Ireland’s high technology abroad, his battered troops in the Senate at home were voting down a Bill that I had introduced to ensure that we met the most basic broadband targets.

The attack on long-term investment in education and the failure to pursue an aggressive broadband programme is ominous.

Brian and Batt’s Chinese hosts would be deeply puzzled to pay us a visit and find a nation remarkably changed from the one painted by the Taoiseach and his Minister for Education.