The nature of politics in Ireland is such that an entire sector can spend almost three years serenading a minister only to find, some Saturday morning, that he has been installed at the head of an altogether unrelated department.
In this case, we’re talking about former Minister for Education Richard Bruton, who – thanks to a typically homespun scandal involving a different minister’s inappropriate contact with a businessman – is now the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
In other words, he is now fundamentally useless to the people who have been hoping he’d throw the third-level sector a rather large – and long overdue – bone, a list of which includes the heads of universities, student leaders, and just about every academic in the country.
It’s hard not to look a bit wistfully at the photos of Bruton alongside Provost Patrick Prendergast at the sod-turning of the Printing House Square accommodation project or at him clad in a hard hat at the launch of the €220 million Grangegorman expansion.
Of course, Bruton’s photo opportunities with representatives of Ireland’s third-level institutions don’t even begin to illustrate the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes lobbying, appeals and interactions that the sector has had with the man.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has spent years trying to steer the government away from the mooted income-contingent loan scheme. So far, this drastic change in funding model has been put on the back burner, but there’s no way of predicting how the new minister, Joe McHugh, will approach the higher education crisis, as pressure from universities truly begins to hot up.
McHugh is likely to be overwhelmed by the problems of the third-level sector he inherits. With pretty much everyone up in arms about the funding status quo, he has a long road ahead of him in his new role.
But the task is toughest for the stakeholders, who are now back to square one. In effect, they have to ingratiate themselves with a man who, considering the government’s flimsy majority, may only end up being Education Minister for another few months anyway.