In early 2021, Minister for Education Norma Foley’s inconsistent, reactive decision-making regarding schools’ reopening became a focal point of public governmental criticism. In the shadow of that issue lives the seemingly forgotten, nebulous state of third-level education. Simon Harris, Ireland’s first Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science somehow escapes much of the critique aimed at Minister Foley. This position was created expressly for Harris, who abandoned his own third-level education to pursue politics.
Harris does appear to take his job as Minister for Research, Innovation and Science seriously. He has been vocal about providing €193 million in funding to the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and regularly tweets about progress he is making at an EU level in research and industry funding. These are all positions geared toward creating greater economic output. Harris recently retweeted Ciarán Seoighe, who boasted that “every euro put into an SFI research centre generates €5 for the Irish economy”.
As for his position as the minister for Higher Education, however, Harris is overwhelmingly apathetic. Where SFI was given €193 million, students nationwide were treated to €250 taken off the top of their €3,000 fees. For UCD students, this remuneration does not even cover the Student Centre levy, a building which has been widely inaccessible and/or closed for the majority of those paying for it since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
In September 2020, Harris failed to properly communicate that higher education institutions would not reopen. This led to thousands of students paying for accommodation they don’t need and that some can’t access. There has been no apology or reparations, only the insistence that students being forced to live at home is good for cost reduction, with these students no longer needing to travel or buy their own food. That statement alone is reductive economically, but more seriously shows massive disregard for the social and mental health risks that this may incur in families’ environments without healthy dynamics.
Harris’ championship of “Ecollege.ie”, a free online learning platform is indicative of his hypocrisy in asserting that colleges and universities can carry on as normal, to their normal standards. The website offers free college-level courses which 35,000 students have enrolled in free of charge, its price point recognising the differences between face-to-face teaching and online learning.
Despite this, colleges, and students, are offered pitiful remuneration and no supports; “no detriment” policies are revoked, and there has been no endeavours to alleviate social or mental health issues. Harris offers little more to students than pleasantries which state he too would like to see students back on campus, but he has done nothing to actually achieve that goal.
Harris tells those who are struggling to reach out for assistance, just don’t ask him to provide it.
Harris represents higher level administration and their financial interests. He does not represent students, and he certainly does not support them. While Norma Foley and teachers nationwide are criticised for allowing the decline of children’s education, their sociability, and mental health, Harris has been allowed leave university students in the dark with no major political opposition.
No communication, no leeway, no support. Harris cares more about the bottom line than the people he represents.
Oisin Magfhogartaigh – News Reporter