Last summer, when Fianna Fáil first proposed the establishment of a new department with responsibility for higher education and research, the response was mixed.
There was certainly something in the idea, was the general feeling, amid a years-long funding crisis in higher education and a government that seemed spectacularly unbothered by it.
Warnings sounded in some quarters, though. A whole office in charge of looking after higher education might bring more attention, and possibly funding, but the catch might come in the autonomy – a prized commodity at third-level – that universities would have to cough up in exchange.
A year later, the narrative from higher education’s stakeholders has changed – on the problems facing third-level, and on the idea of a department in charge of it. Where once universities were keen to avoid the reputational damage that comes with admitting the scale of their issues, now they’re regularly issuing stark warnings and berating the government for its lack of action.
Calls for a department for higher education fit neatly into the picture of where we are now, with a pandemic that’s ravaging universities’ finances and a Department of Education that somehow still isn’t attuned to the severity of a genuinely existential crisis. (This week, for instance, this newspaper revealed that Trinity could run out of cash by September 2021.)
Universities have by now clearly accepted the obvious: that their lobbying efforts, amplified dramatically in recent months, verge on futile. The logic seems to be that a full minister – as opposed to the partial position occupied by Mary Mitchell O’Connor since 2017 – would at least give them a proper voice at the negotiating table.
Provost Patrick Prendergast, Senior Lecturer Kevin Mitchell and nearly 2,000 of the country’s academics are clearly subscribers to this line of thinking, and it’s hard to argue with it. But it shows dispiriting acceptance among universities – long the drivers of change in Ireland, and a central part of our economy – of their role on the margins of debate.
A Department of Higher Education and Research is unlikely to be a silver bullet – or anything close – for third-level. But, for starving universities, things can scarcely get any worse.