College fees should not rise - they should go
10 June 2017
It’s an honour to be here at Tom Johnson for my second time as Labour leader.
And I’m particularly pleased that we’re gathering here in Cork.
This city fell out of love with us a little over recent years.
But with people of the calibre of Peter Horgan and Luke Field standing alongside Kathleen and Ciaran Lynch, I think we are well placed to begin turning things around.
I got to walk around the English market with these candidates earlier today:
That’s a well-established political activity in this city – the traders are a politically astute bunch.
Based on the reaction we got, I think our future in this city is very bright indeed.
Over recent months, I have been talking about our future.
Our future as a party, our future as a people, and our future as a country.
As I have travelled the country, I have focussed on three themes – decency, justice and equality.
These themes define the Labour Party.
Drawn from our principles, they must guide all of our policies.
At the James Connolly commemoration, I expanded on what we mean when we talk about decency:
We mean work that is stable and secure;
Incomes that are sufficient to provide a decent living;
And collective bargaining that strengthens the rights of everyone in work.
At the MacGill summer school next month, justice will be my topic.
I will speak about justice in the narrow sense of how we keep our people safe and secure;
But also in a broader sense of how we foster social and economic justice.
This evening, I want to speak about equality.
But very briefly, I’d like to say a few words about the British election first.
I’m delighted for the British Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn.
They have pulled off a remarkable election result.
When campaigning in London, you could sense something was happening.
Jeremy campaigned well.
He produced a manifesto much more credible than that of the Tories.
He enthused young people.
And ultimately, he secured the support of more than 40% of the British people.
That said, I was and remain disappointed at the party’s position on Brexit.
It seems to me that the mandate for Theresa May’s Brexit has collapsed.
I hope the British Labour Party will give voice to that view.
I also think the Sinn Féin refusal to take up their seats in Westminster is unforgivable at this juncture.
Regardless of the historic reasons for their abstention;
There is now a real possibility that a progressive majority could be mustered to prevent a hard Brexit.
At this time of unique political opportunity,
Ireland needs all of the voices it can muster to make a difference.
All that said, the key question for us is what are the lessons we should learn from the British election?
Firstly, not to heed the begrudgers!
We need to decide our own path and keep on it.
Secondly, never give up – the Labour swing in the UK was historic and took place during the campaign itself.
And thirdly, make our proposals radical, but relevant too.
Our last manifesto was as radical as the proposals UK Labour put forward.
Our next one will be radical too.
Tonight, I’d like to begin spelling out just a couple of the ideas that I think we should be talking about.
In particular, I want to talk about how equality of opportunity impacts on equality of outcomes.
And I want to focus on how we can foster a greater level of equality throughout Irish society.
Access to education is about providing equality of opportunity.
But it also contributes to equality of outcomes.
People whose school education ended at primary school are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to work in manual or unskilled jobs, and more likely to suffer from poor health.
Thankfully, we have left behind the days when leaving school at 12 is an option.
But we still have a substantial cohort whose education ends after secondary school.
And for that group, we also see substantially poorer life outcomes.
This is, put plainly, a human tragedy.
But sadly the inequalities don’t end there - they are passed on from one generation to the next.
Children growing up in households where their mothers didn’t get the chance to go to college are themselves less likely to go to college;
They are more likely to be unemployed;
And they are more likely to encounter consistent spells of poverty throughout their lives.
The Growing Up in Ireland study has detailed some of the reasons for this.
Children growing up in homes with a lower level of maternal education have higher levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties, and they are less likely to have access to books or a computer in the home.
And so, as generations go by, the relative levels of inequality between those who have the most and those who have the least grows wider.
Now, there are some aspects of tackling inequality that Ireland is very good at.
Our income tax system is highly progressive.
And our welfare system does an excellent job of redistributing wealth.
But as hard as these levers work,
The effect of VAT and other indirect taxes is to undo some of the progressivity of our income tax system.
And of course, predistributive income inequality has been growing.
For the Labour Party, these factors need to be examined further.
And we will do so over the coming months.
But redistribution is not sufficient to create a meaningful equality of outcomes.
We must also have to make sure that an equality of opportunity exists to give each and every person the opportunity to be the best version of themselves – whatever their background.
And the greatest liberating force in that direction is education.
Broadly speaking, our school system is good.
After five years of Labour in government, it’s even a little better than it was.
Literacy and numeracy levels are rising for the first time in a generation.
This is important, because when people learn to read, they are then liberated to continue reading to learn.
Slowly we are reducing our obsessional focus on exams as the only measurement of success.
And with the development of new subject areas – from computer coding and Chinese, to ethics and philosophy, we have renewed the long-standing commitment to broad education in our school system.
Are there problems in our schools? Of course there are.
The denominational nature of the school system throws up real problems around access and equity.
So-called voluntary contributions are a typically Irish solution to an Irish problem - we underfund our schools, and then criticise schools for seeking funding from parents.
And for all the value of recent reforms, the Leaving Cert has yet to be tackled, and still teaches our young people that rote learning has a value much higher than any other form of learning.
We in the Labour Party are not blind to these problems.
But we do recognise that the school system performs well.
Early years education, further education, and higher education are a different story.
And getting these fixed could make a real impact on inequality in Ireland.
As a nation, we have never done much for children until they reach school-going age.
Apart from child benefit, the entire burden of care and education for children under the age of four has been placed on parents.
The results of this policy direction were predictable.
For women, remaining in the workplace was often incompatible with becoming a parent.
And for children, and especially those from low income households, disadvantage was entrenched before they even reached the school gates.
It took the crisis to begin to change this.
Finally, the Irish political system realised our failings, and in 2009 we saw the introduction of a free pre-school year.
