Engaging the politicians

On this blog I have now conducted two interviews with senior politicians about higher education and other matters. Both politicians – Brian Hayes TD of the Fine Gael Party, and Ruairi Quinn TD of the Labour Party – expressed similar thoughts and concerns on certain issues, and it will be important for the higher education sector to address these, and to develop clear views on them.

The key issues are the following.

1. The added value of research. In the light of the recommendations that have been made by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’), it is interesting to observe that the politicians are showing some scepticism about the value of the large national investment over recent years in research and R&D. In particular, they are asking for evidence of a more direct trajectory from investment in research to job creation or the development of commercial activities. It has always been the sector’s position that such an impact can only realistically be observed over a larger number of years; but it is clear that this response is becoming unsustainable, and that we will need to be able to show a more direct and more immediate economic impact of research. On the other hand, promising large scale job creation through high value research is dangerous, and in any case may be missing the point that R&D provides a vitally important backdrop to and motivation for industrial investment, rather providing the jobs directly. It is clear that the arguments for significant research investment have not been properly and convincingly presented, and that in the absence of such communication the support of key stakeholders is being lost.

2. Higher education funding. There does now appear to be a growing consensus that Irish higher education is under-funded. But we still seem to be quite some distance away from a consensus on what can be done to improve this situation. However, a consensus is emerging that the days of government funding as the only real source of income are over, and that either fees, or loans, or graduate taxes will now be debated. However, such discussions realistically address the longer term, and so for the next two years the situation will remain what it now is, with declining state support, not yet compensated for through student contributions or repayments.

More generally, it is clear from these interviews that the expectation and demands affecting universities are increasing all the time, not just the expectation of larger numbers and more activities, but also of the prioritisation of those programmes and activities that have a more direct economic relevance and impact. These pressures are likely to grow over the years ahead, and we must prepare for that.

In the meantime, it is gratifying that senior politicians are willing to talk and to explain their perspectives. Such a dialogue is vital for the future of higher education, and perhaps of our national prosperity and welfare.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, politics

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