*Includes Further Education
The decision by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to create a new Department of Higher Education, Innovation and Science has been universally welcomed across the higher education sector. The view seems to be that this decision is evidence that Government is finally taking the sector seriously and many are hoping for more funding not, just for education but also for research, especially “basic research”.
It’s pretty obvious though the decision was a political one rather than a strategic one. Helen McEntee, who was a star performer in the Brexit negotiations was always going to get a high-status cabinet post. Leo has always rated Simon Harris and given that Harris performed quite well in Health, he was always going to be kept in cabinet, and not in a low-profile ministry. Leo also seems to have had his sights on Norma Foley who not many people will have heard of before today. So, it seemed like there were two cabinet posts available and three candidates. The solution was clearly taken to create a new department so that all three could be given cabinet seats. Given that there was already a Super Junior for Higher Education, the perfect solution was to put Helen McEntee into the always-tricky Justice ministry, to put Norma Foley (a teacher) into the Education brief and upgrade the sub-department of higher education and appoint Simon Harris as minister.
I’m not sure the optimism in the HE community is warranted. The new Minister will be faced with the same problems as Mary Mitchell O’Connor and given the challenges thrown up by Covid, I suspect Simon will focus on high-profile initiatives around equity and access (not bad thing) rather than issues related to funding, just as he tended to do in Health.
Anyway, here are some issues that come to mind when we think about the new department:
- What now for the HEA? They are brilliant at data analysis and statistics, and will remain so, but what will their role be from a policy perspective?
- Why is “science” being afforded such a privileged position? Maybe the word “science” is being used as a sort of catch-all phrase (à la STEM) but we’ll have to wait and see. Presumably, the privilege afforded to science has something to do with the “knowledge economy” and all those buzzwords that we heard in 2008 when Brian Cowen’s government was trying to get to grips with the financial crash. But if I were in disciplines (that are also crucial for the economy) like business and finance, the humanities, languages, and even engineering, I’d be a bit annoyed.
- Then there’s “innovation”. Putting innovation into the name of the department only serves to strengthen the view that innovation (and the creation of start-ups etc.) is a key mission of higher education institutions. It’s debatable whether that should be the case. Why not put innovation into Leo’s department: Enterprise, Trade and Employment?
- One of the biggest issues we face in Irish education is that our system is not joined up. The new Junior Cycle is a completely different animal to the current senior cycle – at least for now. The senior cycle is a decent preparation for third level but it is quite clear that the CAO system needs reform. The Leaving Cert exam also needs tweaking. Furthermore, if the senior cycle goes down a knowledge-light, skills-focused route in the same way that the Junior Cycle has, then students entering HE are going to be in for one hell of a shock, a shock that will be far greater than they are experiencing now. The Project Maths initiative is a good example of this disconnect . While there is nothing wrong with Project Maths per se, it is not a good preparation for the technique oriented, calculus-heavy, maths that is employed in science and engineering. The secondary school system and the HE system need to communicate with each other a lot better.
Interesting times ahead but I suspect Covid-19 will continue to dominate our thoughts for a while.