Tinkering around the edges and skirting the big issues has become Richard Bruton’s political forte. The Minister for Education has, for the last two years, promised immediate action on funding and said it was of the highest importance.
Yet, as the government this week released a raft of reforms – including fines for mismanagement in Irish universities – it’s getting to the stage where everything and anything goes. Except for funding.
For a government that has heaped praise on consensus and discussion – the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee is still working away quietly – it’s seemed to have made a number of exceptions: fines for Irish universities, following a year of controversies, is the latest pressing issue, after Bruton decided last year employers needed more of a say in higher education.
Jim Miley, the new Director General of the Irish Universities Association, was being too polite when he said this week that universities “have delivered a substantial amount of reform and introduced large-scale efficiency over the last decade”.
Irish universities have endured a raft of indignities in the last few years and, unfortunately, have very little to show for it. If the Cassells report threatened to turn higher education funding into a mainstream issue, Bruton has ensured that the focus switched to piecemeal fiddling with the sector’s bureaucratic levers, rather than the core concerns.
It must be strange to a sector that has been praised by ministers for producing top research and fostering new talent to see the eighth amendment – once an untouchable issue – become less contentious than higher education funding.
Of course, the lack of progress on funding shouldn’t preclude Bruton from improving the sector – and it’s laudable that he’s talked aplenty about improving access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it’s hard not to feel, when financial penalties for universities are one of the centrepiece of two years of policy, that this myopia is somewhat intentional.