Fine Gael’s Simon Harris is set to be appointed minister for higher education, innovation and research, according to reports, in a move that seems to indicate the creation of a new, specific department with responsibility for third-level – a major development for the sector.
Harris will take over the full ministership – as opposed to the junior position that previously fitted into the framework of the Department of Education – and will now be in charge of a higher education sector battling long-term funding issues.
Meanwhile, Norma Foley of Fianna Fáil will take over as minister for education as part of Ireland’s new coalition government.
Third-level stakeholders would 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, who served as minister for health from 2016 until an election earlier this year, has a difficult brief: figure out a way forward for a sector increasingly vocal in recent times about its need for state investment.
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.
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”.
The idea of a new Department of Higher Education and Research has been mooted in the past, with Fianna Fáil promising it for the first time last summer and committing to establishing it before February’s general election.
Speaking at the Institute of International and European Affairs in February, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin – who was elected Taoiseach today – echoed a manifesto commitment to the creation of a new department with responsibility for higher education.
Martin said: “We have to immediately address a funding crisis which threatens quality in our higher education system, to invest more in helping disadvantaged communities.”
Higher education’s funding problems are well-documented: 2016’s Cassells report called for urgent action to tackle the issue amid sliding revenue since the financial crash.
State funding per student has fallen by more than 40 per cent in the last decade, with little government investment even as student numbers rise in universities.
Now, with third-level facing a financial crisis amid drastic drop-offs in non-exchequer funding due to the pandemic, the sector has called with increasing volume in recent months for structured investment from the government to help tackle its funding issues.
The University Times revealed in early June that Trinity risks running out of cash by September 2021 if strict cutbacks are not introduced in the coming months.
In the worst-case scenario, the impact of the coronavirus could see Trinity’s unrestricted cash – the amount of money College has to spend that is not tied to a specific usage – plummet into the red by the summer of 2021, according to excerpts from a confidential report obtained by this newspaper.
The Department of Education has said it will only step in with financial support in extreme cases, where cashflow problems are serious enough to threaten the viability of a university or college.