Any legislation which increases access to education should be welcomed. A point which has already been made but on which repetition is justified relates to access of mature students already in the system to the benefit of these legislative proposals. The Minister said:
In fact this has always been the position since the scheme was first introduced in 1968 and is therefore in the nature of a general principle.
The Department of Education when put under some pressure years ago by me on the statutory basis of some of their regulations, introduced the glorious phrase "the principle of continuity" which one could translate into ordinary language as "if you have been getting away with it for years, you should be able to continue getting away with it". As the Minister spoke of a general principle in this case, might I, with the greatest humility, suggest to him that a far deeper general principle is the principle of equity or equality.
We need to think carefully about what happens when a mature student, let us say already in the system, hears details of the possibility of availing of education. Many mature students when they read theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress and when they made phone calls were given the clear impression that they were doing something that was being recommended and that they would be included when provision was being made for those returning to third level education. I have not the slightest doubt about that. Before this legislation was prepared and introduced I had meetings with the Minister for Education and with the Minister for Social Welfare about the situation that had arisen.
I have the greatest sympathy for mature students for a number of reasons. I was in my twenties when I went through third level education for the first time. Also, I have taught mature students. One must consider the great difficulties these students have in overcoming all sorts of pressure, in many cases abstracting themselves from the ranks of the unemployed and deciding to go into an atmosphere dominated by people very many younger than themselves and overcoming all of the psychlogical, personal, social, educational and even cultural difficulties in order to participate. They are now being told that because they acted on what they felt was a fair and honourable construction of what was in theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress and of the information given to them verbally, they have in fact disqualified themselves from participation in the scheme. It is very important that we understand what is happening to those people. To raise expectations and then dash them is very much worse than to deny people the opportunity in the first place.
I would ask the Minister to respond generously to the welcome being given around this House to the legislation by agreeing to the amendment being proposed in relation to taking care of mature students within the existing system. It is an important point when one considers what has happened not only to those who were unemployed but also to many people who were in jobs which they felt had no future or were in jobs for which they had not an express vocation and who gave up those jobs and encountered costs so as to attend third level education. It is absolutely miserable that for a figure of £1 million, a figure which, incidentally I do not accept, such students would be excluded. If somebody made a commitment when the going was tougher and somebody else waited a year, there is no general principle under which the first person should be at an automatic economic advantagevis-à-vis over the second person. I cannot see how one could sustain that.
When the Department of Finance advise the Department of Education that catering for those already in the system would cost £1 million, they would want to put it in context. A sum of £1.6 billion is the figure given for education in the speech of the Minister of State today. This figure has for many years been almost exactly the same as the total cost of incentives given to Irish industry to create jobs. If one were to ask where are the jobs for the £1.6 billion of our annual costed industrial policy and where are the results of our £1.6 billion investment in education, the answer is that the second kind of human investment will go on repaying itself year after year and will repay itself into generations.
When people produce this figure for the total cost of education it is a dangerous sign. I do not attribute views to either the Minister or the Minister of State but a previous speaker referred to it. Among the most dangerous views on education I have ever read were the views in that volume dealing with education prepared by Wright and Tansey supporting the Culliton report, in which they suggested that one should have to justify educational expenditure in terms of the benefits not to the international trading economy but the domestic Irish economy. In arriving at that conclusion they departed from the principle that the thinking surrounding the Lynch report "Investment in Education" could not be sustained because of cost. I will not stray from the business we are discussing now, because we will have an opportunity to discuss the Green Paper in detail, but it is very important that that kind of thinking be knocked on the head. The training costs of industry belong to industry and training costs should not be pushed into the educational system to drive out educational values. We can debate most of that another day.
Let me return to another principle which is very important in relation to access to education. I welcome the opening up of greater access but there are a number of points that arise in relation to that. This year alone I know mature students who lacked the means to pay their examination fees. As a third level teacher of long standing I know of the changed nature of the Higher Education Authority's relationship with third level colleges which requires them to earn a proportion of their income from fees. Therefore, fees have to be increased. One might say that future grants will be adjusted to take account of the increase in fees. Some colleges waived the fees of one or two students but many others did not. The small hardship funds that exist in third level colleges are usually confined to students who have passed into the second or third year and all the demands for assistance cannot be met from these funds.
There are pressures on the institutions who are deprived of funding and the obvious way out is to make a once-off arrangement to cater for those already in the system and reward them for having the foresight to return to education before the detail was in place. It is quite monstrous to punish them for that. If students enrolled for a week they have disqualified themselves from benefiting under the new scheme because of the definition of "new applicant". This use of words is totally unsustainable.
I welcome the provisions that improve access to education. I am not taking from that. Third level education gains every time its population is extended by virtue of social class or age. The Clancy report, among others, pointed out the vast discrimination in relation to third level entry. I cannot remember the exact detail but the probability of a son or daughter of professional parents going to college was 12 times greater than that of parents in the manual occupations. Entry to college related not only to parental means but the proximity of third level institutions and the provision of a wide diversity of third level institutions such as regional technical colleges as well as universities. The regional technical colleges are of considerable assistance in that regard.
