Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am seeking departmental support on this issue of recognition and acknowledgement for teachers who graduated prior to 1974, most of whom have now retired. These individuals played an invaluable role in shaping the minds of countless students and dedicated their lives to imparting knowledge and wisdom.
I was recently approached by a wonderful Louth woman, Angela Rankin. A retired teacher, she spoke to me about her life dedicated to education and the pupils she taught along the way. She highlighted two connected issues to me. First, those who graduated from teacher training colleges prior to 1974 should be awarded an honorary degree, as is being done in many UK universities. Many Irish teachers who studied in the UK have been an honorary degrees as recently as this summer. Second, I wish to highlight the strike in which her class in Carysfort College of the years from 1971 to 1973 bravely and boldly took part, as a result of which they were denied a graduation day. The year 1974 marked significant change in the landscape of teacher training, with teacher training programmes becoming bachelor degree qualifications.
Teachers make a lasting impact on our lives. These exceptional individuals embody a love for learning and dedication to their students. They instilled in us a thirst for knowledge, challenged us to think critically and prepared us for the challenges we would face in the wider world. These teachers deserve recognition for their outstanding achievements. They deserve to be honoured for their commitment to educating generations of this nation. One way that can be done is by acknowledging their academic achievements through awarding honorary degrees to these exceptional educators. An honorary degree is a prestigious accolade reserved for individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to their fields. Awarding honorary degrees to these teachers would acknowledge their exemplary academic achievements and lifelong dedication to teaching and would follow suit with UK universities, which have already taken that step.
The second issue I wish to highlight is that in November 1973 approximately 600 women students in Carysfort College decided to strike in protest at the way in which the curriculum was taught and the college governed. The protest soon evolved into calls for the college authorities to give official recognition to the students' union as the premier body representing student interests and to recognise its constitution. The protest was successful. It was not a silly strike. It was not without potentially serious consequences for the students. Before the strike, many young women were sent home with very little excuse or reason and denied the opportunity to become a teacher. It could be described as a regime. The young women in Carysfort College had to live under incredibly strict rules. The rules included that they must not "adopt immodest poses, talk loudly or laugh boisterously in public, utter coarse or irreverent exclamations, drink alcohol at dances or entertainments, attend improper cinema shows, plays or all night dances or partake in immodest or suggestive dances or sea-bathing". I remind the House that this was the 1970s - the time of The Beatles - and not the 1920s. They had no autonomy. They ate what they were told to eat when they were told to eat it. They had strict curfews and no hot water. They had no right to have their views heard or changes made socially or academically. One person said that even a four-year-old nowadays would rebel against that regime. These women exhibited a determination that can only be admired. It was a pushback against the chains Irish society put on young girls and women. They said enough is enough and they rallied and rebelled but never neglected their studies. They left Carysfort and other teacher training institutes and went on to educate a generation of people. Women like Angela Rankin empowered and facilitated my generation and that of the Minister of State to continue to push for societal change. I refer to the change there has been in recent decades. Education has been this country's liberation. Our educators are responsible for that and should be acknowledged.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Foley. As noted by the Senator, in the early years of the State the Department of Education had a direct role in funding and oversight of teacher training colleges, which provided all primary initial teacher education, while preparation of teachers for post-primary education took place largely in universities. Reforms in the 1960s and 1970s saw adjustments to primary initial teacher education programmes and increased State attention on post-primary initial teacher education programmes, due to the introduction of free second-level education. In 1971, driven by wider reforms across the education system, the Higher Education Authority was established. During the 1970s, the teacher education programme was expanded from two years to three years and each teacher training college was affiliated to a university. Today, all programmes of initial teacher education for primary and post-primary levels are subject to accreditation by the Teaching Council for the purposes of registration. Academic accreditation from the relevant awarding body is a key requirement within this.
As regards the awarding of honorary degrees, Irish higher education institutions are autonomous bodies, as set out in legislation, and, as such, the management of academic affairs, including the awarding of degrees, is a matter for each individual institution. Higher education institutions may grant honorary degrees at their discretion, subject to particular procedures and criteria. For some institutions, staff, students and alumni of the institution can nominate candidates for honorary degrees. For others, members of the public may also make a nomination. Honorary degrees are typically awarded by a higher education institution to acknowledge an individual’s outstanding contribution to scholarship, society, culture or civil society. A significant connection to an institution in some capacity is often a criterion in the evaluation of nominees. The Department of Education has no role in those processes and it is not within the discretion of the Minister to award an honorary degree. The Minister cannot direct an institution to confer an honorary degree.
I accept the institutions are autonomous bodies and the universities are autonomous in the awarding of honorary degrees. However, what I am asking the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and I, too, will bring back to her, is that this is not a normal situation. As a teacher, the Minister, Deputy Foley, knows teachers who trained prior to 1974. It is within her ability to support this call and to write to the universities to invite them to consider this at their discretion. It is not a normal situation.UK universities have honoured Irish people and given them an honorary degree as an acknowledgment of their exceptional work for this country educating people, dare I say, including most of us in this room. The Minister can support this. While she might not be able to do it, confer it, or direct it, but she can support it.
I will definitely pass that back to the Minister. I have had the pleasure over the years to meet some extraordinary graduates of Carysfort who have made an enormous contribution. Given that it is 50 years since the protest referred to by the Senator, I encourage her to nominate some Carysfort graduates for honorary degrees in the relevant institutions and engage in efforts to mark the protest given that it is 50 years ago. I will pass her views on the overall issue back to the Minister.