Three-D Issue 18: Higher education in Ireland

Gavan Titley
National University of Ireland, Maynooth

According to The Guardian (22 March), Ireland is back in recession. While many people may be surprised to hear that it had exited it at all, of late, this news was cast as a domestic and European political blow, undermining Ireland’s post-sovereign role as a ‘poster child for austerity’. Now administered by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, ECB and IMF, state actors had grasped at the consolations of semiotic capital – and swallowed the indignities of being put on display as the obedient pupil of a thoroughly politicized iteration of ‘fiscal discipline’ – but now even that thin fiction has been unpicked. Of course, this is only a story within a story, as the primary fiction of the Eurozone crisis has been the pretence that ‘austerity’ can deliver economic growth, or that growth is in fact the aim. Rather, as Wolfgang Streeck, has argued, ‘austerity’ is the message that ‘capital whisperers’ must communicate to assuage striking capital investors that their investments have been guaranteed by being socialized, and that democracy will not be in a position to interfere with this transformation in the nature of the state.

Ireland’s specific experience of what David McNally has termed the ‘neoliberal mutation’ largely stems from the government’s historically unprecedented decision, in 2008, to offer a blanket guarantee on deposits and bonds in six banks. Having offered a blind guarantee for at least €440 billion of bank debt, thus underwriting what have been revealed to be fundamentally corrupt and mismanaged banks, the government exposed the state to the possibility of sovereign, public default in the event of a private bank ‘credit event’. As investor confidence drained, a period of post-sovereignty, which consolidated the transfer of vast sums of private debt to the public in Ireland, was implemented. The EU-IMF loan agreement, signed in late November 2010, involved the transfer of €17.5 billion from the National Pension Reserve and other funds to the international loan fund, and was structured through a series of coercive ‘policy conditionalities’ specifying spending cuts, tax rises and privatizations.

As a consequence, public services of all kinds have been cut, and public investment programmes suspended. Predictably, this has been accompanied by a top-down moralization of austerity politics: identifying the undeserving poor, the mushrooming legions of fraudsters, the useless readers in under-performing schools, and so forth. While not comparable with the violence perpetrated on society in Greece, the anecdotes of humiliation and despair are everywhere for those who care to listen; a social worker friend told me recently of a local man with a serious lung condition who had his fortnightly allowance of oxygen bottles reduced from 4 to 3. The ECB presumably approved a 25% reduction in breathing.

In education, a series of cuts from 2008 have in effect targeted supports for the socio-economically marginalized, from eliminating language supports for migrant children; to teacher cuts at schools previously qualified for additional supports due to their designated ‘disadvantaged’ status, to the withdrawal of a suite of educational supports for the Travelling community. Yet the reduction of the education budget co-exists with an excitable political discourse concerning the education systems poor showing in the Pisa rankings, and fears that the teaching of maths and science subjects may hinder progress to STEM subjects at third level, and thus diminish Ireland’s attractiveness as a base for foreign direct investment.

The university sector exists in a similar bind. The release of the 2012 World University Rankings saw a widespread recognition of the chronic under-funding of the sector, underlined by the absence of any Irish university in the Top 100 (this fetish should not be encouraged, but…). The ‘austerity’ cuts were first implemented in 2008, when the Higher Education Authority instructed the universities to reduce staff by 3% over two successive years, a reduction exacerbated by the already high staff student ratios across the sector during a period of record student numbers. Concomitantly, university staff were subject to the series of pay cuts and new forms of deduction implemented across the public sector between 2008-10, reducing salaries by anything up to approx 21%. The so-called Croke Park Agreement, a public sector pay deal in place until 2014, has stemmed this trend, but has opened the door to the fast-tracking of new forms of managerialism that have yet to full play out.

Posted by Einar Thorsen