Almost four months after the general election, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have drawn up a programme for government, which will now be put to their members for a vote.
In the time since the election took place, the political landscape has been utterly transformed by coronavirus, but for higher education, the pleas have remained largely the same: give us adequate funding – please.
The programme for government acknowledges that “higher and further education have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis”, and says that the 33rd Dáil “will support
the sector through these challenges to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made”.
But the programme is sufficiently vague that colleges can’t rest assured that more money is on its way. As well as investigating future funding methods, the next government will carry out some long-overdue work in the higher education sector: reviewing the SUSI grant system, implementing plans to tackle sexual harassment in universities and making it easier for members of the Travelling community to go to college.
Here are some of the headline promises.
Pledge – Without Specifics – of a Funding Solution. Deja Vu, Anyone?
For the better part of a decade, the powers that be in higher education have been warning that the sector is underfunded. In recent years, universities have taken funding matters into their own hands, figuring out new ways to generate income from tourism and international student fees.
But the pandemic means that these two revenue streams have largely dried up, so state investment is more urgently needed than ever.
The programme says that the next government will “develop a long-term sustainable funding model” for third-level education, but it’s probably lighter on specifics than university heads and student leaders would like.
Fees Won’t be Scrapped, And No Explicit Mention of Cassells
The question of the annual student contribution was central to the 2016 Cassells report, which set out three options for the future of higher education funding. Higher education didn’t heavily feature in the general election campaign back in January, but Fianna Fáil did confirm that, if elected, it would maintain the €3,000 fee.
The programme for the next government confirms that the current rate will continue, but there is no explicit mention of Cassells. The report advised that, should this fee continue to be charged, investment in higher education should increase, but the programme stops short of suggesting that this will be the case.
Long-Awaited SUSI Reform Could be On the Way
Last year, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) told the Oireachtas Committee for Education and Skills that reform of the SUSI grant system was long overdue. The union highlighted several flaws in the system – such as its inability to acknowledge students who are not financially dependent on their parents, and issues around residency rules for asylum seekers living in direct provision.
Now, with a recession impending and many students unable to find work, the time seems riper than ever for SUSI reform.
Today we got a promise of just that – if a tentative one, with a commitment by the government to examine the grant’s eligibility criteria as well as its “adjacency” system – where a student’s grant is calculated based on the distance between their home and their college. The document also promises to conduct a full review of the scheme in 2020 amid the ongoing implications of the pandemic.
The Greens have their fingerprints on this one: it’s not long since the party called for an expansion of the grant to protect the families of students dependent on finding summer work to cover their college costs.
Plans To Tackle Sexual Harassment – Which Should Have Been Implemented by Now?
In April 2019, after years of calls for government action to tackle sexual assault on university campuses, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor launched a new framework to face up to the problem. The policy was developed by an expert advisory group made up of students, academics and experts in the area of sexual health among students.
At the time, the government made €400,000 in funding available to higher education institutes to assist in implementing the recommendations made by the expert group over the next year.
Today’s draft programme for government mentions implementing the recommendations made in this report – despite the fact that universities were supposed to begin on this over a year ago.
The plans for tackling sexual harassment on campus also include requiring higher education institutes to create a specific plan for tackling sexual harassment, which must include data collection and a review of supports for staff and students.
Research Gets A Look-In, But No Mention Of A Department
For Irish research, the pandemic brought fresh challenges to a sector already embattled due to longstanding funding issues. Irish academics have been at the forefront of the country’s response to the virus, but many say a lack of investment means they’re sprinting to stand still.
The next government says it will “examine solutions for extensions for researchers who cannot access facilities to complete projects as a result of the COVID-19 crisis”.
The programme is ambitious for Irish research, but falls down when it comes to concrete promises. The document proposes the development of “challenges-based research funding approaches”, to encourage research that explicitly deals with the issues society will face, and details a plan to establish a cross-border research centre, to connect universities and industry in the north and south.
Outside of this, the promises are vague: continuing support for researchers addressing “societal challenges”, examining solutions for researchers unable to access facilities due to coronavirus and expanding the links between research and enterprise.
And while PhD students – many of whom struggle with poor pay and conditions – get a mention, they may as well not, for all the specificity of the document’s pledge: to ensure “the work and contribution of PhD candidates is recognised appropriately”.
Broad Plans, Without Much Detail, on Third-Level’s Accessibility
Access to higher education has long been cited as one of the biggest failings of the sector. Despite the talk, we’ve rarely seen much in the way of concrete ideas in recent times.
In today’s document, we got a government approach that casts the net wide: there’s a promise to improve access to third-level for members of the Traveller community, and talk of better-funded access programmes for students students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and students with disabilities.
The document also says the government will improve access routes for students with intellectual disabilities, with a specific namecheck for the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) scheme – which the state is promising to formalise across all universities.
But while few bases are left uncovered when it comes to a mention, the devil is in the scant detail on how these goals will be turned into reality in a climate where public resources are likely to be squeezed tight.