Towards the end of our time in Government, we were able to double this.
Most children will now benefit from up to two years of free pre-school.
We also managed to introduce paid paternity leave for the first time, recognising that fathers as well as mothers should have time to spend with a new-born baby.
During the last election, we argued for a much more ambitious system.
We need to move towards providing parents with a year of shared, and paid, parental leave, recognising that children thrive when cared for by their parents during their first year of life.
And for all children under the age of 12, there should be a system of state-funded childcare.
Full-time care should be available for 1-3 year olds, and out of school childcare for 4-12 year olds.
This should be free for the poorest families, and affordable for everyone else – the burden of the cost of this scheme should be shouldered by the state.
We have welcomed the steps being taken by Katherine Zappone in this direction.
She needs much, much more funding to make it a reality, but she is starting in the right place.
But an affordable childcare scheme will do little to meaningfully impact on levels of inequality unless the system is a high quality one.
And this is where Ireland falls down most of all.
The childcare sector is broadly speaking, a minimum wage sector.
We are aiming to professionalise the workforce.
But bluntly, we are not yet willing to pay for a professional workforce.
There is absolutely no reason why someone with a Masters Degree, who works caring for and educating a two year old, shouldn’t earn the same as a teacher.
Until we make a leap, and truly value childcare, and value those who work in childcare, we will continue to limit opportunities for women;
And even worse, we will continue to entrench disadvantage in the earliest years of children’s lives.
Once children have navigated our school system, we too regularly let them down once more with opportunities for further education.
We have a remarkable participation rate in higher education.
That’s rightly a source of pride, and plays a huge role in our economic development.
But for too many young people, their choices are limited to accessing higher education, or being seen to have failed.
And that is because our further education and training system has been the Cinderella of our education system for far too long.
Apprenticeships and traineeships – so highly valued in other countries – are regarded in Ireland as options only for working class young men.
When Jan O’Sullivan was Minister, she set about changing this.
Building on the work Ruairi Quinn had done to abolish FÁS, and to create education and training boards that were fit for purpose, she outlined an ambitious National Skills Strategy.
That strategy demanded that 50,000 apprenticeships and traineeships be made available by 2020.
Thankfully, it appears that Richard Bruton agrees with this approach.
In fact, he agrees so much that he published an Action Plan for Apprenticeships that simply reiterated the same the same target.
He’s fond of action plans. In truth, if he spent a little less time producing action plans, he might be able to spend a little more time delivering action.
Regardless, in order to reach these targets, there are two cultural barriers we are going to have to tackle.
The first is encouraging women to take up apprenticeships.
The development of opportunities in new sectors is beginning to have some impact, but we need to do much, much more, and to make sure that we move towards 50% of all apprenticeships being taken up by women.
The second is to begin to break down the class profile of apprentices.
And this is going to be an even bigger task.
It will take a complete change of culture, and in particular in middle class schools.
The target of getting 100% of students into higher education will have to be abandoned;
And replaced with a new target – to help all students to access the further or higher education opportunity that best suits their skills, capabilities, and ambitions.
If we in Labour agree with the broad direction being taken by the Government in relation to early years and further education, the same is certainly not true of higher education.
Our legislation to create Technological Universities seems to have been abandoned.
Our proposals to fine Universities where they ignore public pay policy have been cast aside also.
There has been absolutely no movement on the Higher Education Reform Bill we proposed – which would tackle some of the outrageous issues around accountability and governance that have recently come to light.
And our suggestions on how to begin restoring funding to the sector have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Now, there are some who will argue that the Labour Party shouldn’t talk about the funding of third level.
Some argue that we broke a pledge; and that we are therefore precluded from this debate.
I won’t accept that.
I served in Government when Niamh Bhreathnach abolished third level fees.
In retrospect, leaving a small registration fee of £150 in place was a mistake at that time.
Over 15 years of Fianna Fáil government, during a time of unprecedented prosperity, the level increased by over 900% to €2,000 a year.
Whatever language we used, in truth fees had returned.
And yes, during our time in Government we increased them further.
Would we have done so if Labour held a majority in Government? No.
But as in many other areas, we took what we believed to be the least worst available option.
Whatever about the changes that were implemented during the crisis, we are now once more looking forward to another period of national prosperity.
The idea that the burden of funding should continue to shift from the state to the student in this context is bizarre.
We are rightly debating the establishment of a publicly funded health service at the moment.
We have, wrongly in my view, taken the national view that the polluter-pays principle should be ditched, and all water should be paid from the public purse.
We hear far too much from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Independents about reducing the USC.
And yet, in the midst of this context, every couple of weeks we hear a little bit more about how student loans are being considered, alongside a further hike in student fees.
Since the publication of the Cassells report, we have argued against student loans.
We will table a motion in the Oireachtas next month to give weight to that argument.
And we will produce in advance of the Budget a full economic costing for implementing a publicly-funded higher education system in Ireland.
Fees should not rise – they should go.
And instead, employers should contribute just a little more;
And the state should contribute a good bit more;
And full and equal access to higher education should become a reality in Ireland.
The Labour Party has always stood as a force for equality in Irish society.
But we have no given right to retain that role.
Our job is to continue devising the policies that would make Ireland a more equal country;
To show people that these policies are realistic options, with desirable outcomes;
And to speak to people in communities across Ireland, and persuade them that greater equality is a cause worth backing.
That’s the work I’m committed to doing every single day.
To change our future, I’m going to need your help.
The people gathered in this room are the next generation of Labour activists, policy makers and politicians.
Without you, nothing we do can make a difference.
But with you, there should be no limit to our ambitions.
Thank you for being here tonight.
And thank you for fighting for our future.