The creation of a Department for Higher Education has long been sought by the universities as something of a “holy grail” – finally wresting control of the budget for the sector away from the “Department for Schools”.
This was reflected in the recent article in the Irish Times by the Provost under the headline: “Time to be ambitious. We need a Department of Higher Education and Research”. The view that higher education loses out consistently to primary and second level education has a basis in fact, as the relative impact of spending cuts arising from the Great Recession will show.
Over the period 2007/8 to 2014/15, funding per student in higher education fell by 22 per cent. The result was that expenditure per student at second-level – which in 2003 was 74.2 per cent that of third-level had by 2013 surpassed it. At this time staffing cuts in higher education greatly exceeded those in second-level and the number of primary teachers actually rose by 5 per cent.
The appointment of a full cabinet minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science will bring many benefits in the influence they can bring to bear in crucial decisions affecting the sector. It will bring benefits too in the form of greater co-ordination of the post-second level system. Co-ordination with further education is a key plank in the strategy to provide the skills-needs of the economy and to give access to students to a more diverse range of tertiary education.
There is also great value in creating greater porosity between further and higher education and greater coherence between research policy and structures. In the case of the latter, the bringing together of the Higher Education Authority, including the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland under one Minister with one budget line can only enhance effectiveness and efficiencies and strengthen university-based research.
For too long SFI has ploughed its own furrow with little regard to the broader needs of the higher education sector and the individual institutions – never mind overall national policy for higher education.
For too long SFI has ploughed its own furrow with little regard to the broader needs of the higher education sector and the individual institutions – never mind overall national policy for higher education
This is not to overlook the splendid work SFI has done and is doing, but the lack of co-ordination and recognition of the wider roles of the institutions has been a significant weakness in the higher education system for far too long. Global rankings measure university-based research and this should strengthen our global positioning and competitiveness.
In this way, even if the creation of the new department with a cabinet-level minister is the holy grail now delivered – it is no panacea.
Having a minister should ensure that higher education and research get a better hearing at Cabinet and a share of public resources proportionate to its importance. But those resources are going to be considerably constrained for some time, so don’t expect any financial largesse anytime soon.
The issue as to how to balance the public and the private contribution to the cost of higher education has not gone away and is as controversial politically as ever. And perhaps universities should be careful what they wished for.
The issue as to how to balance the public and the private contribution to the cost of higher education has not gone away and is as controversial politically as ever
While the Provosts’ article in the Irish Times is an eloquent restatement of the role of universities in serving “society by the independent pursuit of knowledge” rather than existing “merely to serve the skills needs of the economy”, I expect the focus of this government and this department to be very much on the economic impact of higher education and research and how the sector can play a key role in rebuilding the economy after the coronavirus.
If the creation of the department is to be really impactful it will require a response from the sector. Pleas for more funding, less regulation and more respect for autonomy are likely to get a better hearing from the new minister if combined with a demonstrated willingness among the institutions to see themselves as part of the solution to the fundamental challenges they now face.
This requires a genuine effort at reimagining how higher education can be structured and delivered, deep and wide-ranging collaboration across post-secondary education and the various higher education institutions.
Real engagement in areas such as credit transfer, joint degrees, shorter and more intensive programmes, greater use of digital resources to deliver programmes, greater use of capital infrastructure, including over summer, and changes to staff contracts would go much of the way to demonstrate to a sceptical Government that presidents are serious-minded reformers.
So, to borrow the Provost’s headline – if it is “time to be ambitious” and create a Department of Higher Education and Research, how about some ambition from the Provost and his fellow presidents for a different higher education system – a real system acting as one in the public interest.
Sitting on the sidelines is not an option in the post-pandemic world.