Students are now coming into a system that is overstretched. I defy the heads of third level institutions to tell me — and I would love to be proved wrong — what special arrangements they have made for mature students who wish to undertake a course at their college. I will share with the House my experience of teaching such people. In the first term they are usually very nervous that their basic memory and writing skills are not as good as those of younger students. However, after the first term this lack of confidence is usually conquered and they can pass out those who are very much younger than them because they can draw on the wonderful experiences, the dark as well as the bright experiences they have had.
In my view the composition of third level institutes which is rather artificial not only in terms of social class but in the age cohort, benefits enormously by having mature people as part of the university population. As we approach the end of the century I would like to think I lived in a society in which the heads of all the third level colleges would be photographed and filmed as they arrived at the Dáil, Seanad or the Taoiseach's office to make a case for having more mature students in their institutions. I would prefer that they would do something like this rather than speaking with such enthusiasm about our institutions becoming European. If they want to be truly European let them make a comparison with European colleges because in the equivalent institutions students are much older than the average student in Ireland and they are catered for.
This is very important but it has not been grasped sufficiently. It is suggested by some that one has exhausted all opportunities of participating in third level education if one has not succeeded in gaining a place at the age of 18 or 19, in other words if one has not got on the escalator at that age one has no right to do so. This is an appalling view and it has not disappeared.
In times gone by the professions were very happy to look on as they reproduced themselves with privilege within the system but we must remember they were forced to budge from that. They were quite happy to have large areas of professional training that excluded women. When I was at university the first woman enrolled to do engineering at University College Galway and, to her credit, she became a very distinguished graduate. There are many more people like her. The mature students are a very important wedge within the third level community. They are the forerunners of much wider participation in the future.
At present the library grants for the third level institutions are derisory and we cannot dispose of this by saying that this is a matter for the individual third level institutions. Indeed, they also have to cope with the embargo on filling posts. I note also that Members have a flair for congratulating their local third level institution — may their generosity forever continue — but I wish they would point out that many of the regional colleges of which they speak so glowingly have inferior eating facilities not to speak of practically non-existent reading facilities. One does not have to be around very long to see that.
When we talk about a widening of access to education, we are talking about making the process more democratic. Women also fall into the category of mature students. Many women may have got married and reared their children at a time when they were subject to a tyranny of ideological conviction that they should abandon anything else other than the very important role of child rearing. A common view was that woman had been created with several children hanging off every finger of each hand, but times have changed. People of my age group remember when women were driven from the public service. If woman want to go back to college and recover part of their right to develop and make a very valuable contribution to society, should we place obstacles in their way? I say this, while welcoming everything that is positive in the Bill, but there is an unanswerable case for amending section 5 to take account of the points that have been made.
I want to comment about the availability of information. Deputy Fennell spoke about the need for ease of access to information and that the information should be as accessible as possible. I do not criticise members of the Government but I find it hard at times not to believe there is an ideology called the "obstacle ideology" in existence. The definition of that ideology is that when one seeks to find out about something every conceivable obstacle is put in one's way. People are asked whether they satisfy this requirement and that requirement, where they live, whether they live alone and whether they are sure that they do not have a relative who is giving them a few pounds. Let us be clear, we live in a society that has 20 per cent unemployed but has localised areas of 55 to 75 per cent unemployment. If people in that mire of unemployment want to educate themselves they should be given every assistance to do so.
I shall give one example only of what I am talking about, lest people think that I am indulging in abstraction about the ideology of obstacles to which I have referred. Not so long ago I dealt with a social welfare case in which a woman's benefit had been discontinued because she and her husband were believed to sell minerals at GAA matches. The investigating person took out the full GAA calendar, including matches that would enjoy a very dedicated attendance of perhaps 16 spectators, multiplied the number of matches by a figure for estimated income and concluded that the woman should be disqualified from her benefit. When sitting across the table from that woman and observing her distressed state, resulting from such thinking, I said to myself, "That is what I mean by the ideology of placing obstacles in the way of self-improvement."
A response is required from the Minister to resolve the difficulty that arises in section 5 (1) and I hope he accepts the amendments tabled for that section. Those responsible for administering the scheme will face challenges in relation to making it simple and accessible; the institutions in which mature students work will face challenges and will have responsibilities. There will also be challenges and major tasks ahead for the professionals who work within third level institutions, people who themselves by and large come from a relatively narrow band in society. I make that comment very carefully. Those who work within our third level institutions are required to make an extra effort to welcome special people into third level education. I feel that that general tendency towards democratisation is often not found among my colleagues. I think that they are beating a path to the altar of neo-utilitarianism, suggesting regularly that they will be judged useful and looking for people to whom they might demonstrate their usefulness, when, as I might remind them, I was trained to be a teacher, they were trained to be teachers and they should be teachers. It is curious that within third level education as well, being a good teacher is the least qualification for advancement in one's profession. In terms of a society that has 20 per cent unemployed and when more people are coming from the otherwise excluded socio-economic groups — as the Minister's speech states — the ability of communication, the ability to be human, the ability to not try to trap students but to be in their favour, the ability to address their special difficulties, the ability to give them confidence at times of low confidence and the ability to be generous in providing time for special tutorials, are the real skills of a democratic society. Yet the Culliton report, in that particular supporting volume, turns to the third level institutions and tells them to make themselves amenable to industry, not to international industry but to local, £1.2 billion-supported Irish industry.
