I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
Very shortly after becoming Minister for Education it became apparent to me that a serious defect in our system was the relatively meagre provision for scholarships. Not only is the total provision of scholarships meagre in proportion by comparison with that in many other countries, but in very many cases the value of the individual scholarship is very low. This position must have been fairly obvious to most people who have given thought to the matter, and it is a constant wonder to me that there has not been more criticism of so evident a weakness.
On coming to the conclusion that an increase in the provision for scholarships was an urgent educational and social necessity, and on having obtained the Government's agreement that steps should be taken to remedy this position, it remained to consider how best to effect a remedy.
A solution that readily presented itself would be to establish a system of direct State scholarships side by side with those already provided by the local authorities. Such a system of direct state scholarships might have certain administrative advantages, but on further consideration it soon appeared that, whatever these advantages might be, they would be greatly outweighed by the disadvantages and inconsistencies that would be inevitable if two systems were to develop, as might easily happen.
On the other hand, to replace the local authorities scholarship system set up by the 1944 Act by a direct State system would seem to me to savour of a diminishing of a democratic principle, a principle which needs to be strengthened rather than perhaps weakened, and which, in such matters as this, if properly put into effect, can cater better for conditions in one locality relative to another than could an absolutely centralised administrative machine.
It is also a good general principle that where there is an already existing structure, it is better, if at all possible, to build upon that than to substitute for it something which, however new and shiny, might not quite respond in every way to the original idea.
This Bill is therefore intended not to replace but to supplement and increase moneys which local authorities are already providing under the 1944 Local Authorities and the 1908 Universities Acts.
As far as this country is concerned, the Bill is a new approach inasmuch as it is now for the first time proposed that the State step in to provide money for scholarships on a general scale. The explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill makes clear, I hope, how exactly this would be done. In recent years, the local authorities have been spending in all about £150,000 per annum on scholarships. The broad intention of this Bill is to begin by supplementing substantially that provision and to proceed to the point where, in return for an addition of £90,000 by the local authorities to their present £150,000, the State, which at the moment contributes nothing to the scheme, would in four years' time be contributing about £300,000.
In other words, the Bill envisages that four years after it should have come into effect the total provision for scholarships would be approaching four times the figure at which it now stands. I think that this may fairly be regarded as a substantial step in the laying down of a pattern for future educational development in this particular field.
On the whole, our people are very conscious of the benefits of education. The ever-growing numbers in voluntary full-time attendance at our secondary and vocational schools and our universities put this beyond doubt. There are, however, I regret to say, a small number of counties which lag very much behind the others in scholarship provision. In that way we have great disparity between a county which provides for scholarships only the equivalent of the amount raised by a rate of 1d. in the pound and others which raise the equivalent of 5d. for that purpose. The substantial State contribution and the method of financing now proposed will, I believe, open the way for the ironing out of such anomalies and of the relative disadvantages that result for some of the abler children. They should certainly act as a sharp stimulus to those areas which have not been in the forefront, while it will be for the other authorities to see to it that there be no falling off in their present plans and to ensure that the money available from the State is called upon and used to the utmost advantage.
Apart from the details of the scheme which are given in the Explanatory Memorandum, there are a few matters to which I should like to make specific reference.
The first of these is that up to one-fourth of the moneys will be allocated to scholarships to be awarded on merit alone, that is, without a means test. There may at first glance be divided opinions on this, but in considering it I think we should view in a large way the object of the scholarships. Although of course the social aspect of things is involved in relation to what is proposed, the scheme is not just a piece of social welfare. Its primary object is educational. It is directed towards bringing forward, for the benefit of the country as a whole, the very best talent that the country is producing, and that from whatever economic level in which such talent is to be found.
Now, any means test, even at the most reasonable possible level, will exclude some of the best talent, for the parents' decision to send a particular child forward for postprimary or university education, with no assistance, may in any given case have to be balanced on the knife edge. This would be especially the case where, as in Ireland, families are usually fairly large and so were what would otherwise seem to be a reasonably good income has to be devoted to the education not of one but of a number of children. In addition, I think it desirable that all parents who contribute by way of taxes or rates should have some chance of having their child of good ability benefit from their contribution.
Let me repeat that the principal object of this section of this Bill is to bring forward, for the benefit of the nation as a whole, the country's best talent, wherever it is to be found.
Another matter to which I wish to make special reference is the proposal that the amount to be allocated for university scholarships should not be more than half that provided for post-primary scholarships in one third of the total moneys. The chief factors taken into account in arriving at this ratio were the proportion of post-primary pupils who normally go on to a university and the relative costs, to the parents of post-primary and of university education. It seems to me that in matters such as this the pattern throughout the country should be reasonably uniform. At any rate, in view of the numbers proceeding to a university as compared with those availing themselves of post-primary education, we should not have, as is the case at present in some countries, the disproportionate position of the major portion of the scholarship money being devoted to university scholarships.
May I express the hope that the discussion on this Bill will help greatly towards the forming of a public opinion that will not only welcome these scholarships but will come to see clearly that what is here involved is not only an educational and social problem related to particular localities, but an important national problem as well. That national problem is the provision of special encouragement towards the development of our best national resources, which, as I have said on another occasion here, are the brains with which God has been pleased amply to endow our people.
There is undoubtedly a severe testing time ahead for this and indeed for all countries. It is for us therefore to strengthen in every way possible our own country's moral fibre. I think that it should be a strengthening of this country's morale for a citizen, be he poor or rich, to see that it is recognised by those in authority that his child, if of good ability, should be given the opportunity of developing that ability all the way up the educational ladder.
In conclusion, let me recall that, as someone has recently remarked, there is in all countries a kind of public schizophrenia in relation to education. The demand for more and more education has grown very rapidly and will continue to grow. There is accordingly a constant call upon State and other authorities for more and better educational facilities. But, side by side with that, there exists also an irrational attitude that such additional facilities should somehow or other be provided without additional cost. The fact is that educational provision costs money, and that more educational provision costs more money. For educationalists and all others really interested in education, I think it may nowadays be said to be an article of creed that the additional money needed is well worth the spending.
I would accordingly appeal to Deputies on all sides, as enlightened men, to give every help they can, as members of local authorities or wherever else they may find themselves in a representative or indeed even in a private capacity by putting their weight and influence into seeing that the local authorities take the fullest advantage of the provisions of this Bill so that the money made available by the House for scholarship purposes be called upon to the full.