Is the Cassells report fully dead and buried?
For university heads, that question is hardly a new one, but the answer is starting to become ominously clear. This week, we saw a draft programme for government that scarcely mentioned its existence, let alone committed to acting on its promises.
It’s no secret that since its publication in 2016, Cassells – which offers three solutions to higher education’s funding issues – has somehow not featured in government thinking, despite its obvious comprehensiveness and insight.
Peter Cassells, its author, was even forced to call on the government to start making decisions on the report’s recommendations after two years of filibustering.
During the general election this year, when the issue of higher education funding failed to claim a spot in the campaign’s limelight, the report’s recommendations were shelved yet again.
What’s remarkable in all of this is how effective Fine Gael’s politicians have been at not talking about higher education funding, and how nobody has been able to force them to.
But the document we saw last week isn’t a programme for a Fine Gael government – it was also agreed on by Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
It’s beyond dispiriting that Cassells wasn’t enough of a factor in the thinking of any of those parties – even as universities fight financial meltdown – to make it into a document that didn’t even come close to recognising the severity of the problem.
Perversely, the problem with Cassells, as this Editorial Board has pointed out before, is the quality of the report. By acknowledging its existence, the government would have to consider the options it sets out. All of them require commitment, and the type of political bravery that unfortunately seems beyond third-level’s policymakers.
The pandemic does raise new questions about the figures flagged as necessary in the report – in that universities need even more money than they would have before. But the report remains the only workable blueprint we’ve seen for saving higher education.
A remarkable feat of political inertia has allowed politicians to kick Cassells far enough down the road that they hope people will have forgotten its existence. For third-level, that’s very bad news indeed.