Calls for the introduction of a Department of Higher Education and Research grow as Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, signalled his support for its establishment in an article for The Irish Times on Tuesday.
The Provost’s voice forms part of the developing consensus within the academic community for the creation of a department, separate to that of the Department of Education, to address the unique issues affecting higher education institutes. Last month, an open letter to the incoming government received 1,500 signatures from scientists across Ireland submitting that such a department would be a meaningful first step in navigating the €500m funding deficit faced by universities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in preventing Ireland from becoming a “backwater” in “science and discovery”. Not to be consigned to academic circles, politicians have also waded into the debate with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin pledging his support for the department’s establishment in his party’s election manifesto.
Writing in The Irish Times, Dr Prendergast recalls the “two really significant moves” which led to the advancement of Irish higher education. Of first importance was the advent of the Irish Higher Education Authority, Regional Technical Colleges and NIHEs in 1969 which also saw the extinguishing of “anachronisms” within the sector such as the Catholic Church’s prohibition on Catholics studying at Trinity. Secondly, the arrival of a research system comprising the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland in the early 2000s cemented the system we see today.
However, Dr Prendergast considers subsequent reforms as wanting and incremental. Despite the best efforts of individuals, such as Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who oversaw the introduction of women-only professorships to ameliorate gender imbalances and action plans to improve campus safety, Prendergast notes that per capita student funding has declined from around €9,000 to roughly €5,000 over the past decade as a result of recession-era cuts. Going hand in hand with shrinking budgets are efforts by the State to exert increased control over the autonomy of universities to tailor its offerings to sync with the jobs market.
Armed with an annual budget of €3bn, a newly formed Department of Higher Education and Research would bring Ireland in line with other high-performing research countries such as New Zealand and South Africa. It would ensure that researchers operate in an environment of autonomy and therefore be able to meet the “immense challenges” posed by climate change and technological disruption. Most of all, “it would help build a better future for young people”.
The Provost’s words will be welcomed by UCD students who have experienced first-hand the changing educational landscape resulting from COVID-19. Firstly, with regard to their end-of-semester-exams culminating in the ‘No Detriment Policy’, and for the challenges to come relating to the availability of accommodation and quality of learning as students return to campus in late September. These novel difficulties alongside pre-existing issues such as the precarious working conditions and low wages of PHD students as raised by the ‘UCD Anti-Casualisation’ movement, are emblematic of the spiralling problems faced by students which a dedicated Department for Higher Education would be better placed to resolve.
But whether or not Dr Prendergast’s remarks on departmental reform and cuts to the education sector will resonate amongst the public is now under question. The Irish Examiner recently published detailed allegations which cite that the Provost has been in receipt of a salary since 2011 that is “in breach” of the amount approved by the Department of Education.
Rowan Kelleher – Reporter