Thursday, October 23, 2008

Term (reprise)

Here at the university, we are now—Deo gratias—half way through the first semester. Term is always a trial; it calls for much patience and the exercise of heroic virtue.

It shouldn’t be like that, but it is; and right now, Melancholicus could not be less motivated.

Melancholicus was tardy in his rising this morning, and consequently arrived on campus after nine o’clock. A good deal after nine o’clock, if the truth be told. He then spent a most unhappy hour wasting precious petrol and clocking up unnecessary miles on his car circumnavigating the campus in a vain search for somewhere—anywhere!—to park. In the end he found somewhere well off campus, involving a twenty-minute walk back to campus and the same twenty-minute walk to his car again when he shall have finished his day’s labour this evening. Let us hope that it won’t be raining.

It is a sad truth that if one has any business at this institution one must arrive on campus well before nine if one wishes to park one’s car, since (owing to the economic prosperity of recent times) every undergraduate and his or her flatmate now has a car. Not a few otherwise penniless students seem to drive cars much bigger and faster than what Melancholicus can afford to drive himself. On Tuesday Melancholicus beheld a bleach-blond and track-suited student parking a 2007 VW Golf. Those cars don’t come cheap—they can be up to or over €30,000 depending on engine size and trimmings. How could the fellow have afforded such, unless he is the son of Daddy Rich? Melancholicus drives a 2006 KIA Picanto, a much smaller, less powerful and less ostentatious vehicle; it is his first car, for he could never have afforded to drive when he was himself a student and had to depend instead on the likes of this. Melancholicus’ idea of a student car used to be a twelve-year old, third-hand, three-door Fiat with missing hubcaps, faded paintwork and a myriad dents and scratches, yet not a few turn up to their lectures driving gleaming new or nearly new Alfa Romeos, Audis, Toyota Corollas and Volkswagens.

Such is the struggle for parking spaces on campus, and the refusal of the authorities to implement a workable parking permit system (for fear of the reaction from the Students’ Union?), that yesterday Melancholicus travelled to work by bus—and in the process was rudely reminded of all the reasons why he stopped using the bus in the first place. Speaking of buses, he recently discovered that Dublin Bus refuses to serve the campus after 8pm, owing to the danger presented to the transit company’s staff by the hordes of drunk and disorderly students that roam the campus each evening, a danger which recently resulted in at least one assault.

Even at the university we are witnessing the results of the breakdown of society and the disintegration of social mores owing to the reluctance of modern parents to put much effort into the raising of their offspring.

The recent downturn in the economy has prompted the Irish government to consider the re-introduction of fees for third-level education. Needless to say, the students are not happy about this proposal. Third-level education has been technically free in this country since 1995. Melancholicus did not benefit from this abolition of fees, since he graduated in 1993, but his sister did, and so has nearly everyone who entered a third-level institution since then. The then minister for educaction Noel Demspey attempted to re-introduce fees in 2002, whereat students marched in protest, and in 2003 Mr. Dempsey was compelled to admit defeat. In the same year, a report revealed that—interestingly—only 20% of school-leavers from the lowest income bracket went on to university, compared with 97% of school-leavers from more privileged backgrounds.

So we can see who it is really that has benefited most from the abolition of fees, and that Noel Dempsey had the right idea.

The abolition of fees has had two principal effects: it has greatly increased the amount of ready cash at students’ disposal (not always a good thing—students, like the clergy, should be poor), and it has inculcated an attitude of relaxed carelessness among many. For if education is free, there is not much incentive to study hard and win top marks; there is, in fact, very little incentive to pass at all—the dropout can do his thing with a clear conscience, knowing that he will not be accountable to parents or benefactors displeased at the wasting of their money, and knowing he can always go back to study at any time. College becomes one long party, in which the student can save his money for recreational activities and devote himself to bedding as many similarly empty-headed young women as he can manage to seduce. And at the end of it all he will graduate with a degree hardly worth the parchment whereon it is printed, for the abolition of fees has led necessarily to extensive cutbacks and educational dumbing-down. Once upon a time, a degree was the distinction conferred upon a student who showed the required academic aptitude throughout a rigorous course of so many years’ study. Today, graduating with a degree is taken almost entirely for granted; only the spectacularly useless, the terribly unlucky, those with serious problems of one sort or another, or those who choose to withdraw will leave the university without one.

Yesterday, a student protest against the re-introduction of fees took place outside Leinster House, necessitating the presence of the Gardaí, since if students are prepared to act boorishly when out enjoying themselves, they will surely act boorishly when angrily protesting in large numbers.

Melancholicus did not attend the protest, even as an observer; he was teaching at the time, and was quite impressed to notice that the protest seemed not to impact on the levels of attendance at his lecture. But he would not have attended the protest anyway, for Melancholicus welcomes the re-introduction of fees, and hopes that the Irish government will have sufficient gumption to stick to its guns and not be intimidated by the prospect of ensuing unpopularity or the aggressive bawling of students and other leftists.

It is alleged that the re-introduction of fees will discriminate against students from lower economic backgrounds. It need not do so; fees might be imposed only on the fat cats—those who can afford to provide their sons and daughters with brand-new VW Golfs and suchlike. Working-class students could be exempted. We have already seen that the clear majority of students, even in these days of free education, are of middle-class extraction anyway; they are protesting, not (as they might pretend) on behalf of their less-well-off cousins but on behalf of themselves—and their cars. Consider: little Jimmy, from a comfortably well-off middle-class family, gets a good Leaving Cert and decides to go off to college. Good for him. Since his parents are relieved of the obligation to fork out €3,000 per annum in fees, amounting to €9,000 to €12,000 across the three or four years needed for little Jimmy to take his degree, they can afford to buy their son a car. So little Jimmy gets a new (or nearly new) Nissan Almera or, if he’s the son of Mammy and Daddy Rich, an Audi. Of course the parents of little Jimmy’s friends are likewise equipping their college-bound sons and daughters with fast and flashy autos, with the result that university employees with a job to do have to compete with the most non-commital undergraduates for parking facilities, and it is impossible to drive anywhere in Dublin within a reasonable time period because the streets are clogged as everyone has a car.

Roll on the recession!

Now imagine that little Jimmy’s parents have to shell out a considerable sum in annual tuition fees; little Jimmy probably wouldn’t get his new Almera—and, given the money being pumped into his education, he would be under considerable pressure to deliver academically—or explain to a furious Daddy why all his money was wasted.

Hardly surprising that the students oppose the bringing back of fees, for it would impact every aspect of their lives—they would have to depend on public transport to get to and from college; they would have to scrimp and save for their beer money; they might actually have to spend time in the library instead of the bar; they might have to support themselves instead of relying on allowances from munificent relatives.

It might be good for them.

They might grow up a little.

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