By John Horgan
TWO university students were seen not very long ago in a Dublin pub—not an uncommon setting — talking about their future. The conversation had reached the usual impasse on emigration when one looked mournfully into his glass and murmured to the other "Wouldn't it be grand, now, to be sitting over a pint in the Earl's Court Road, wishing we were back in Ireland?"
This lugubrious attitude, though still prevalent, is not as common as it used to be. A lot of the old cobwebs are being disturbed, old isolationisms are being swept away, and strange, clear voices asking questions are being heard throughout the land.
A new kind of mature, extrovert nationalism is appearing: one which owes little or nothing to the alliances and rivalries of the civil war, and everything to those of the future.
The imminence of the move into the Common Market and Ireland's increasingly important role in world affairs have both necessitated radical rethinking of ideas in all sectors of life — politics, industry. agriculture. and so on. At the top there are leaders who have shown themselves to be, in many ways, exceptionally practical when it comes to dealing with the problems involved.
What about the "second force" —the people who will be taking over when these men are no longer in charge? What kind of atmosphere are they being brought up in, and how well are they being educated? In any emerging country, and particularly in Ireland, the universities have a vital role in the formation of this "second force". A university is given the chance to educate a person when, unless he has been hopelessly smothered by inadequate primary and secondary education. he is at his most receptive. It has the chance to make him think rather than accept. It can give him the knowledge and presence of mind which will enable him to ask the awkward questions which have to be asked if a person is to grow up.
Irish universities are not yet producing their full share of questioning and aware minds, even though the particular brand of mental isolationism that has hampered Irish education for so long is being chipped away. Nor does a university education lead. as it so often does in Britain, to a poll
heal life. For too many people, a degree is still a commodity rather than a training. Therefore, politics and social service in all their forms—most of which demand a high level of personal involvement—are not attracting enough graduates, and many talents are being hidden or buried.
The National University of Ireland, whose constituent colleges in Dublin, Cork, Maynooth and Galway cater for a total of almost 10,000 students, is a distant relative of the old Catholic University founded by Newman, and still occupies the house in Stephen's Green where Newman's establishment flourished. Dublin with approximately 6,000 students, is by far the largest of the constituent colleges. and it has been suggested before no that it merits the status of a full university. Cork and Galway are smaller, hut expanding, colleges in more rural settings.
It would he short sighted to pretend that even this approaches the ideal. There are many shortcomings. The levels of intelligence and maturity in students, for instance. can too easily be sacrificed in favour of those of "book
learning". Many educational
opportunities arc being wasted through overcrowding and lack of facilities, and others which could be created are being postponed in favour of an academic jerrybuilding which weakens with age.
Right at the beginning. there is unnecessary duplication between the Department of Education's Leaving Certificate and the National University's Matriculation examination. The Matriculation standards arc lower, and holders of the Leaving Certificate in certain subjects may enter univertisity without ever actually sitting for the matriculation examination.
This means, or can mean, that many parents send their children to a university primarily because they can afford to. This is not inherently harmful, but even now it shows signs of degenerating into a sort of educational status symbol. This view is supported by the fact that the "fail rate" of students who never get to the end of their courses is appreciably higher than it is in Britain, where standards are higher and competition much keener.
Side by side with this there is the grave shortage of scholarships, grants, and financial aid of any kind for intelligent students whose
parents cannot afford to send them to university. In Ireland, certainly not more than 15 per cent of university students get financial help: in Britain the situation is almost ffie reverse. Available scholarships are either very big or impossibly small. Large ones are sponsored by local authorities or by the university colleges themselves, and the small ones are usually the kind but inadequate bounty of long-dead educationalists. Commercial firms have not generally seen their way to making any contribution. And some local authority scholarships are only tenable at a particular university.
In even a medium-sized Irish county, up to 300 pupils will do their "Leaving" examination, all receiye honours marks in six or more subjects, and find themselves competing, on the basis of their results, for as few as two or three scholarships. The unsuccessful ones will either have to join a family business, emigrate in search of precarious and often unskilled work, or "do the Civil Service".
Competition for a Post Office clerkship will be as keen, and the standard almost as high, as that for a university scholarship.
That these men and women should not have been rejected by the educational system is obvious: the higher reaches of the Civil Service, and of the Government itself. are thickly populated with highly mare, capable and intelligent officials who have never had a university education. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the Minister for Agriculture —the three most important ministers—are notable examples of this.
Those who do get scholarships, or whose parents cats support them during their three, four or five years at university. have to make the best they can of the chances offered to them, but are often swamped in the critical first year. At this time, the student's attitude to his work is at its most vulnerable. He usually decides, consciously or unconsciously, wheher he is out to educate himself or submit passively to a degree curse. Conditions at university should encourage him to think, to question, to air his doubts. At the moment. he is often submerged tinder sheer numbers: lectures in classes of 110 and more, and "tutorials" that often contain 20 tend to perpetuate the impression that this is just an extension of secondary school. and to make him act accordingly.
There are still too few questions asked and doubts aired. Party political societies are still not allowed. The view held by the authorities is that, if the students wish to take part in party political activities. they should do so in circumstances which make it clear that their connection with their particular college is not involved. This rule implies, in a way, that such activity is not a part of education and. even if it is a legacy