No one said a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition was going to be easy. Two rival parties, so used to maligning each other over the past century, now must work together – and so far things have not been running smoothly.
Last week, we saw how the current fissure could hurt the third-level sector.
On Sunday, Norma Foley came under fire for saying that colleges would be allowed to charge the maximum registration fee regardless of how long students would be on campus this year.
The next day Higher Education Minister Simon Harris appeared on RTÉ Radio One saying that he considered registration fees to be “too high”, hinting that he would look to reduce the fee, even as soon as the October budget.
These were both bizarre announcements for two reasons. Firstly, Norma Foley overextended her remit as Minister for Education and answered a question that should have been posed to Harris. Secondly her partner in government then went on the radio the next day to undermine what Foley had previously said in the Dáil. The lack of coordination was jarring.
A few days later, speaking to the Dublin chamber, Harris made a number of controversial announcements with little fanfare.
He advocated for an overhaul of current governance structures in Irish universities by the end of year, calling some structures “archaic”. In Trinity, no one could have expected a minister to so brazenly say that the fate of College Board and University Council lay firmly at the feet of the government.
He also, strangely enough, called for a cross-border university – a policy that rarely appears in conversations surrounding higher education. After all, most third-level stakeholders are too busy with burgeoning technological universities and existing universities to worry about hypothetical north-south colleges.
The government should no doubt be putting more thought into its announcements and making sure that the Minister for Education and the Minister for Higher Education are reading from the same hymn sheet.
The Department of Higher Education has been a success story thus far – we don’t want to see the disarray that has riddled other departments creeping into it.