Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Student funding - the "hard decisions"

The fix is well and truly in. Although the Cassells report - produced by someone whose state-imposed attempts at "mediation" in Rossport took the state's view so much for granted that the counter-forum is still an annual fixture there - supposedly presented 3 options, it is no secret that the preferred option is student loans.

This preference has been clear for several years reading the barely-literate stuff that passes for commentary on the part of mainstream journalists, academic managers and "policy experts" - writing which would barely pass if submitted as first-year essays, so much is assumed rather than argued and so little research is actually involved. The "hard decisions", we are told, involve accepting that student loans are the only possible way forward to fund the Irish education system, because the money isn't there to do anything different.

As Allen Ginsberg asked, "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?" Being part of the Irish elite, of course - the only people who think that student loans are the best thing since dance hall music.

Let's have a quick look at the Dickie Rock of 3rd level education policy.

The US now has a total student debt of $1.2 trillion (yes, trillion), second only to mortgages in terms of consumer debt and a real brake on purchases of things like houses and cars that drive growth in mainstream models. About 1/4 of these are “in delinquency or default”. Here’s a non-radical take on the scale of the problem: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americas-growing-student-loan-debt-crisis-2016-01-15
In Britain, 3/4 of students are unable to pay off their loans and the combination of student debt writeoffs plus net lending is close to equalling the entire 3rd level budget. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/student-debt-to-cost-britain-billions-within-decades-9970340.html

If ever there was a case of ideology-driven policy, student loans are it: they don't even work in the neoliberal terms they are supposed to. But - as with mortgages - the idea of creating a vast, "subprime" bubble of bad debts will no doubt offer some wonderful new money-making opportunities: in debt collection maybe.

Also in neoliberal terms: what those individual rationalists are likely to do, once graduated and faced with huge debt burdens, is to leave the country and take their education elsewhere. As already happens in other countries.

Notably, the pundits and experts involved in discussing all this have consistently called on US and UK "experts" - as with Irish Water, the people involved in making money from these failed systems - rather than asking people from the majority of European states (including many which are no better off than Ireland) where education is free or fees are lower than here: see e.g. https://www.studyineurope.eu/tuition-fees.

Various "concerned parties" used to wheel out the argument that because 3rd level education is classed (though far higher proportions of Irish young people go to college than in many western states, including our nearest neighbour, and we have relatively good proportions of mature students) it is iniquitous to put money towards it as against primary and secondary - a bit like arguing that you shouldn’t fund A&E departments because cancer and heart attacks is what will carry most of us off – but sounds clever when proposed in the student bar.

Incidentally whatever the payment model, 3rd level education is still massively subsidised by the state (as it should be). The real cost, at least as calculated for non-EU students (which it shouldn’t be but that is another story) is around 12 – 13k per annum. So all of this ideology is about the idea of paying for state services - most Fine Gael voters couldn't afford to send their little Johnnys and Marys to college if they had to pay its actual cost on a retail basis, but the idea of something just expensive enough to deter the plebs from doing so is pretty attractive.

Back to "hard decisions", though: the real hard decisions would have been not to guarantee private banks. Or to burn the bondholders. Or to refuse to go down the road of the farce that is Irish Water. Or for that matter not to waste state money fighting a case to enable multinationals not to pay the tax they should. Or not to hand over our natural resources to a different bunch of multinationals. Or, who knows, to raise taxes in a progressive way (ie asking the rich to pay more) rather than introducing one regressive tax after another.

Spot the difference? The "hard decisions" for right-wing hacks are those which come at the cost of ordinary people (and are "hard" because they might bump into that little problem of democracy). The ones they would actually find hard are the ones that might involve standing up to wealth and power. Those "hard decisions" are not on the table, and not to be found in the opinion columns.

Meanwhile, students continue to pay the price, as do teachers. Which is just as well for the opinionistas - the last thing they want is a population that knows how to think, and read, for themselves. People who might notice that this particular emperor has no clothes.

Laurence Cox