It’s been one week since the creation of the Department of Higher Education – and slowly but surely Simon Harris, the new minister in charge of it, has shown us what the future of the department will look like.
The new department, he says, will have an “economic focus”, and will “drive investment to our country”. He has demonstrated a more pragmatic approach to higher education – focusing on jobs, research and innovation and avoiding stickier issues like funding and the arts and humanities.
Harris has been true to his word so far. Research, innovation and science have been at the top of his agenda, with a €4.8 million investment into a coronavirus research hub in Trinity being announced earlier this week.
There has also been a palpable change of tone in the sector since Harris was appointed.
A stagnant third-level sector has suffered from chronic underfunding by neglectful governments, and the new minister has injected some sorely needed energy. Universities, the Irish Universities Association, the Union of Students in Ireland and other key stakeholders have all released optimistic statements about the new department.
And there is plenty to be optimistic about.
Harris’ time grappling with the coronavirus pandemic has shown that he is willing to closely heed the advice of experts. The government’s unwillingness to engage with expert analysis of higher education – the Cassells report springs to mind – has played a major part in the sector’s disintegration. Harris may reverse this trend.
Harris’ high profile means the department will be under greater scrutiny than if it were being led by a new TD. And higher education, it seems, will finally enjoy a much-needed place in the sun.
However energy and enthusiasm will not be enough to fuel the sector on their own. Investments into coronavirus research are all well and good, but third level needs funding across all faculties, not just science and research.
Furthermore, choosing a proper funding model will be difficult and – most importantly – expensive. The new minister has met the challenge with exuberance so far. It is unclear whether or not the harsh realities of higher education will extinguish this enthusiasm and simply lead to more of the same.