We’re now a week into the general election campaign, and certain trends have started to emerge. Retirement age and policing have been the subject of hostile debates between the biggest parties, while health and housing have predictably loomed large over proceedings.
Meanwhile, the stock of education – particularly at third-level – has rarely felt lower, despite the plethora of areas within the sector that desperately need addressing.
It’s almost impossible by now to deny that higher education is a problem issue – Trinity is the only Irish university in the world’s top 200, and its berth there isn’t exactly secure – and you’d be hard pushed to find a politician brazen enough to argue it’s not in trouble.
But on third-level, you’d be hard pushed to find a politician ready to have a debate at all.
No one is arguing that cracking the university problem is a more pressing concern than rehousing the country’s 10,000 homeless, or righting a sinking health service. But now, mid-election, should be the perfect time for lobbyists and opposition parties to push less mainstream issues from the sidelines into the political spotlight.
So far there’s been almost nothing (an election manifesto from the Union of Students in Ireland notwithstanding). And, while there’s still time for opposition parties to place higher education front and centre, it’s far from certain that they will.
This might seem baffling: the government’s record on third-level is hardly impressive, and its inertia in the face of 2016’s Cassells report is almost beyond parody (featuring promises that a new government will get to grips with the report, four years after its publication).
But there’s nothing to suggest Ireland’s opposition parties have any more intention of taking up this issue than Fine Gael has. Tackling it, in real terms, means accepting the findings of the Cassells report and implementing one of its recommendations. And nobody wants to do that because, for politicians, the options aren’t exactly palatable. Loans are politically damaging, and state funding seems an expensive undertaking with little political currency.
So Cassells, an internationally recognised report, may by its very existence be keeping third-level education out of the debate. And that is a damning indictment of our politicians.