As the general election campaign rolled on this week, the question of higher education finally received a few slivers of air-time.
So far, it’s been abundantly clear that third-level education isn’t top of any party’s agenda, with concrete proposals for the future of the sector still nowhere in sight.
Instead, the political conversation around higher education has continued to sidestep the core issues and begun speeding in altogether unprecedented directions.
Last week, Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne declared that no party would pledge to abolish the student contribution fee – a sad but apt reflection of the ever-lower bar being set by prominent politicians.
That promising the abolition of fees is now considered politically non-viable for the major parties is particularly shameful given that Irish university fees are set to be the highest in Europe after Brexit. It should hardly be an outrageous suggestion – it is, after all, one of the three recommendations on the shunted Cassells report, as well as the key demand of several higher education groups.
But despite lobbyists’ explicit demands, it’s plainly not in any party’s interest to make decisions on these big questions. Instead, new promises have begun bubbling to the surface.
Byrne skirted the question of Cassells by instead claiming that Fianna Fáil would invest an annual €100 million in higher education – admittedly not an insignificant sum, and certainly an offer that may hold appeal for many university heads.
For rivals Fine Gael, the promise of yet more technological universities seems to be their golden goose – a pledge that may be even more attractive to many voters, especially those seeking boosts for their region, than a straight-up funding commitment.
Then there’s the Green Party’s recent vow to introduce free transport for students: a promise that similarly evades the core issues of funding and fees, but at least targets students themselves by promising to put money back into their pockets.
While some parties are still hedging their bets on higher education, at this rate, it’s hard to imagine any making a persuasive promise to meet the sector’s key demands. Instead, it seems, we’re resigned to watching as the conversation continues to digress.