The new department of higher and further education, innovation and research will have an “economic focus” and will “drive investment to our country”, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said.
Harris, who served as minister for health before the formation of a new Cabinet last weekend, said he is under “no illusion” about the issues faced by universities, including cost barriers and sexual harassment on college campuses.
In a video on Twitter, Harris said: “Having a voice for that department at the cabinet table, having a dedicated government department to work full time on this is something I am really really energised about.”
“I know only too well in light of the covid pandemic the huge pressures that there are to get people back to work, to help people upskill, to help people keep a job or gain a new job”, he said. “Research, innovation, science – these are the things that can help drive investment to our country and also can help businesses right across our country.”
Harris also said that he saw the new department “very much as a department that’s an economic driver and a department that very much promotes social cohesion, inclusion and equality”.
The formation of a department of higher education answered the calls of hundreds of academics and researchers in Ireland, who last month signed an open letter to Ireland’s TDs, flagging a “crisis” in research which “risks becoming fatal if not addressed”.
Harris said: “This is your department. You, the people of Ireland, own it and I’m just the person who has the privilege to currently lead it. So I’ll be looking to you for your ideas, I’ll be looking to provide an opportunity for you to feed in those ideas and to give me your opinions as to what we should be working on.”
“I see some people addressing the whole issue of student fees and reductions – these are all issues that I’m conscious of”, he added. “We need to make sure that we support people in accessing education and that cost isn’t a barrier. So we have a lot of work to do and I’m under no illusions in that regard.”
Harris said that he has already met with Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Lorna Fitzpatrick, and wants to work with the union “on a progressive agenda of inclusion and equality for our higher and further education sector”.
USI welcomed the formation of a dedicated department of higher education last week, and said that it would create “numerous opportunities for the Higher Education sector”.