The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has called on the government to create a Department of Higher Education and Research. With the added pressures being put on such institutions following the Covid-19 outbreak, there is a need for crisis funding for these facilities to be fully functioning in the future. It has been estimated by the Higher Education Authority that higher education institutions will have lost €500 million over the next two years due to Covid-19. The government has already stated it does not intend to increase funding levels despite the half a billion projected loss.
Back in July of 2019, Micháel Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, spoke about the issue of needing a department dedicated to higher education and research as he stated, “separate bodies [are] needed to prioritise [the] sector” during an education debate. However, the issue has risen again as Covid-19 brings a considerable loss in income for this sector.
The divisional organiser of SIPTU, Adrian Kane has stated, “The sector faces a number of major challenges, not least the funding shortfall at the universities arising from the Covid-19 emergency and the need to address how we fund the system into the future.”
This group of education and higher education unions have stated that they are looking for the creation of a new department for,
- A sustainable funding vision for universities.
- The creation of greater security of employment across the third level sector by tackling issues around contracts and precarious employment.
- The cost of living issues for students and to ensure more equal access to higher education.
This proposal has been brought up in the past by varies organisations. In 2016, the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) made a similar proposal. A member of the RIA’s task force and the Head of the School Politics and International Relations in UCD, Professor David Farrell has commented: “I think it would be an excellent move, signalling serious intent by the Irish government to properly invest in a knowledge-based economy. I was a member of a Royal Irish Academy taskforce in 2016 that made much the same proposal. We have an excellent university sector, that has really proved itself during the Covid-19 crisis, but it has been a sector that has been seriously underfunded by successive governments. This must change, and one excellent way of ensuring that is to give the task to a dedicated minister to fight the corner of the sector around the cabinet table.”.
Some may argue against a Department of Higher Education as it could be seen to be seeking more financial gain and to increase global competitiveness among other first world countries. In theory, the more funding universities receive, their world ranking would increase, which would attract more foreign students to study in Ireland. However, some argue that universities should not be about an economic benefit for the government but rather a chance to inspire and enlighten the future workforce. Dr Shane Bergin who is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at UCD’s School of Education, has commented on the proposal saying: “I would support the idea of a department dedicated to higher education, however would say that we might need to reimagine the role of higher education and not just have a department for the sake of economic benefit.”. He also stated, “universities need to change and really need to consider their role in Irish society.”
Many academics are in favour of this department, feeling that having globally competitive universities will drive “ground-breaking” research forward and create “innovation economies”.
Sarah Connaughton – Reporter