Sunday, 30 November 2008

The folly of EU grants

It will probably all stop now that so much wealth has gone up in smoke, but up to now there has been wave after wave of EU funding for various projects in Greece. They all seem to be organised in the same way and backed up by the same line of thinking. One example: grants given to the thousands of little private schools in Greece to help them connect to the internet and gain a presence on the web. It works like this: There is a short list of things the grant scheme covers, schools pay for those things and then fill in an application form to have the cost covered by grant money minus the VAT (sales tax).

Does that sound sensible? Does that sound like the best way to raise educational facilities?

In practice, what happens is that everyone simply sees a great opportunity to cash in instead of being inspired to fundamentally overhaul the way teaching and learning is organised. The typical school, I imagine, finds a way to get a web site made, but has little idea how to use internet technology in the educational process. The scheme seems to assume that with the financial incentive schools will take an interest in new technology and somehow educate themselves. But no. The web site is made; the grant money is gratefully received; and the school goes back to teaching in the way that it has done for decades before the idea of the hypertext transfer protocol ever dawned on the likes of Tim Berners and his team. A lot of money for very little gain.

And in Brussels (or wherever these schemes are hatched) do they not see that they are setting things up for a huge scam? In a country like Greece (perhaps the same as elsewhere) every self-respecting businesswoman can find someone to sell them IT stuff and write a receipt for twice the money they actually paid. And the sums are large. A little school with only three or four classrooms can make thousands of euros in this scam. The computers will find their way into schools, but the EU will have paid a massively inflated price for them.

My only conclusion is that the people in Brussels (if that is where they are) overlook this massive and predictable financial loss because of an ideological commitment to a half-baked free market philosophy. The money must be given directly to individual business people as a spur to private enterprise (in practice: pocket-lining) rather than give it to some public sector group, which would smack too much of socialism.

But wouldn't it have been so much better for education (and supposedly advances in education were what was really at stake here) to do just that: use the money to set up public sector initiatives: free seminars and workshops organised locally for school owners to find out about all the useful things that can be done with new technology (including all the free things that can be done - another oversight of a scheme which assumes that progress can only be made by purchasing things). And as for the hardware, the state could have set up its own bulk-purchasing organisation and bought everything for a quarter of the price the EU finally paid for it, and then give it to the schools for free - to schools that have attended a few seminars and workshops and shown that they are most probably in a position to do something useful with the hardware.

Would that be socialism or just common sense?

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