Of all the missed opportunities in the peace process and its political aftermath, perhaps the most unforgivable has been the failure to develop a world-class education system here.
Education is, of course, only one storyline in Stormont’s never-ending soap opera of missed opportunities but, from nursery to university level, it is the key to tackling many other social and economic problems.
The difficulty with Stormont is that while all parties there claims to be passionate about education, they cannot agree on what education is (apart from being a useful election issue.) By often reducing it to a matter of sectarian politics, they have created three problem areas in education: policy, administration and Stormont’s tendency to tinker with, rather than tackle educational issues.
The problem with Stormont’s education policy is that there isn’t one. As a result, the number of university places here is falling. Within the next two years 2,200 undergraduate places will have disappeared, as Queen’s and Ulster cut back on staff and student numbers.
They claim that Stormont’s cap on annual student fees at below £4,000 denies them sufficient funds to maintain their previous level of provision. Stormont says it cannot increase government funding, even though the Scottish parliament’s funding levels are so generous that university education there is free to Scottish students.
In response Queen’s in particular aims to recruit large numbers of overseas students, who pay higher fees and, as this newspaper recently revealed, it hopes to increase entry levels to some courses and cut others with smaller enrolments. This will restrict access for local students, who will now face a choice between paying up to £9,000 per year in Britain, or possibly abandoning the idea of attending university.
Stormont is largely silent on the matter, because it has no strategy or policy for deciding whether fewer university places is good or bad. To do that, it would have to decide what universities are for, what they should teach and research (as happens in the Scottish parliament) and why we have no Institutes of Technology (IoTs), unlike the Irish Republic which has 14, in addition to its seven universities.
(IoTs run industry-orientated degrees and research. They are credited with laying the foundation for Ireland’s modern technological and business revolution.)
So while locals appear to have less chance of getting a university place here, Stormont thinks that the cutting edge of educational debate is its 18 year old argument about academic selection.
(That argument is a bit like a reversal of the Reformation, when Protestants destroyed statues and other imagery, regarded as idolatrous. This time around, Catholic politicians are attacking educational statues, such as the 11-plus, intent on destroying their imagery. But without a new conceptual framework for the entire education system, they are leaving intact much of the older art-work, and the beliefs they represent.)
Meanwhile, teacher-training colleges have received additional funding, even though jobs prospects for new teachers here are poor. Would that money have been better spent supporting some of the Queen’s courses destined for closure – and do we really need two teacher training colleges, when we have a school of education at Queen’s? Sometimes it is politically expedient not to have an education strategy.
Stormont’s solution is to replace older teachers with “newly qualified” teachers, but no one can agree on how new is new. A previous scheme for recently graduated teachers to help with literacy and numeracy in primary schools, was abandoned despite its obvious success.
Meanwhile, as MLAs tinker under the bonnet of the schools system, the university bus has driven off, leaving many potential students stranded.
Part of Stormont’s failure in strategic planning lies in having two separate education departments. Ah, you say, this will change after the election, when the number of Stormont departments is reduced. You are half right. Instead of two departments, there will still be two departments, but one of them will be different. The education department will still administer schools, but universities will now come under the Department of the Economy. No one has explained why.
Could it be that having failed to smash the statues, the Catholics are now hoping to control this new department, as the Reformation equivalent of taking over our two academic monasteries? If so, they will be preaching heresy, because while Queen’s is rightly set on becoming a world-class university, Stormont is planning an administrative system more suited to Institutes of Technology.
So as canvassers come calling at your door, ask them why we are reducing access to university here. Listening to their answer will be an education – but not the sort that any university could provide.