The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has today welcomed the creation of the new Department of Higher Education, Innovation and Science, which was announced on Saturday by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Simon Harris was announced as the minister of higher education on Saturday. Yesterday he said that he intends on creating a department with an “economic focus”.
In a press statement, Joan Donegan, general secretary of IFUT, said: “The creation of the new Department reflects a decision by the government to address the fact that, over the past decade, higher education and research had very much become the ‘cinderella’ within the overall education system.”
“This major deterioration in funding and focus on the sector seriously jeopardised the future of a quarter of a million higher education students as well as the future of our economy and society generally.”
Donegan added that “IFUT very much looks forward to working with new Cabinet Minister Simon Harris and his officials to assist in the rebirth of higher education and to enable lecturers, researchers and students and teaching staff to achieve and deliver their full potential”.
She also said that the current financial model has become “unsustainable”, adding that there was now an “excellent opportunity” to work on a long-term funding strategy “drawing on the Recommendations of the 2016 Cassells Report and the more recent work of the Oireachtas Education Committee on the issue”.
Third-level stakeholders will welcome a move to set up a specific department to look after the sector: many, including Provost Patrick Prendergast, have called in recent times for the establishment of one, after higher education got a partial ministry in 2017 as part of the Department of Education.
Under the outgoing government, Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor became the first minister of state for higher education.
Harris began a degree in journalism and French in Dublin Institute of Technology, but dropped out to pursue politics, the Irish Times reported in 2016.
Harris, who served as minister for health from 2016 until an election earlier this year, has a difficult brief.
University heads have become more full-throated in recent times in their criticisms of the government when it comes to funding for third-level. Last month, Prendergast told Pat Kenny in a Newstalk interview that it’s “not good enough” that education has been deprioritised when it comes to state funding decisions.
Last month, over 800 academics and researchers – including Trinity’s Senior Lecturer Kevin Mitchell and Luke O’Neill, the Trinity professor known for his work on the coronavirus – called for the establishment of a Department of Higher Education and Research.
In an open letter to Ireland’s TDs, 810 signatories highlighted the need for a dedicated department for higher education, flagging a “crisis” in research that the letter said “risks becoming fatal if not addressed”.
The letter said that higher education and research need a full cabinet ministership – as opposed to its current junior ministerial position, established in 2017 – in order to bring an end to years of the sector “falling between multiple departments with different core focuses”.