Peter Francis examines why the Irish education system should remain as free and open as possible.
Perception versus Reality
 
Wikipedia refers to the ‘Wild Rover’ as the stereotypical Irish drinking song. My time living abroad has often been spent tempering Irish stereotypes, particularly around St. Patrick’s Day. Research suggests that the difference between familiarity and truth are difficult to discern, which is why stereotypes often persist. Simply seeing words or phrases more often makes us more likely to believe they are true. This knowledge is well-understood by those running electoral campaigns or marketing products. To distinguish between familiarity and truth, we must be taught to question. Logic and reason must be nurtured or even provoked through philosophical debate. Through logic and reason, we are empowered to have a mind of our own that is not easily swayed by a sound-bite in the news.
 
When I went to school, teachers and schools were not ranked from good to bad. If you didn’t do your homework or pass your exams, the mirror was first pointed in your direction. This was part through design and probably in some part to do with a generation who were somewhat in fear of establishments like schools and churches. But for my generation, it did foster the idea of personal responsibility when it came to learning. The Leaving Certificate, for all its flaws in terms of its tendency toward rote learning, was rigorous and developed resilience. You could not just enter a university course in whatever you wanted, you had to work hard for it. At university, the onus was on you to an even greater extent than at school. Learning centres and tutorials were available but you had to arrange to attend them yourself, otherwise you would fail and repeat, as many did. 
 
The point is that we were constantly challenged to independently seek knowledge. This approach develops a sense of personal responsibility toward professional development and most of all - the knowledge that there is no fixed time or monetary cost to learning. In essence, our system fosters an internal locus of control – something that is linked to success in many facets of life. I will never be able to thank the Irish taxpayer enough for committing to a system which supported these values.
 
I like to think logic and reason contributes to Ireland being responsible in part for the first female Vice Chancellor in Oxford’s 800 year history, saying “yes” to gay marriage, a President that calls for philosophy to be taught in schools, a Taoiseach willing to question the president of America, a people willing to call for justice at Apollo House and a warm welcome when we travel on mass.
 
What happens when education is not free? 
 
University systems around the world that have fees substantial enough to require a student loan are in danger of promoting a regressive society. Universities with fees tend not to have a cap on student numbers and recruit aggressively to compete with other universities around them. They can have what they can hold and that includes students who may not yet have the requisite reading and writing skills. These students risk being punished mostly through continued failure, but perhaps even more so by the fact that they are more likely to complete eventually with little command of their subject nor philosophy - as several years fees are better than one.
 
What type of student can a fee paying system produce?
 
Students paying substantial fees will often have two assumptions a) I pay x amount to attend this university therefore I expect [insert any list of demands] and assumption b) if it is not on the exam why are we doing it? These two assumptions reflect the problem when money is mixed with education. It fosters the idea that everything in life can be bought and everything has a fixed time course with no requirement for proficiency. It suppresses independent thought and instead focuses only on external outcomes (the exam). This type of graduate may struggle to discern between familiarity and truth. It may be easier to convince them in societal debate that the answer is; yes or no, in or out, him or her, us and them. Often they will not have time to consider or reflect on societal issues, or their role in these issues as they are too preoccupied trying to clear the enormous debt they have be given to start their career – man has little time to consider the needs of others when he perceives his own are in negative equity.
 
What can happen to lecturers in the fee system?
 
Lecturers are more likely to avoid questioning student assumptions in a fee paying system as the focus is on student satisfaction rather than education. If questioning an assumption leads to a reduction in ‘short term’ satisfaction this can have negative consequences for university rankings and the subsequent ability to recruit fee paying students. Little consideration is given to the fact that in order for a student to learn, they must be somewhat dissatisfied. University hierarchy at management levels will not be long in applying pressure to lecturers who are mentoring dissatisfied students.
 
How can you recognise when your University system is beginning to change?
 
The changes are subtle and endemic. Social media will be big and although that is part of the modern world; when your system is changing, the social media focus will be more on advertising entertainment for students than showcasing research breakthroughs. Linked to this, the environment can slowly change from an appearance that represents scholarly activity to one that represents corporate finance. It is almost as if you can see the conformity of white wash walls and identical computer stations strangling all creative freedom.
 
Where might Ireland be now?
 
Obviously, the fee has risen to €3,000 amongst talk of a loan system. The subtleties require more attention. When I did my open days around the country it was obvious, even to a 16-year-old, from the flag poles at the entrance and the tunnel of trees that followed at the University of Limerick - this was an institute of higher education. You hoped to get in on application not to be recruited. The banner outside the university acknowledging it as ‘Sunday Times University of the Year’ does initially evoke a sense of pride, due to my obvious bias toward the institution. The attachment of non-descript adjectives such as ‘excel’ to every lamp-post on the way in - starts to make me feel uneasy. A system engaged in logic and reason knows that such rankings and adjectives have their origin in familiarity rather than truth.
 
Let James D. Watson’s (Nobel Prize for discovery of the DNA structure) remarks be a warning against future stereotypes we may create, “the Irish intellect, and the short-comings from which it was known, must have been shaped by the Irish environment, not by those genes: nurture, not nature was to blame.” The Wild Rover tells the story of a young man who sings of how his days of roving are over and he intends to return to his home and settle down – I’d like to come back to a country still seeking truth rather than promoting familiarity.