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Safe pair of hands

Laura Harmon is on the phone when I meet her outside the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College. She finishes, apologises gratuitously, and we make our way into the Arts block to locate an empty lecture theatre. A sensor notes our presence and the lights beam into action as we find seats at a desk on the podium – a vantage point Harmon is likely to be quite familiar with from her campaigning.

I’ve interviewed a number of student sabbatical officers and have been often struck by how invariable and institutionalised their answers tend to be. Will Harmon be any different? To open, I ask her how good she thinks the Irish education system is. Her answer surprises me: “we have a very good education system in Ireland – certainly”.

Mentally I note that only Trinity is ranked in the top 100 universities in Europe according to the most recent QS rankings (UCD ranked 139, UCC 230, NUIG 280, DCU 366). For a president of a lobbying body that has been so critical it seems an unnecessary concession.

I ask Harmon how important she thinks USI is to students in Ireland. “I certainly think that we need to ask ourselves if we didn’t have a national students’ union what position would we be in”. With fees [‘contribution charges’] having risen by €250 during each of the last three years, it’s a question that UCD students were asking when they voted to leave the USI last year.

Harmon claims that student supports were protected “by and large” in the budget, something that she thinks wouldn’t have occurred if USI hadn’t been lobbying for it.

USI doesn’t get too involved in secondary education but she says  she would “personally favour transition year to occur  after the Leaving Cert so that you could get support and tutoring through that year and a lot of career guidance”. She agrees with former Eduation Minister Ruairi Quinn that philosophy should be taught in schools.

She’s strong on student loans: “In Ireland in particular we have very high levels of personal debt as it stands so I don’t think that a loan scheme would be the option. Graduates already pay, on average, 75% more tax during their lifetimes than non-graduates so a graduate tax would, I think, create an intergenerational inequality as well where you have graduates, now, who wouldn’t be paying that graduation tax and when you introduce it you’d have a new cohort of grads who would be paying a much higher tax band than anyone else and I think it could act as a disincentive to go to third-level education”.

In terms of educational exemplars, the Nordic model is a repeating conversational reference in line with her self-description as a “social democrat” (one who has “no party I particularly want to sign up with right now”). Germany and Scotland, as other providers of free third-level education, are also mentioned.

As to how free third-level education might be funded, Harmon argues that, even at present, free education is possible and could be achieved by “progressive taxation” and strict tax enforcement so that the likes of Apple pay “the amount of tax they should be paying”. No doubt this is fair, if easily populist, but I want to know what makes her leadership any different from past USI leaders’.

She humbly believes that that is for others to decide but believes her successful election “seems to have been because I’m a campaigner, I work hard for the causes which motivate us and I’m straightforward”. That characteristic doesn’t come across in our interview and I’m reminded of past encounters with student leadership.

Later, I offer her the opportunity to differentiate herself by asking if she favours equality of opportunity or equality of outcome and what she believes the role of private money has in the provision of education.

Harmon believes that without equality of opportunity you cannot achieve equality of outcome as you “miss out on a cohort of people who can’t access the system”. Many on the left would claim something very different – that equality of opportunity fails to address the inherited inequalities that make the equality of the opportunity less meaningful.

As to private money, while initially she states that “ideally you have to have it all completely public if you’re going to create real equality of opportunity for everyone”, she later amends this to “private colleges offer a choice and a valuable option – and the diversity of options for students keeps the quality up in the private and public sectors”.

Harmon is no slave to the iconoclastic traditions of USI. Middle Ireland can sleep comfortable in the knowledge that its educational system is not under threat from the leadership of its most influential student body. •