With the formation of a new government comes the announcement of the new Department for Higher Education, Innovation and Science. Simon Harris, Fine Gael TD for Wicklow is now to take the position of a dedicated Minister for Higher Education, meaning the sector will have a full-time seat at the government table. This is a major development from the previous incarnation of the job, a junior position under the Department of Education.
The new dedicated department will mark a major change for the Higher Education Sector which previously fit under the umbrella of the Department of Education. With the advent of a new Ministry, however, comes the questions of how the department will function, how it will change our higher education institutions and how student life will change with a more focused government approach.
University faculty and students have been increasingly vocal over the last semesters about the need for more funding and support in the Higher education sector and so have welcomed the new position. UCD President Andrew Deeks welcomed the new department as it could “facilitate a greater contribution of [the] Irish university sector to the post-COVID-19 recovery and to the future of Ireland”. With a dedicated department the University Sector will have a much greater role in Ireland as issues can be brought up more directly.
While an official roadmap for the department has not been detailed yet, Simon Harris took to social media on Monday to speak about what he wants to do with the department. In a short live video on twitter he detailed his commitment to two sides of higher education: boosting the economy through education and social cohesion in higher education. Harris detailed the economic side by highlighting the role of the Higher Education sector in getting the public back to work after the Covid-19 pandemic. The minister mentioned the need to “get people back to work [and] to help people upskill” in the context of reactivating the work force in the coming period. As such, we can expect the department to take an active role in apprenticeship and work skills education.
Harris also detailed the “social aspects” that he wants the department to act on. He stated the importance of making equal access to Higher Education a priority for all prospective students and mentioned mature students specifically. He also detailed his concern about social issues on campuses such as sexual harassment and violence, and the promotion of mature student and traveller participation in Higher Education. He made it clear that the department is being built from scratch so we have no official documentation on how it will function on behalf of students but one thing is clear; The Higher Education Sector is now properly represented at a government level which will mean greater clarity and priority will be given to decisions in the sector.
Harris also mentioned that he has plans to meet with student groups such as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to discuss what is needed in the sector from a student’s perspective. This will mean greater agency for student groups as they can coordinate with a dedicated department.
Ann Jaffray – Reporter