It's sad. There is little or no debate about quality in third-level education. It's all about access and free fees.
For example, how many patents do we file? How many world-class scholars do we produce? Any Nobel laureates? (And no, neither Seamus Heaney nor Brian Friel are products of the Irish education system.) How many students from abroad aspire to come to an Irish university as opposed to a British, American, French or Belgian one?
Think this doesn't matter? Tell me this, then: what university did Mark Zuckerberg go to? (Yes, that would be the guy who's increasing employment from 300 to 400 in his Dublin office.) Think someone from an Irish university is likely to found a world-beating company based on the creative/innovative environment there?
The lack of any interest in this area of Irish education -- both from political parties or from our 'sophisticated electorate' -- is a shame. But it probably reflects voters' priorities accurately. Ireland is not really ambitious. Sure, we're 'well-educated' compared to Romania and Albania. But we're not compared to Holland, Belgium and Denmark. And that doesn't even bother us: we're still kind of proud that we're not really poor and scraping and bowing before someone.
So a 'debate' on education is purely about fees and classroom sizes; it's not about producing world-class scholars, innovators or thinkers; it's about making sure middle-income people can afford two cars and two holidays because they've no third-level fees. It's also about staving off illiteracy. (Reducing illiteracy is a proper goal, but surely not the totality of an education policy.)
What a shame.
Anyhow, here are four basic questions (to keep it simple) about education, technology (the broadband one I'm throwing in just because I'm curious) and industry I have for political parties. In a truly developed country, there would be someone running for office who would feel it's worth their while having genuine answers to these questions.
1. How are colleges to improve standards (recruit top people, attract best students, create the best research) without the reintroduction of student fees or additional exchequer funding?
Avoiding-the-question answer: "We need a system that provides access to all, regardless of background." [Access to education is a different issue.]
2. At a more general level, Irish third level institutions currently trail their counterparts in leading European and US cities in innovation and achievement. Is this of concern and, if so, how can it be reversed?
Avoiding-the-question answer: "Education is a key human right for all Irish citizens. If elected, we intend to ensure that Irish students have the best facilities possible." [That wasn't the question.]
3. Eircom wants the state to help fund a new fibre network. Do you intend to do that? (Note: that's a spending commitment.) If not, do you have a plan (or any thoughts whatsoever) on how high speed broadband should be rolled out nationally outside urban centres?
Avoiding-the-question answer: "It is our intention to ensure that all citizens have access to modern communications. [Our party] will end the digital divide." [99% of citizens already have access to modern communications, final 1% next year. That wasn't the question asked.]
4. If elected, what kind of industry development would you prioritise, and how?
Avoiding-the-question answer: "The first question we have to answer is how to get our 400,000 people working again, And that's *our* priority." [Complete avoidance of question.]