Sunday, March 23, 2008

Education, education, education?

Well Easter in Ireland is usually dominated by religious services, Easter eggs and the teachers conferences. Over the next week, we will hear a lot about teaching and the education system. That got me thinking about the role of education in the consumer movement. While I don't subscribe to the view often promoted by regulators or industry interests that educating consumers is the only or primary way to address a particular issue, consumer education does have a role to play. In many sectors where the law is deficient or where legislators or regulators won't or cannot act, or where retailers or providers are screwing the consumer, education is not really that much use in my humble opinion. Also by just emphasising education, the anti-consumer interests can avoid their responsibilities or try to prevent other actions which they find unpalatable. I am also conscious of the view of the current Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, who I think said that every time society has an itch, people want the education system to scratch it!

Good Man Pat Shortt!!!

There are three areas where I think consumer education could be advanced (hence the title, which I stole from Tony Blair)

Firstly providing education to consumers directly. I see that the Office of Fair Trading has just completed a pilot of a consumer education course in Scotland which they plan to roll out across the UK. We have seen a significant growth in the number of adult and further education providers here in Ireland and therefore I would love to see the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the NCA, local VECs and others including CAI sitting down to work on the development of a course designed to meet the needs of consumers in Ireland today. Key aspects would be making sure the content is relevant and up to date, making sure it empowers as well as informs the consumer and lastly is offered and delivered in such a way to reach as many consumers as possible.

Secondly retailers and businesses should be encouraged to engage in consumer education for themselves and their staff. The CAI has run the CAIRS (Consumers' Association of Ireland Retail Staff certificate in consumer customer care) course for businesses in the last number of years to address this particular shortfall. Retailers and businesses would benefit a lot by ensuring all their staff are aware of their obligations to consumers under the law.

Thirdly I think over the coming years that the development of a graduate or third level course on consumer rights is required. If we are ever to build a strong consumer movement, we need to provide consumer activists with the opportunity for intellectual analysis, and with the skills, information and of course qualifications to advance our agenda. I also see the need for such a third level programme to up skill those who have responsibility for consumer protection in a range of state bodies and regulators. Many as far as I can see have no background, training or empathy for consumer issues and it shows!