Fine Gael: focusing on government (and its impact on HE)
Given the continuing speculation about a general election in Ireland during the coming months (and whether that happens will, I suspect, depend mainly on whether the December Budget is passed by the Dáil without too much difficulty, and on how the Donegal by-election goes), it may be timely to start looking at the policies of the parties currently in opposition. As it happens, Fine Gael has just published a policy document entitled Reinventing government: protecting services and getting the economy back on track. This document has some themes running through it: reducing the size of government, abolishing quangos, and devolving decision-making. There are some parallels between the Fine Gael document and current UK government policies, and the general approach is a similar one in many respects.
There are in the Fine Gael policy some references to universities and higher education. First, the party would in government sign ‘public service agreements’ with what it calls ‘public service delivery bodies’, and universities are specified as coming under that heading. These agreements would set out ‘activities, outputs and long-term outcomes’ which would have to be delivered. Secondly, small businesses will be put in a position to ‘shape the research agenda’ of universities. Thirdly, universities will have devolved to them the power to take independent decisions regarding ‘investment, staffing, pay and other employment conditions’. Finally, the party suggests that the Higher Education Authority should be abolished and its functions moved into the Department of Education – except for functions relating to research, which should go to Science Foundation Ireland.
The somewhat (at least to me) grating element of these proposals is that universities are simply considered to be public service agencies; but the devolution of decision-making to enhance autonomy is a positive concept, particularly as this signals a move away from the Employment Control Framework. The reference to the research agenda could mean nothing much in practice, but could be tricky if the party is suggesting that university research should be seen mainly as a device for servicing business needs; but having research supervised by SFI would raise questions about the value (if any) being placed on humanities and social science research.
The Fine Gael document is welcome because it is a contribution to national debate, and some of its content is highly interesting. However, the references to higher education (which seems to be included somewhat in passing, as primary and secondary education get far more attention) suggest that more dialogue between universities and Fine Gael might be helpful, to ensure that the party understands the implications of some of the things it is suggesting, and also the vital importance of higher education in the pursuit of the national interest.