With the formation of a new Cabinet, higher education in Ireland went from being a near-afterthought of most politicians to centre stage – almost overnight. The sector now has its own dedicated department – the Department of Higher and Further Education, Research Innovation and Science – headed by Simon Harris, the outgoing health minister and one of the most high-profile politicians in the country.
While the creation of this department has been broadly welcomed by the sector, the fact that it is headed by a Fine Gael minister who views third-level as a potential revenue stream could be a cause for students’ concern.
In a video posted on Twitter last week, Harris said that the new department will have an “economic focus” and will “drive investment to our country” through “research, innovation [and] science”.
While Harris’s sentiments are appropriate for a country plunging into recession, his video scarcely touched student issues – which calls into question his knowledge of the day-to-day problems on college campuses that the government has neglected for so long. The SUSI grant system is in desperate need of overhaul, accommodation costs are spiralling and sexual assault and harassment is, as we learned recently, horrifically widespread.
Furthermore, students have experienced major disruption during the pandemic. The problems of online teaching and learning, particularly how it affects the quality of education received, will have to be dealt with in time for the re-opening of campuses after the summer. If the department is to ensure that these students are ready to enter the workforce in a bad economy, it must do much more than simply ensure that higher education is profitable.
While Harris’s sentiments are appropriate for a country plunging into recession, his video scarcely touched student issues – which calls into question his knowledge of the day-to-day problems on college campuses that the government has neglected for so long
While Harris was widely praised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it appears unlikely he will embrace vast state investment into an ailing higher-education sector and likely he will take a more business-oriented approach. This could spell bad news for students if he is given free reign.
Taking Trinity as an example, it’s clear that making universities profitable often comes at students’ expense. Whether it’s bending over backwards for tourists or pumping money into a building that is, from a student’s perspective, woefully unfit for purpose, students are increasingly becoming an afterthought in College’s plans to increase revenue.
Before now, this was a response to the government’s refusal to adequately fund the sector, forcing colleges to take matters into their own hands. But now, Harris seems to be actively encouraging the practice of running universities like businesses.
Harris’s hope to use universities to create jobs makes perfect sense given the impending recession, but it cannot come at the expense of the fundamental purpose of higher education: to promote learning, to expand knowledge and to create – as president Michael D Higgins put it last year – “thoughtful, conscientious, active citizens”.
Harris’s pledge to “drive investment into our country” through universities sounds suspiciously like a plan to simply pump money into STEM and business instead of ensuring that universities provide the highest-possible standard of education – in all areas – in order to produce a highly skilled workforce.
Harris’s hope to use universities to create jobs makes perfect sense given the impending recession, but it cannot come at the expense of the fundamental purpose of higher education
With the coronavirus-induced disruption of teaching and learning, the quality of education students receive is already at risk, and the Department must accept that and work with it. Using third-level as a money-making machine is no good if the money is not used to help students.
When Harris talks about how he intends to use research to attract foreign investment, he seems to be forgetting that the primary purpose of research is not to make a profit – it is to expand knowledge. Of course, raising money is crucial to ensure high-quality research can be carried out, but is that really where this hypothetical money will go?
Universities have been forced to commercialise themselves after several years of underinvestment. Now, we could see a government doing the commercialising for them. Even the fact that “innovation” is tacked onto the title of the department indicates that business and enterprise will become synonymous with higher education, with arts and humanities resigned to the background because investing in these areas is less likely to yield a high return. If Harris is to truly understand how the higher education sector works, he must appreciate learning as something more than a means to secure a high salary.