I ask a very serious question about local authority administration of grants. I have been a member of several local authorities at different times. Local authorities will point out that they were given responsibilities without the capacity to deliver. It is simply outrageous that students in different years have had to protest both outside and within local authority buildings while waiting for their grants. When local authority members hear the phrase "the money hasn't come down yet", do they realise that those applying for the grants cannot live on air and are being forced to take out loans and so forth? Again, it is very interesting to note the way in which our financial institutions have set up their competing camps in third level institutions, busily searching out and regarding students as special people when they have a grant to lodge but just that little bit less special when they do not have a grant to lodge.
I recognise the hand of the Department of Finance in one part of the Minister's speech. I am not a conspiracy theorist at all, but when I hear, "Total public expenditure on education in 1992 amounts to £1.6 billion, representing almost 20 per cent of total Government expenditure and almost 6 per cent of GDP" I am encouraged to send back a message to the financial people through the Minister of State: would they give the figure for the percentage of total Government expenditure on our failed industrial policy and its percentage of gross domestic product?
The Minister went on to talk about a substantial increase in allocations. No one is scoring points; the fact is that it will take time, unfortunately, to make a major impact on our unemployment problem while we follow present policies. If the market is to dictate, as so many people who disagree with me seem to accept, the provision of employment opportunities, would it not be a great deal more sensible to have educated people participating in that market rather than people who have been denied opportunity? We should also be very clear that while we in the House may, with different views, debate — with sincerity I think — problems such as unemployment there are many others who are abusing the level of unemployment by beating up the skill requirement for jobs and who also do not even bother to send adequate replies to the hordes of people who apply for limited vacancies. Those people should change their ways. The Minister stated that in 1992 third level education accounts for 22 per cent of expenditure compared to 8 per cent in 1966. So what? The figures given are proportionate.
I am not making a case for one kind of education expenditure as against another kind. In the unlikely event — which grows more unlikely — of my ever being Minister for Education I would have to agree that if we were to undo inequality in our society we would need to put massive resources into primary education, we would need to change the system to provide greater success and we would need to complete a change in the second level curriculum. However, that is not competing demand with third level education. The very best way to justify third level expenditure, if it is not to be a transfer to those who already have advantages, is by increasing the proportion of those within third level education who come in from age groups quite different from the usual secondary leaving age. It also means that the variety of third level opportunities should be expanded.
As this is my first chance for some time to speak on education I should like to say that it is time for those who believe in education to recover their nerve. There are such things in life as educational values, irrespective of whether or not there is economic growth. When the flimflam of the Culliton report is all over I should like to give consideration to the actual situation. I thought references to Japan were in decline, but the senior innovators in Europe and the US are coming from those who got good, basic training at third level. An example is people who are the major world leaders in electronics, biotechnology and other areas; in the case of electronics many of them attained good engineering degrees and went on to specialise. The recipe for early specialisation and narrowing of training is one for obsolescence and disaster. Contrary to everything in the Culliton report, the average person will finish third level and will change vocation three or four times as often as the person of ten years ago. The person rendered unemployed will have to change direction in training. The better and stronger the basic education is the better a person can deal with this. That is what I meant when I said I hoped the educational community will recover their nerve in asserting educational values. I hope also they will be innovative, not, in a sense, to narrow themselves to appear attractive to the whim of a passing phase of rather regressive eighteenth century economic theory, but that they will say it is wonderful that more and more of our people are developing intellectual curiosity, critical capacity, democratic ability to participate and so on.
Because they are not often given credit, let me say that in this instance the Irish Mature Students Association appear to make a case that is not only moderate but modest, asking only to be treated equally in the autumn when it could be argued that for the period they have been within the system they have carried a burden that others will not carry in the future. The Union of Students in Ireland, often criticised but to whom I want to pay tribute, in my term as spokesman on education in years gone by were front runners in the case for the democratisation of education in terms of internal structures but also in terms of access.
The more people participating in education of all kinds with as few artificial barriers as possible the better. For arguments sake, let us accept the Government's figure of £1 million. Is it worth it for somewhere between £0.75 million and £1 million in a once off payment, a once off cost, to dash the expectations of those who simply took what was published as a contract between the Government and the social partners, theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress, for what it was, acted on trust and listened to advice and information given by different Departments of State and overcame so many difficulties? In what is basically good and welcome legislation the Minister should remove this blotch and amend section 5 (1).