Political discussions about higher education, it seems, are a bit like buses: you wait ages for one and then suddenly you have politicians and stakeholders in the same room, publicly debating how best to tackle the sector’s many issues.
That was what happened last week, when representatives from seven of Ireland’s political parties came to Trinity for an election debate that finally saw a lengthy conversation about many of the problems that bedevil Ireland’s third-level education sector.
It was an opportunity for key actors in the fight for funding to make their public pitch to the government – Provost Patrick Prendergast was unflinching as he wondered aloud whether Ireland has the “leadership” to solve the sector’s funding crisis. (Beside him, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor sat stony-faced.)
It was also a chance for students to hear politicians engage with the kinds of ideas that could define how their universities are run over the coming years.
And ultimately, it was a bit of a letdown.
The debate should have offered politicians the chance to set out a coherent vision for higher education – a vital part of Ireland’s future, as all on stage were quick to acknowledge. It should have seen substantive debate about funding models, autonomy and student accommodation.
What we got instead was a monolithic argument that offered little by way of revelation. Frequently, those on stage appeared to be grappling for the first time with ideas and problems that provosts and presidents have been pointing out for years, and more often still the arguments descended into whataboutery and point-scoring.
Sinn Féin, the only party close to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the polls, failed to offer a coherent alternative, and it was worrying to see Mitchell O’Connor’s attempt to undermine the Cassells report go largely unchecked.
Student accommodation and autonomy – both issues of major and immediate significance – didn’t come up at all, with all of the room’s oxygen swallowed by a funding conversation that will not have fired Ireland’s universities with newfound confidence.
So while we may have finally heard from the politicians, there’s still little to suggest that the main parties have a vision for the future.