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University, CAO and Places

8.22.2005

A number of stories and angry sounding press releases around today has focussed my otherwise blurred attention. Its silly season and suddenly everyone cares about standards in education and student welfare and investment in the future etc. Come september the whole thing will have moved on and little achieved in terms of reform.
Currently we are facing genuine problems in our education system, we are not alone in this however (1,2). Reports across the press this morning are making hay on the numbers of places available to study Medicine and other High-points courses in Ireland. There appear to be a high number of places reserved for full fee-paying students from overseas according to the Irish Times.
I attended a talk with Liz Macmanus, Labour Spokesperson on Health, last year and she cited the reservation of places for foreign fee-paying students as having a detrimental effect on our own staff levels in Ireland. A&Es would benefit greatly from a higher proportion of graduates required or desiring to work in this country after graduation.
It is not in the region of medicine alone however that many are getting hot under the collar. As a missive from the Labour Press Office points out today, many in business and Trade Unions are citinig large skill shortages in the economy going forward and this needs to be addressed if we are to maintain any advantage over foreign locations. There are other issues affecting Irish industry that make me uncomfortable at the moment also, but for industry bodies it seems to be a forthcoming skill shortage.
As usual the answers here are putting onus on institutions of education to alleviate the problem. Labour call on institutions to offer spare CAO places that arent filled to students who will work part time toward their degree. The problem is that in this day and age unless each student in a part time course were to be subsidised it is unlikely that it would be feasible or considered by the authorities.
The labour position is thus;

"'This is not the first time I have made this suggestion to the colleges. The vacant places problem, especially in engineering and computing, has been with us for years, but this is the first time that, even before CAO offers, there are dozens of vacant places in university degree courses.

'I believe the universities and institutes have a duty to make an imaginative and practical response, and I am calling on them to do so.'"

They certainly do and I agree with the sentiment. The problem is that government and political parties have an equal responsibility to put in place a system whereby Universities are encouraged to take such students on board instead of offering spare places to foreign full-fee paying students. The dilemma here is again about the role of the state in making third level accesible to those who want or need it and making it feasible for Institutions to assist in educational attainment.
As with all things educational, ideology puts people on different sides of the fence. Shall we subsidise and pay for the movement of people through college to satisfy the indsutry demand.
Should education be free at the point of access and paid for later on simply free, paid for by tax. The dilemmas currently facing our institutions is that their standard is faling through lack of investment. Capital spending on facilities is to be paid for from research profits and other money making arenas. Outside of fees the arena for revenue generation in University sector is limited.
So how do we open up the sector to those who we need to get in and maintain equal entry into University? Is there a place for means testing of ability to pay? Or is it simply a case of arguing for further investment from government in third level places?
Surely making it profitable and easy for Unis to offer places unfulfilled part-time to those looking for them is the way forward and here the ideological blinkers descend.
Getting people into uni is a progressive ideal, more education empowers us all, makes us aware of our surroundings and our society.
The role of the state is to provide places and to encourage equality of access to places. So it should encourage a framework of flexible places which do not jeapordise institutional revenue so as to continue to invest in our third level framework. The role of the state, either as responsible for the citizen or if you prefer as facilitator of business and profit making is to offer citizens cheap or free education in an institution of repute and international quality.
The interest in this subject will soon pass again until next august. Reform of the leaving cert followed by University reform will come roung again and again, if we could trust in governmental foresight then perhaps this could be the last time we bring up the issue.
RR

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