Autumn Conferrings 2007
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 11 MFómh 2007
Ms Niamh Bhreathnach, former Minister for Education
President, Deans, distinguished members of the faculty of Commerce, honoured guests, parents, families and graduates of BSc (Accounting) BSc (Information Systems) and MBS(Co-operative and Social Enterprise) (12.30(BComm and Phd) ), I have been invited here to address the graduates and pay tribute to each and every one of you on realising a dream today. You have just become part of your university’s graduate history. How proud you must be. How proud the university is of you.
Over the years, UCC has played a very big and important role in the living tradition of Cork. It is proud of its history and its traditions. It has educated many famous Irish people. Today acquiring the status of graduate, bachelor or master, being conferred with this degree is, whatever world you move to, work or more study, relevant to the continuing pursuit of knowledge that will benefit not only you as an individual but will, I assure you, benefit society too.
Ten years ago I came on one of my last visits as Minister to this College. I came among other things to thank the then President and his staff for their contribution to a debate that led to the passing of the Universities Act 1997. It had been a difficult time. With zeal, the university sector had, on sight of a proposed Universities Act, entered the fray and robustly taken on the Minister’s proposals.
Eyebrows were raised in all universities at the gender implications of the Bill, the notion that the paymaster might inspect the books rendered some, not all, speechless. Changes suggested in the composition of the Government Body were seen as implied criticism. Early correspondence that flew between Presidents, the Provost, the Master and the Minister reveal the terror that change can induce in people, even university presidents and their staff. Yet the colleges, including this one, engaged fully in the debate, saw many of their proposals adopted and were, when the Act passed, able to welcome its enactment.
One contributor to the debate, from Cork, advised opposing the Bill totally “in the expectation that the Government will back off rather than endure an embarrassing defeat.” Alas he was wrong, it was not the government who were embarrassed by defeat, it was me in the subsequent election. But those of us entrusted with the education system at that time recognised that our world was changing. The change had to be managed and the structure of our universities had to reflect that change. You were all then school children, children in an education system that still saw university as a privilege.
For my generation the basic qualification for many walks of life was the Primary Certificate. It was only after free second-level education was introduced in 1967 that the key qualification became the Leaving Certificate, a university degree an exception. By the time I left office, university was less a privilege, more a right, and was freely opening gates to over 50,000 undergraduates, a number that has steadily grown.
While the lobbyists for the return to fees suggest the old way of funding the third level sector was a better way, may I counsel caution. The vast majority of the member states of the European Union allow access to third level free. Following the introduction of a fee by Tony Blair’s Labour Government, the numbers attending university in England fell. A fall in the number of graduates would be catastrophic for the Irish economy.
This is not the occasion to defend the free fees initiative; it is your day. But you are, I am reminded, graduating in a time when entry to college is free for those coming through our secondary school system. I feel obliged to refer to the debate if only to tell you why, I believe, the State was right to subsidise your education.
The State needs you as much as you have needed the State up to today. With your degree you have qualified to contribute to our highly skilled and highly educated, workforce. It means that your university not only had an enormous part to play in your life chances as an individual but is, in its continuing work, contributing to the welfare of community here, in Cork and in Ireland. You are a good investment.
You are our human capital. The OECD defines human capital as “the value of incomes that stem from education training and other investments in human development, an important element enabling countries to move from a low to a high level of income” It goes on to recognise that “One of the external components of fast economic growth in Ireland over the past three decades has been a rapid improvement in the average level of education in the workforce.” That rapid improvement must not now be halted.
I have been driven in my work in education by a phrase my father used when any one of his five daughters threatened to leave the fee paying secondary school system of the 60s; education he told us over and over again is the key to your life chances. Whether I was teaching in my inner city class room or remediating some of the brightest but most dyslexic of geniuses, I was aware of the great responsibility of the education system to help all find that key and show how it worked.
And then I was appointed by Dick Spring to be the first and so far only Labour Minister for Education. I had been given responsibility for the education system. It led me to publish, after much discussion between the partners in education, a White Paper, “Charting our Education Future”, outlining changes that were needed, including change at third level, if we were to improve access and quality of the education system in time for the 21st century, in time for you.
In the interest of equality of access, I pursued many initiatives from Early Start for three year olds to Free Fees for undergraduate students. And let us not forget those who are still fighting the odds just to be here. Children of that inner city cohort who were privileged in 1994 to find a place on an Early Start initiative are only teenagers this year. With pride I can tell you that the whole of the early starters in my old school went on to secondary school recently, a first ever for their community. Only time will tell whether they survive the system to walk through the gates of any university. It is time to salute those among you today who have achieved your parchment despite experiencing your own particular difficulties. Access, as you know only too well, is not all just about free fees.
For the State investing in your future has been a very long-term investment. Yet to exclude any group, whatever the disability, from the benefits of education can never be acceptable in a democracy. And thus my early work on equality is as important an element in my education philosophy as my teaching experience. The pursuit of equality is an integral part of the historic evolution of all democratic societies.
Achieving this ideal calls for priorities in Government spending. We have some way yet to go in Ireland. The Danes, it is worth reminding ourselves, devote 8.4% of their GDP to education. We lie almost bottom of the EU list, just above Greece, with our 4.3%. Surely increasing that investment is the way to go for those fighting to resolve today’s cash crisis at third level.
I came to this platform to speak of you. I choose to remind you of Ireland’s need of you and your talents. If I harped on the economic payback I did so because it is the language of a world most of you are likely to prosper in. I passionately believe that the campaign for increased funding is only beginning. You, by graduating, have become part of that campaign.
So go forth and use this education. Thank your families, friends, partners and teachers for their support. Remember college. Most importantly of all, seek to inspire a member or members of the next generation of corkonians to follow in your footsteps. Become informed citizens, participate in the society that has so heavily invested in you and most importantly of all live a fulfilled life and enjoy.