Sometime during the summer, about the time we were crossing the plains of Sto Helit on our way to the Ramtops for our summer vacation a memory passed through my mind. There is something about the M4 on a quiet sunny day that leads you to day dream. It can be dangerous, not least of all because you can lose concentration on the act of driving but mostly because you can have irrational memories. And I did.
I remembered a day, a few in fact when, as a student I sat in the large lecture hall for my philosophy lectures and how later in classroom seminars I engaged with other students in a philosophical debate on the topic of Education for Leisure. Back then we were naïve and didn't understand that philosophy is an academic pursuit in which you develop and put forward your own frequently unsubstantiated and unintellectual opinions. We blithely allowed ourselves to believe that we were magically born to the generation that sometime soon after we graduated would be working less and relaxing more as the world was reaching the zenith of automation and workers were becoming obsolete. In the great pantheon of irrational notions and now with the benefit of living hindsight that seemed to me on this sunny day to have turned out to be about as ridiculous as any thought can be. Still as we got closer to the Ramtops, and maybe somewhere around Lancre, I began in an absent minded way to revisit the notion. As we reached the Hub where the Widdershins Ocean and the island known locally as the Land of Fog were in full view, the idea became entrenched. So much for the concept of the lighthouse on the island.
South Donegal is a magical mixture of high sea cliffs, rolling seas and cultural and heritage intoxication and is one of the only places in this country where this madcap hypothesis of Education for Leisure could possibly hold true. There are no fundamental philosophical pretexts or subtexts upon which the theoretical notion of education for leisure may be vindicated and take it as read that the government has not poured extensive amounts of funding into education or attraction of high technology business or industry or indeed any business or industry in this region. They have not replaced that lack of strategy with aforementioned leisurely pursuits for workers. There has been no roll out of rural broadband which as we learned during the past weeks has just about reached its nadir. In fact the country in general has done nothing to match the determination and will power of the local people of Glencolmcille to try to carve out a future for themselves or their future generations.
In Ireland the evidence of eastern regional development and an east coast political bias is juxtaposed against a complete and utter lack of exhibition of any strategic investment in the Glencolmcille local area and is coupled with the wilful ignorance of governments to assist the local community. Therefore during the holidays and while being briefly out of contact with the outside world this social, geographical and environmental context that exists enables one to feel that here above all other places you are free from all work and that indeed there is some validity to the notion of Education for Leisure.
But we need to hold this thought and to progress carefully for it is potentially self defeating. Young people are leaving this and most likely many other regions of Ireland to travel to the 'bigger towns or cities' in pursuit of education, and a new and different way of life to that offered by rural Ireland. Many never return for there are few opportunities for the reasons of political neglect and lack of action outlined. Of course it is not enough for Generation X to read about or have an online and virtual experience of Ankh Morpork. The technological advancement made possible by education and research in the last 30 years when coupled with that same education, knowledge and pervasive information platform feeds a desire and hunger to live the different life. In parallel average family size has shrunk in the last 3 decades. In the 1990's when one or two young people left a family for 3rd level education there was still frequently 2 or 3 children who remained, grew up and lived locally and therefore the community was sustained and survived. Now when 1 or 2 young people leave to travel in search of education there often remains only the parents and grandparents. And in time they too will leave and the rural community they inherited, nurtured and created will cease to exist.
It is ironic that this phenomenon of modern day government neglect is occurring in the townlands in which Canon James MyDyer once championed the cause of rural life and the creation of local sustainable community industry. The fundamental root causes and symptoms, all of which have been the subject of debate for many years are manifest in a region beyond and around Glenties which annually plays host to the high profile political and academic debate at the Magill Summer School. Is it that those visiting commentators and politicians don't seem to care, or if they do is it only for the brief period of their stay? The evidence is that despite all the rhetoric and debate their subsequent actions don't do justice to their words.
It's time for a new and more ardent philosophical debate about education and its role in the future of rural life on the Ramtops.
On the early evening news last night, the Taoiseach, Dr. Leo Varadkar said that this was a red-letter day for third level education. I chose not to watch the late evening news and I assume they did not rerecord this little soundbite, so he likely uttered the same thing again on the later news bulletin. There were some other wisdoms of questionable meaning and intent in the remainder of his commentary as he presided over the announcement of the brand new Technological University of Dublin, (at least the people there have had the good sense to change the title from TU4D).
