Education Versus Neo-Liberalism

(Originally Published at in April 2015)

The ongoing events in the National College of Art and Design (N.C.A.D.) speak to a larger and slowly emerging crisis in the Irish educational system. Having endured increases in fees, an escalating dearth of studio space, and an ever more obstinate college bureaucracy and leadership, the students took it upon themselves to offer a list to demands to the college management. The college ignored the requests of the students, even going so far as to pull out of a meeting with the students where their concerns and objections would be voiced in person. The students responded by occupying a room in the college on Tuesday, March 24th, with further similar actions, including public lectures, having taken place in the last few days, and with more actions planned. A petition has also been circulated and signed by a number of Irish academics and graduate students, declaring solidarity with the students and the need for “another model of what higher education might be — one guided by the pursuit of learning rather than the pursuit of profit, driven by radical enquiry rather than bogus metrics”. Events in the N.C.A.D. are a microcosm of what the education system in Ireland is currently enduring.

Although having to meet certain economic and financial requirements have always been part and parcel of the lives of academics and students, such requirements were not as threatening and all encompassing as they are now. An obvious starting point for the current attack that the education system is under is the sinking of the economy due to financial malfeasance on the part of banks, civil servants, and governments. In fact, and to my knowledge something that has never been reported on, the education system, particularly third level, was always going to be one of the first areas that would come under attack in order to save the banking system. Reading the transcripts of the MacGill Summer School of 2009, in which over forty Irish intellectuals, government ministers, and elites gathered together to discuss what needed to be done to fix the economy, demonstrates this. Of particular note was the speech given by Dermot Gleeson, the then Chairman of Allied Irish Bank (A.I.B.), and who also happened to have a meeting with the Taoiseach and Minister of Finance on the evening before and night of the bank guarantee. Gleeson, blaming the public as much as the banks for the economy collapsing, pointed out that something needed to be done in order to increase government revenue. He laid out the corrective plan as follows:

“We need to broaden the tax base by cutting out reliefs which are no longer justified; this is very much preferable to raising tax rates. Property taxes need to be less dependent on transactions and a property tax of some sort, needs to replace stamp duty, at least in part. There may be need for more user charges to fund high quality infrastructure in the form of road tolls, water charges and university fees. A carbon tax needs to balance the demands of climate change and competitiveness. In relation to expenditure we need more difficult decisions while maintaining investment in research and infrastructure. The cost of public services needs to be brought into line with costs in the rest of the economy. Excessive regulation and outdated work practices need to be eliminated. We need to reduce the long term inflation expectation back to the Euro average and we are well advanced on that project…. We need to implement public sector reform with real urgency” [emphasis added].

University fees are far from the only thing we have to worry about, however. Third level has not only had fees reintroduced in all but name, as per Gleeson’s suggestion, but cutbacks have been made across the system as a whole. In spite of such cutbacks, student numbers have increased, putting the system under even more pressure. An obvious result of such pressure is that it makes universities and colleges more pliable. They simply need the funding and will do what they can to attract such funding.

With the future of funding for education being unclear, it means that only certain types of education are desired whereas others are to be pushed aside, or, where possible, completely denied. In the former groups falls the traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) courses. Such endeavours are to be and encouraged and funded where possible in order to meet the requirements of the labour market. Quoted in the 2013 edition of The Sunday Times’ University Guide, Tony Donohue, the head of education policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (I.B.E.C.), stated that, “The more expensive a course is to deliver, the more expensive it should be to purchase.” However, he appended an important caveat to his preference for an economically managed education system by adding that such a rule “should not be absolute”. Instead, due to the need for graduates in the sciences in order to satiate the labour markets, and in spite of the fact that even though such kinds of courses are “more expensive to deliver, the government could subvent the cost of that for economic policy purposes.”

In the same article, Martin Shanahan of Forfas, the Irish national policy advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation, argued that what was added to Donohue’s suggestions by arguing that what was needed from graduates was “flexibility”. In this case flexibility is “about learning to learn”; or to translate it into English, it is about to learning to be able to work in multiple areas across multiple fields because that is what capital dictates. It means long-term job insecurity. It means being flexible enough to know that, as a person, you are superfluous and should therefore show the appropriate deference to the “masters of mankind”, as Adam Smith once quipped. These are not the fringe ideas of an extreme-right business class. In fact, these ideas are the norm when it comes to the current so-called reforms of education that are being called for. A particularly salient example of this took place during an event in the N.C.A.D. itself in 2012.

In May of that year, a workshop was held on the issue of “enabling teachers for entrepreneurship education (EE)”. A newsletter that was published in the aftermath of the workshop, which was co-sponsored by the European Commission, summarised some of the key findings and themes that the attendees discussed. One of these themes was finding “Entrepreneurial ways of working [that] can be taught across all subjects”. Another theme agreed upon was that “The EE agenda should be promoted beyond teacher education institutions, stakeholders and especially business should be engaged”. One particular aim that was identified at the workshop was the need “to have EE included in all school curricula”. Unfortunately, however, it was noted “that will not be possible without educators and teachers with an entrepreneurial mind-set”. Professor Declan McGonagle, the then and now current director of the N.C.A.D., also addressed the workshop attendees. Reflecting the general theme of the workshop, he stated that “‘We want game-changers who can create new value for the economy, society and culture. Entrepreneurial skills are important for students at the N.C.A.D.’.” Ruairi Quinn, then Minister of Education and Skills, also made an appearance. As one would expect, he kept to the same themes, and “encouraged the delegates to carry on with the ideas and projects they have been discussing throughout the conference, in order to further support the development of entrepreneurial mind-sets among students”.

The implications of teaching entrepreneurial skills for the education system are obvious. We all know what the effects are of inculcating an overriding love of profit and disdain for those who are not warped by such ideological predilections. These effects can be seen and felt throughout the country and the world today. Presumably these entrepreneurial skills will also involve teaching students to learn to ignore externalities, as any decent capitalist learns. In economic theory, externalities are consequences of an action or activity on an uninvolved third party. The third party can be the victims of the Bhopal disaster in 1984, or even the planet itself as it continues to feel the effects of the disastrous and outright psychopathic policies of the fossil fuel industry and industrialised capitalism more generally.

The ends of profit and the means of achieving it are all that matter. Anything else is superfluous; people and even the planet itself being expendable. But this begs the question of what education is and what it should be. Should it be required to meet the needs of the market and industrialised capitalism, both of which are pushing the planet and us over the precipice? Or should it be a place where critical inquiry is not only allowed, but encouraged; where people are free to learn about how the world really works without fear of reprisals? Shouldn’t it also be a place where one need not live in fear of more and more cuts to funding and facilities as money is ploughed into other areas which meet the required metrics of the market, such as business schools and engineering departments? The student occupations in the Netherlands, the U.K., Canada, and now Ireland, are a reaction to this slow but dangerous neo-liberalisation of education.

Chris Hedges has pointed out that without such resistance all is lost due to the self-worth and hope this kind of action provides for everyone. He argued that “resistance becomes a kind of way of protecting our own worth as an individual, our own dignity, our own self-respect. And I think resistance always leaves open the possibility of change. And if we don’t resist, we’ve essentially extinguished that hope.” That this resistance in Ireland takes the form of students acting on their own initiative in the N.C.A.D. all the while the Union of Students in Ireland (U.S.I.) has remained silent on the issue is an indictment of the latter. Their co-option by the government, and its needs, being complete, all they are left to do now is beg for scraps from the table while the “masters of mankind” continue to pillage the very institutions and people the U.S.I. is supposed to protect and represent. An organisation which is widely considered as a stepping stone along the political or corporate pathway is never going to be one that is overtly antagonistic towards governmental or corporate interests. A prosaic assessment is that students and education will suffer while the game of politics continues to be played in Dublin.

So, who and what will determine the future of education? At the moment things look bleak. The U.S.I. being both co-opted and powerless, and the only other national student movement, Free Education for Everyone (F.E.E.) having disappeared into the ether, those holding all the decision-making power are the ones who want to ensure education is more in line with the needs of the market. Anything that cannot be assigned a monetary value, or does not meet the required level of profit, is deemed superfluous, worthless, and excess to requirements. In education, where such an ideology is increasing its grip, the effects will be even more catastrophic than they already are now. Resistance has emerged though, the students in the N.C.A.D. personifying the fact that resistance is possible and that hope does in fact exist. The protests surrounding Irish Water also demonstrate the fact that mass resistance against the government, hitherto downplayed in Irish political culture, is likewise possible. These protests testify to the deep fissures that have emerged in Irish society between the minority at the top who believe that democracy involves promulgating orders that the majority of population must blindly follow, without exception, and those who in fact know that democracy means much, much more, both in theory and practice. The idea of a passive citizenry cannot be taken for granted by academics and elites. All it takes is the smallest spark to light a fire that can reinvigorate a truly democratic sphere of public contemplation, interaction, and decision-making. Democratising education and ensuring that education is a place where “the pursuit of learning rather than the pursuit of profit” thrives is a small but vitally important part of a reinvigorating and re-democratising of Irish democracy. Anything less should not be countenanced. To believe otherwise is to surrender all hope to those who would gladly put a price tag on all of us.