Goodbye Education and Science?

Over recent years I have suggested from time to time that it might be right to look more closely at where ministerial responsibility for higher education might ideally lie. What has tended to prompt this suggestion is that the Department of Education and Science always and predictably focuses on primary and secondary education, and in particular prioritises these sectors when scarce resources have to be distributed. This is not surprising, because schools are part of the experience of all households in the state, whereas higher education, while now more inclusive than before, is still seen as something that is socially and intellectually elitist. Therefore successive Ministers for Education, who in addition to doing their ministerial job also have to worry constantly about the next election, have always favoured schools over universities and colleges when the going got tough.

My argument has been that higher education would get more robust support if it were to be detached from the school system and handed to a Minister of its own. This would not be a totally radical departure. For example, in Northern Ireland the Department of Education (which is in charge of schools) is separate from the Department of Employment and Learning (which has responsibility for higher and further education). In Britain Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, is in charge of higher education.

After the last general election the Irish Universities Association encouraged the Taoiseach to allocate higher education to a Department other than Education and Science.

So I have noted with interest that the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for the establishment of a Department of Education and Training to replace the current Department of Education and Science. In some ways this proposal is pointing in the opposite direction, as the union is calling on the government to bring responsibility for training back into the same department as other levels of education. But at least the proposal will help to put the spotlight on the Department  in order to assess how well it provides government oversight in areas where it now exercises it. On the same day former minister Mary O’Rourke TD called on the government to create a new department focusing on jobs and training, which represents another variation on the theme of departmental responsibility.

The occasion for all this talk right now is the expected cabinet reshuffle. So as the Taoiseach contemplates education and considers how best to secure a government that will energise and motivate, he may want to think again about the wisdom of leaving higher education in a Department that has tended to prioritise other things. What universities and colleges have to offer the country at this time is enormous, and will tend to determine the pace of economic recovery based on the extent to which they can be a magnet for knowledge-driven foreign direct investment and domestic start-ups. The complexity of this agenda is almost certainly better handled in a government department that is not constantly fixated on matters to do with schools.

The Taosieach should use this opportunity to send a strong signal about the significance of Ireland’s higher education sector – which is in any case needed urgently in order to reassure investors and entrepreneurs. The time is now.

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9 Comments on “Goodbye Education and Science?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I think its a case of be careful what you wish for… Putting universities under the aegis of some department other than Education seems to be fraught with perils and lets face it, education is what we do. In particular, if universities came under an employment or innovation focused department then its likely they would come under strong pressure to become primarily engines of particular economic policies. Bye bye humanities. This is not to say that such considerations should or can be ignored but universities should not become slaves to them.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I clicked comment intending to write “be careful what you wish for” and see the great Kevin Denny has beaten me to it; so, really, what he says, perhaps the ideal would be to have a junior minister for higher education within the department of education, oh, and a new minister for education.

    • Jilly Says:

      Yes, while I also agree with Kevin and Aoife about being careful what you wish for, I was also thinking to myself that I’d be OK with it being the Department for Odds and Ends if only it weren’t headed by Batt O’Keeffe.

      • The current Minister may be making all sorts of odd statements about us, but in practice he is no worse than any other Minister I have come across. In fact, he has shown some courage in raising the fees issue (whatever you may think of that), and in his actions (as against his rhetoric) he has not been bad to us. My fear has been that his rhetoric may turn others against us.

        In my view, this isn’t about who is Minister – it is about what they end up having to do. Every one of them.

  3. Aoife and the Great Kevin Denny (I like that, Aoife) both make an interesting point. But in the end there is one key role that the Minister for Education plays, which cannot be devolved to a junior Minister, and which trumps everything else: and that is arguing for resources in the run-up to the annual Budget. Over ten years in this job my absolutely consistent experience has been that when push comes to shove every Minister will, during a tight budget round, prioritise primary and secondary education over third level. Every time. Indeed it would be almost impossible politically for them to do otherwise. And so, every year, third level gets a smaller increase or a bigger cut than the rest of education.

    However, that pattern is not present in that part of the higher allocation that comes from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment – chiefly R&D money through SFI, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. That tends to suffer less than the average.

    The point is that while we are in direct competition with primary and secondary education we will always lose. We need to get out of that scenario.

    • kevin denny Says:

      “GKD”: Am I allowed to say I like it too? I’m suitably flattered – thanks.
      So would it be too unwieldy if the universities budgets are split between two votes? A teaching budget from education and a research one from another department(s). Its not ideal but then, what is in this business? It might make it easier for Batt or his successor to treat us like 1st & 2nd level for core funding. Meanwhile we can fight for better research funding with a more amenable department.
      It gets back to an idea I have mentioned before where essentially the sector has a contract to provide a certain level of services at a certain cost, but beyond that what we do, what we raise and what we charge is up to us?

  4. Vincent Says:

    Ah yes, but the real question for both of you is do you want to Bill the student yourself. This has all sorts of implications for Independence which would have very nasty side effects for both of you.
    While you can keep your finger over the ENTER button which would spit out bills to each student in every constituency you have a measure of control for technically you are independent. The question is will both of you dither long enough that it will not matter as there will be nothing left.

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I agree he might not have been too bad to the third level sector given the context, it is hard for me to judge since the insults do hurt and the misunderstandings and misdescription are hard to ignore. However, what I can’t forgive him for is the initial round of cuts: their meanness, the way the pinched pennies by destroying educational support for vulnerable groups like travellers and immigrants.

  6. Jilly Says:

    I’m afraid I don’t accept that analysis of O’Keeffe’s performance as Minister for Education. I think there are two broad conclusions you can come to of his approach to the job. One is that he really doesn’t understand or care much about the fundamental factors necessary to having a good quality education system (at all levels). The other is that he does understand perfectly well that the Irish education system is pathetically underfunded and largely held together by string and the committment of its workers, but that he has nevertheless chosen to subject those workers to demonising and inaccurate rhetoric for cheap political purposes.

    As for the issue of fees, he may have had the courage to raise it, but he’s hardly sought a nuanced and intelligent public debate on the subject.

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