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“Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis.”
—Sean O’Casey, “Juno and the Paycock”
By JonMarcus
Dublin, Ireland
T
he topic of the Ph.D. seminar in a sunlit classroom
at University College Dublin is of more than academic
interest to the doctoral candidates who fill every seat.
It’s called “Politics in Crisis,” and it’s about how Ireland has
managed to find itself in the depths of an epic downturn so
soon after the peak of its “Celtic Tiger” economic miracle—a
time of incomparably high growth and low jobless rates,
when these same students, most then undergraduates, had
the world at their feet.
Charts and graphs in PowerPoint chronicle the huge
decline in such measures as gross domestic product since
then, and a spike in unemployment to some of its highest
levels since records began to be kept. Some 266,000 jobs
have been lost in this nation of 4.5 million, helping drive
the biggest emigration since the 1980s, with 70,000 people
leaving last year and another 50,000 likely to follow them this
year. Property values in Dublin have plunged 42 percent. The
Irish Stock Exchange hit a 14-year low. Struggling with a $32
billion revenue shortfall, and pushed by a European Union
that grudgingly provided a multibillion-euro bailout, the
government slashed $8.5 billion from its annual budget, with
plans for another $13 billion in cuts in the next three years.
Public employee salaries were cut, pensions and healthcare
threatened. The
government itself fell.
Among other
things, these events
have clearly conspired
to create what
academics like to call
a teachable moment.
Later on this same
day, in the same
building on the same
campus, is scheduled
another, unrelated
program, “Education
in Crisis,” part of a
weekly series that
has included discussions about the labor market in crisis,
democracy in crisis, migration in crisis, policing in crisis,
healthcare in crisis, even Catholicism in crisis.
“There are crises upon crises upon crises,” quips James
Farrell, a professor of politics at UCD and head of its School
of Politics and International Relations.
In addition to Farrell, the speakers at this morning’s
May 2011
Reversal of Fortune
Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economic miracle is followed by an epic downturn
seminar include
recently retired high-
level civil servants,
and before each one
shares his candid and
depressing take on
how Ireland’s current
sad state of economic
affairs came to pass, he
checks that Chatham
House Rules apply,
meaning that he won’t
be identified by name
outside the classroom.
“I want my pension
to arrive next week,” the
former official remarks
wryly.
“Your reduced
pension,” an academic
in the audience shoots
back, to laughter.
It’s with this
singularly Irish sense
of witty fatalism that
many in the country
seem to be reacting to
their reversal of fortune.
“There’s resignation
across the board,
because we know
there’s no money anymore, and there are few choices,” Daniel
Hayden, one of the Ph.D. candidates who have come to listen,
says during a break in the discussion.
But just beneath the surface are also deep divisions that
anticipate those beginning to be felt in higher education in
particular, and society in general, almost everywhere. Not
only are the causes of the problems familiar—an inflated
real-estate market, misdeeds by the banking sector, all but
unmanageable public debt. So, increasingly, are the results.
A frustrated public looking for someone to blame is
angry at public university faculty, whom they consider
lavishly overcompensated. Academics, toiling under
increased workloads, are irate at their administrators, whom
they say have mismanaged universities and squandered
popular support. Administrators bristle at what they
consider interference from uninformed and unfairly critical
government officials. And government officials want to hold
the universities and their faculties more accountable for
outcomes.
“There’s a very, very profound sense of demoralization
“We know there’s no money anymore, and there are
few choices,” says Daniel Hayden, a Ph.D. candidate at
University College Dublin. “There’s resignation across the
board.”
Irish students are
seeing big percentage
increases in their
contributions to their
educations at exactly
the time their families
have seen declines in
their incomes.
Photos by Peter Matthews, Black Star, for CrossTalk