Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
When I read the Government's amendment to our motion earlier, I thought that George Orwell had been resurrected and put to work. I am sure he would not want to be writing Government amendments. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the slogan of the regime famously was "War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength." The Government's amendment suggests that what are the highest fees in the EU are free fees. The free-fees scheme that is lauded in the Government's amendment ignores the reality as has been pointed out of the highest level of fees for third level education in the EU.
Covid has shone a light on many unsavoury parts of our society and has laid bare realities about the class-based nature of the society in which we live. It has definitely done it in the case of education. It has highlighted the abuse and exploitation of student nurses working for free but has also shone a broader light on the reality of free labour not just by student nurses, but also by others. It has shone a light on the precarious, insecure and low-paid conditions of more than 50% of those who are working in our third level institutions. It has highlighted very clearly the inhumane, horrific and anachronistic system of the leaving cert. It has also shown that we do not need it.
Our motion and the Government amendment reflect two very different visions of how our education system should be structured and what it should be aimed at. The Government's amendment fundamentally defends the status quo. It sees education as a mechanism to train workers up for the profit maximisation of corporations in the future. It defends a system which is absolutely steeped in inequality. It reflects the inequality that is in society generally and then it is accentuated.
It stands over a system where 99% of young people who grow up in Dublin 6 go to third level institutions when it is only 16% for those in Dublin 10. Those figures can be replicated in different parts of Dublin or different parts of the country. It stands over this anachronistic and entirely unnecessary system of the leaving cert which puts incredible pressure on young people's mental health. It charges people at least €3,000 a year for third level education, and for international students the fees are many times that amount. It does not provide the necessary grants for people to be able to live and it exploits free labour across the board but in particular from postgraduate researchers.
The alternative put forward by our motion is a vision of education as a right rather than a privilege and as a public good where we do not ration access to third level education; where there is a place in third level education for everybody who wants to have it; where we do not have fees; where we actually have free fees as opposed to the name "free fees" hiding a fee of €3,000 or more; where we have living grants that are sufficient for people to be able to survive on; where we protect the tenant rights of students; and where we pay researchers for the work they are doing.
I listened to the response the Tánaiste gave Deputy Boyd Barrett earlier. Basically, he suggested that this was all unrealistic stuff. Fundamentally what he meant was we cannot afford this. It is a political choice by the Government to claim we cannot afford to get rid of fees for third level education, which would cost only €250 million and to do it for postgraduate students would cost a further €66 million. It is something that we in the socialist left have included in our budgets every year. However, the Government makes a political choice not to prioritise and not to open access to third level education in this way while it simultaneously claims not only that we can afford not to charge the big multinational corporations, such as Apple, basically any tax at all in this country, but that we have to do so. We can afford pay rises for Deputies and can afford extraordinarily high rates of pay for the Secretary General in the Department of Health, the head of the HSE and so on.
As socialists, we favour making a very different political choice. We favour using the wealth in our society to benefit the vast majority of people as opposed to those who own the means of production - the big corporations - and shaping education for them.
There are many examples that can be given to show the wealth exists for us to be able to do this. I wrote an article recently outlining the case for a Covid tax. In a number of ways we could raise over €20 billion in terms of trying to tax some of those who have benefited from the Covid situation. The point is, the wealth exists to do it. It is a political choice not to do it.
I congratulate the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, for the Education for All campaign. In a way, this is a part of that campaign which was launched last week. It is clear this motion will be voted down by the Government. Presumably, unfortunately, the Green Party Deputies will go along with that, together with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies, but that is not the end of the campaign. The reason nominally free education - the free fees in terms not of the capitation fee but the original fee - was done away with is precisely because there was a student movement which pushed for it. That is what we need to build again.
I will conclude with one point on the postgraduate workers, which I have raised a number of times with the Minister. It is a disgrace that our universities are using unpaid labour by way of postgraduate workers and the Government is turning a blind eye to it. Last October, the Minister admitted it was common for PhD researchers to have to do five hours of teaching a week. Nobody should be working unpaid in our universities. It is time to recognise the work of these postgraduate workers, not just their teaching work, but their research work, and to pay them a living wage with proper employment contracts and rights. The Minister said previously to me he would be happy to engage with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance and he spoke about a group bringing people together, but the alliance has not heard anything further on it. Will the Minister make contact with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance?