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16 September 2004 Edition

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Sinn Féin All-Ireland education team pledges opposition to fees

By Róisín de Rosa

Reports this week clearly indicate that Education Minister Noel Dempsey intends to introduce third-level student fees in the 26 Counties, mimicking the highly discriminatory loan scheme which the British have applied across the Six Counties. An All-Ireland meeting of Sinn Féin education activists in Dublin at the weekend pledged opposition to this plan.

Historically republicans have always prioritised education, most prominently when Martin McGuinness was Minister for Education in the short-lived Executive and All-Ireland Ministerial Council. But the work did not begin or end with those institutions and last Saturday Sinn Féin's education advisory team of elected representatives, political advisors, policy researchers and educators gathered to plan the way forward. The meeting brought together people working in educational institutions across the country.

It was also timely as the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has just reported on what they call the 'funding crisis' facing the seven universities in the 26 Counties. The HEA argues that without a substantial increase in the surplus held by colleges, it will not be possible to allow for 'strategic development', or to remain 'financially and academically sustainable'.

You might wonder if, when the HEA talks of 'academically and financially sustainable' they mean capable of attracting, through subsidisation, the research and development projects of large commercial business. As Sinn Féin Assembly Spokesperson on Higher Education Michael Ferguson asked at Saturday's gathering: "Do we want business and multi-million funds to set the agenda of the scientific research in our universities? These are deep and important questions for the whole of society to determine, not just the so called 'experts' of the OECD. It is our work in Sinn Féin to ensure that consultation on such questions happens, and that the voice of people who work at the coalface of education and research, is listened to, not simply the 'expert consultants of the OECD [Organisation of Economic Co-operationn and Development]."

The OECD report, which is to be published this week, will highlight the alleged 'funding crisis' which undermines the Government's ambition to create a 'leading knowledge-based economy' able to compete in the global market. It is another report lending the weight of 'experts', to justify a most unpopular political decision - fees for higher education - which Minister Dempsey wanted to introduce last year. We are told that the Cabinet rejected his proposal on grounds that it would be too unpopular. So typically the consultants were brought in.

"Do we want to see Third level education funded by the current and future indebtedness of the student body? it may be nothing to the children of those whose income is between 50,000 and 100,000 per annum, but to ordinary working people, already grossly in debt through the countrywide housing crisis, student loans to fund third level education pose a frightening burden", Michael Ferguson pointed out.

Michael spoke angrily of the effects of the student loan scheme across the Six Counties: "Teenagers in nationalist West Belfast have often felt obliged to reject university places offered to them simply because they can't afford to accept."

"Student loans undoubtedly discourage those of poorer backgrounds from undertaking a third level course. Who wants to enter the workplace - their first job - with a huge debt around their shoulders?"

The meeting discussed a litany of injustices in our education system, North and South, which fly in the face of the bold vision for education which Sinn Féin drew up when Martin McGuinness was Minister of Education in the Assembly. Many people referred to the document, Educate That You May Be Free which details a policy to liberate the potential of all and to deploy resources to promote access to education by disadvantaged and marginalised groups and redress educational and generational disadvantage.

The meeting discussed the levels of 20% functional illiteracy; the amazing absence of any state provision for pre-primary or Early Start education in the Six Counties, and only a semblance of provision in a few selected disadvantaged areas in the 26 Counties. People talked of the undoubted drive towards league tables of secondary schools the threat of league tables for primary schools, if the reading and writing assessments of 7 and 11 years olds are published.

Several teachers at the meeting pointed out that assessment for college on the basis of Leaving Cert results places emphasis on learning by rote, in place of learning which nurtures independent, critical faculties - and learning for the love of it, as opposed to learning "for the points".

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