This week saw a promising development in an eternal battle, with government approval for the creation of 20 women-only professorships in colleges across the country.
In Trinity, the move, part of the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative, will fund two new chair professorships for women – as part of a project attractive enough to prod Trinity into belatedly appointing an associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion in order to meet the funding criteria.
The need for radical redress at academia’s top levels has been glaringly obvious for some time. In 2017, for instance, this newspaper revealed that only 25 per cent of Trinity’s chair professors were women.
And while the initiative may prove contentious in some circles, the fact that Trinity was one of 12 third-level institutes to successfully apply for funding is proof that colleges around the country are eager to support the creation of important women-only jobs.
But there may be a catch. Despite the project’s popularity, a closer look at its ins and outs calls into question the government’s long-term commitment to funding it. For one thing, institutes are required to contribute towards funding the posts, and the government also hasn’t announced how much it will offer toward the costs of the new professorships beyond 2021.
It’s hardly unfair to suggest that this government’s record isn’t great when it comes to tackling higher education’s problems at their roots – pay any attention to what the sector’s stakeholders argue and you’ll be left with little doubt.
So it’s reasonable to wonder if the costs of these senior professorships, which are far from inconsiderable, will simply revert in large part to colleges and universities in a few years, once the initiative loses gloss and political capital.
Given the crisis in higher education’s core funding, this scenario would almost certainly require institutes to make cuts elsewhere in their budgets – not a situation anyone would think desirable, and one that could create unfortunate backlash against women-only posts down the line.
The dearth of women at the top levels of higher education is a systemic problem that has no quick fix. It’s of utmost importance that the government treats it as the long-term issue that it is.