If higher education’s stakeholders had been told a few months that the government would go on to announce a €168 million package for third-level institutions to support them through the pandemic, they probably would have had a hard time believing it.
In May, the caretaker government told universities that there would be no rescue package for the sector – in other words, colleges thought they would have to fend for themselves in a sector that was bedeviled with underfunding even before the pandemic hit. In June, for example, this newspaper revealed that Trinity risked running out of money by September 2021.
It is no wonder then that higher education big wigs are delighted.
Irish Universities Association Director General Jim Miley, for one, said that it was evidence of the “government’s recognition of the key role that higher education and research has in helping to reboot the economy”.
Since taking over the new Department of Higher Education, Simon Harris has injected some much-needed enthusiasm into the sector – this package is a testament to his energetic approach to his new brief.
The department also announced a range of provisions aimed at helping students: an increase in college supports, mental health services, and a scheme designed to help students who struggle to access the internet. It seems that Harris’ promises of “social cohesion and equality” were more than just soundbites.
In June, nearly 2,000 of Ireland’s academics signed an open letter urging the government to create a dedicated department for third-level. Universities had realised their lobbying efforts were falling on deaf ears, and that a cabinet champion would have more influence on government policy than anything else.
It has now been one month since the creation of that department – it seems clear that the open letter was not in vain.
While it’s still too early to come to any major conclusions just yet, this €168 million package shows that having a seat at the ministerial table may make all the difference after all.