For many years now, much-needed reform has been found wanting within Irelands higher education system. Students, whose numbers have increased rapidly over recent decades are now paying the second-highest undergraduate fees in Europe. At the same time, government funding has failed to keep up with this rise in demand.
European research has depicted that third-level funding in Ireland as a share of gross domestic product halved from 2012 to 2017, primarily due to a series of spending cuts that were made in the years since the financial crash.
Reform is also seriously required in many other areas. For example, scrutiny has increased over the balance of gender equality in our higher institutions and the mental health of students has become another main point of focus.
Such weaknesses have been starkly highlighted by the Coronavirus pandemic. However, the virus has also acted as a barrier to the beginning of meaningful change mandated since the introduction of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science by the government at the end of June.
The department has quite a substantial remit – which mainly focuses on increased investment in third-level funding, tackling inequalities to access and equipping students with the necessary skills to secure employment into the future. The creation of Technological Universities and role of Apprenticeships are also envisioned to take on an important function when it comes to developing a long-term sustainable model. In particular, it is hoped that these pathways, through upskilling, may provide great benefit to those in the workforce of all ages seeking employment after the crisis, both in traditional and non-traditional industries.
Nonetheless, the first 100 days of the department’s introduction have instead been plagued by the impact of Covid, and in particular post-leaving cert clean-up operations. Under Minister Simon Harris, initiatives have been undertaken to increase university spaces for the upcoming year due to higher demand, and after the latest fallout over corrections made to grades, the department recently confirmed that 424 first-year undergraduates had now received improved course offers.
As with everything Covid related, communications have proved essential. Harris, known throughout as probably the most listened to voice on social media among current ministers has stressed the importance of this strategy.
Through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, he has regularly shared updates about department ongoings and initiatives from Skills Connect to support of the Union of Students in Ireland recent ‘Keep it Small, Keep it Safe, Keep your Distance’ campaign encouraging students to follow public health advice and ensure a safe reopening to the academic year. Also, the minister has become famous for his online shows of support to the public since the start of restrictions.
Looking beyond 2020, the department has even more vital work to do. Policies addressing funding challenges, such as in areas like providing greater access to education to those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds still have to be realised. There is also a huge focus on policies tackling sexual harassment, providing greater access and mobility, and formulating a ‘digital education strategy’ designed to support teachers and students with online learning.
Stephen Kennedy – Politics Correspondent