On July 17th, 2019, in the basement of the Alex Hotel in Dublin city centre, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin promised Ireland’s higher education leaders a new department, just for them.
It was easy at the time to be cynical about the pitch: Martin, who wasn’t in government, was speaking at a conference organised by universities, for universities, and addressing a sector starved of both funding and political attention. It suited him to promise colleges a seat at the cabinet table – with the tantalising, and vague, prospect of more investment.
Eleven months later, a lot has changed. As of yesterday, Martin is taoiseach of a country turned upside down by the pandemic. Higher education’s funding problems, enormous in 2019, have the potential to turn genuinely existential.
In this context, it’s hardly any wonder that university heads are celebrating the announcement that higher education and research will have a department to themselves, separate from the Department of Education. Martin kept his word.
Symbolically, it’s hard to deny the significance of the new department – especially when you consider how hard universities have found it to secure a slot on the agenda in recent years. Lobbying, in a looming recession, will be crucial, and universities will be determined to use Simon Harris’s newly created cabinet seat to bang the funding drum louder than ever.
It’s also a sign that colleges, and their researchers, may actually have landed a political punch in recent weeks with a narrative that puts education at the heart of rebuilding Ireland after the pandemic. It’s a move closer to the centre of power, and it’s hard to see a downside to that.
But rhetoric is one thing – action is another. And there’s certainly cause for scepticism about a department led by Harris, whose party has consistently stuck its fingers in its ears when it comes to the need for public investment in higher education.
Third-level urgently needs a government that recognises its value, and that’s willing to pay for its existence – and one department does not a funding model make. If we see one – and it is still an if, despite yesterday’s announcement – then universities will finally have cause for real hope.