So what can we learn from this new Government initiative. The first lesson is that this was not a red-letter day, in fact it is far from it. On a basic level this is clear to all as the leaked announcement in the Irish papers earlier this week merited only the equivalent of 5 to 6 column inches and the item got approximately 2 minutes on the RTE Six O'Clock News yesterday and that snippet, only after the advert break and the other news of Brexit, Trump, Ryanair strikes, contractors reclaiming their goods from unfinished second level schools and lava falling on a boat in some distant location I fail to remember. To gauge the importance of this 'red letter day' event you do have to ask yourself, if TCD, UCD and DCU were merging to form a new university of any kind, would they not expect much more of a performance from the media (and pardon my slang) than 6 inches and a 2-minute quickie. I think we can be sure that our national media mostly consider this a non-event. It is interesting to observe that the senior members of the established universities are reportedly concerned about this new departure; but not in the way you might be concerned about competition. They are concerned that the Technological Universities will lower the tone. The universities have been reported as indicating that the standard set for a Technological University does not do justice to the notion of a university.
The second lesson is that this process of proclaiming a new technological university is nothing more than a rebranding of three Institutes of Technology, one of which DIT was a pseudo University in all but name, the other two are probably less capable of ever becoming a Technological University without DIT as they most likely would not meet the metrics for designation. This will be replicated around the country as the other consortia bid for second place in the designation race. It is clear and has been for some time that this is primarily a process of rationalisation. It will result in a reduction in the number of programmes on offer at 3rd level (despite what Institutes may say). It will surely weaken the role of the IOTs nationally (there is no government strategy in place to strengthen them that we are been made aware of). It will lead to a total reduction in the number of staff in the short to medium term as viability issues emerge and programmes are culled. It is intended only to reduce the cost of education/student through increased class sizes (this will occur through elimination of duplicated programmes and merging of offerings). Anyone who says, or believes different is either grossly mistaken, is being duplicitous or is deceiving themselves. This government has failed miserably to do anything to assist any of the 3rd level Institutes or Universities since its inception. They can dress this merger up anyway they like but the sector has seen a well heralded and dramatic fall in public funding and a huge increase in student numbers with no capital investment and no change in government contribution through the Recurrent Grant Allocation Model. There is no viable solution to the student loan/fees/grant system and there is a constant and recurring neoliberal theme in the governments narrative about the future development of institutes and universities as hubs for innovation, employability and regional development.
The third lesson we were offered was about employability. Focus on employability was one of the lines I heard being used to describe the mission of this new Technological University on the News at 6 yesterday. There has always been a focus on employability in these organisations. The graduates of all of them have been gainfully employed for years. In fact, initiatives supporting this 'employability and lifelong learning' were attached to one of the key metrics for designation. Creating valuable graduates who are employable by business at home and abroad is precisely what all three Institutes have been doing for many years. Indeed DIT, has being doing this for quite some time, over 100 years in fact as its mission stems from the Technical Schools of the early 1900s. Data obtained from their website shows that it educates a huge number of apprentices nationally in various phases of their apprenticeships, and of course it graduates thousands of students annually from Level 6 to Level 10 (PhD by Research) in full time and part time modes.
The fourth lesson offered was about how this university would enable access to third level education for those areas of the city that have not normally had access to third level education. This is a red herring. The creation of a new university and the dubious attachment of this university to the role of widening access and participation in 3rd level education is wrong on any regional or social basis. In infers that there are socially or regionally organised strata in society who can or may only access third level education by the establishment of Technological University of Dublin or future such universities dotted regionally. This is clearly not the case as in fact it is not the availability of CAO places or the physical access to third level that is a problem. It is a well-known fact that third level establishments are falling over themselves to accept students. There is clearly a lack of participation in third level from various regions of Dublin city. However, resolution of that problem or establishing it as a strategic objective for resolution by a new Technological University is not correct. It will only perpetuate the notion that there is stratification of access in the sector. That is a problem to be tackled across all levels of education and it can be strongly argued that a decision to attend university is less to do with the university and more to do with the 'feeder school' problem. However, should the government wish to create this as a strategic objective for the new universities then one will expect that they will also fund locally the educational development and supportive access programmes at primary and second level in the localities to make progress a possibility. This must happen if there is a perceived lack of such access to third level and to ensure that the road to hell is not just paved with good intentions.
For people on the outside the creation of the new university may seem to be a done deal. But like all mergers the pains and gains are likely to arise in the post-merger change management process. It will be interesting to see what bounce in demand this new university gets when the Leaving Certificate classes of 2018, 2019 and beyond declare their CAO preferences. Equally it will be interesting to see how this university goes about the process of setting itself up to sort out the inner turmoil that the merger will most likely create. One suspects that civil war will break out internally as the three Institutes engage in what is about to become an unholy war for 'middle earthucation'. So, spare a though for those people on the inside who must live through a process of creating a new university, some of who may have seen the conversion of Colleges of Technology into constituent elements of DIT or for others the conversion of RTCs into IOTs. There is no going back. There is no legislative loop hole for a 'volte face'. Fair winds and following seas is all that we can wish them all.
"There is a curse. They say: May you live in interesting times"