Party time: Fianna Fáil
In the run-up to the Irish general election I propose to look a little at some of the party manifestos, and in particular at what they have to say about higher education. The first one to be considered is the manifesto of Fianna Fáil. Most people still assume that the party will have to leave government after the election. Indeed, mathematically it cannot get an overall majority as it has not put up enough candidates, even if every single one of them were to be elected. It is unlikely to be in coalition with anyone else, either – though you can never be absolutely sure.
Despite that, Fianna Fáil’s influence on higher education over the next few years will be profound, because during the past few years it took some of the key decisions that will shape the sector for some time to come. In government the party established the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation and put in place the funding to sustain it; it commissioned the Hunt strategic review – which may not matter a whole lot over the longer term; but it placed this review in the context of some strategic priorities which were communicated to the review team, in particular the drive towards rationalising the higher education sector. This latter objective is already being implemented, with various discussions under way between institutions that are likely to lead of strategic clusters within the sector. It has set targets for the expansion (admittedly without funding) of higher education participation, and various programmes for what has become known as ‘labour market activation’, under which universities and colleges are urged (and to some extent incentivised) to recruit the unemployed and those seeking to adapt their careers to new labour market conditions.
One could say that the manifesto of the party (Real Plan, Better Future) is a kind of epilogue to all that, a series of references to what was done and to the legacy that this will leave, under the guise of a programme for the future. The section on education is largely about re-skilling and upskilling, including the setting up of a fund to create opportunities for this within higher education. The manifesto also emphasises the importance of research, arguing for a clear focus on areas in which Ireland can lead, and for strong academic-industry links. The manifesto also appears to back continued funding for ‘fundamental research’ and, more generally, for research funding for universities.
Overall, the Fianna Fáil manifesto does not break new ground in relation to higher education, but suggests that the policies developed over recent years are right and should be continued. It is, as far as I am concerned, a not altogether unreasonable position, as the government has a good story to tell in this area; and indeed it should be acknowledged that Micheál Martin was an effective and far-sighted Minister for Education. But the manifesto wholly avoids addressing the huge problem of under-funding, which is threatening to turn our system into one that cannot compete internationally. Relieved of the burden of having to find compromises with the Greens in this matter, the party might have used the manifesto to put forward some imaginative proposals; it has not done so. Perhaps in opposition it will develop its thinking in this area and stimulate broader public debate.