Over 800 academics and researchers – including College’s Senior Lecturer Kevin Mitchell and Luke O’Neill, the Trinity professor well known for his work on the coronavirus – are calling for the establishment of a Department of Higher Education and Research.
An open letter to Ireland’s TDs, which had 810 signatories at the time of publishing, calls for a dedicated department for higher education, and flags a “crisis” in research that the letter says “risks becoming fatal if not addressed”.
The letter says higher education and research need a full cabinet ministership – as opposed to its current junior ministerial position, established in 2017 – in order to bring an end to years of the sector “falling between multiple departments with different core focuses”.
“Now more than ever and into the future we need outstanding researchers”, the letter reads. “Without them, Ireland will become a backwater when it comes to science and discovery, to the detriment of our reputation internationally, including with multinationals.”
As well as Mitchell and O’Neill, the letter is signed by Cliona O’Farrelly, the chair of Trinity’s Fellows, as well as Jane Ohlmeyer, the director of College’s Long Room Hub.
It says that with “investment in research that is well below the EU average, decreased core grants to universities, and a growing demand to increase student numbers, current policies have created a perfect storm for higher education and research in Ireland”.
“Government must prioritise the funding of higher education and research, as crucial to building national recovery and ensuring future prosperity and preparedness.”
The letter highlights a 40 per cent reduction in core public funding per third-level student over the past decade – a period during which student numbers have increased dramatically. It also takes aim at a funding shortfall it says is €151 million short “in real terms of where it should be based on 2016’s Cassells report”.
Also highlighted is the deficit many higher education institutions will now face due to COVID-19 stopping funding streams for colleges such as tourism, conferences and other events on campuses.
The signatories added: “Preliminary assessments by the HEA indicate loss of income and additional costs in excess of €500m. If the sector is left to face this challenge alone, with the State ignoring it the way it has over the last decade, then it will buckle.”
The idea of a new Department of Higher Education and Research has been mooted in the past, with Fianna Fáil promising it for the first time last summer and committing to establishing it before February’s general election.
But at a higher education debate held in Trinity during the general election campaign, the idea received more scepticism than support, with Mary Mitchell O’Connor – currently the country’s minister for state for higher education – pointing out that introducing a full cabinet department would constitutionally require abolishing another position.
Speaking at the Institute of International and European Affairs in February, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin echoed a manifesto commitment to the creation of a new department with responsibility for higher education.
Martin said: “We have to immediately address a funding crisis which threatens quality in our higher education system, to invest more in helping disadvantaged communities.”