Party time: Fine Gael
It is widely presumed that, after the coming Irish general election, the new government will be led by Fine Gael. It is the only party that has entered a sufficient number of candidates in the election to allow it to govern on its own if the electorate so decides, as no other party will has enough candidates to win a majority even if all of them were elected. Furthermore, the opinion polls are strongly suggesting a very sold performance by the party.
In these circumstances, what the party says in its manifesto matters, and we can expect to see many of its promises become government policy shortly.
So as regards higher education, what are these promises? They are contained in section 9.9 of the document, and this provides an insight into what Fine Gael believes now constitute our priorities. This includes what is, in essence, an adoption of the proposals on funding made in England by Lord Browne’s review: there will be no up-front fees, but graduates will be required to make a ‘contribution’ amounting in total to about a third of the cost of their degree programme.
Secondly, Fine Gael wants the universities to pursue ‘greater pay and non-pay efficiencies in the third level system through greater flexibility in working arrangements, in line with the Croke Park Agreement.’
Thirdly, the party wants more coordination of the sector, and so it promises to ‘give students a better third level education by repositioning our universities and institutes to become world leaders in education through greater collaboration, specialisation and focus in every educational institution.’
Finally, the party is intending to double international student numbers. While no doubt there are several reasons, the manifesto emphasises the potential for ‘maximising the revenue potential of this rapidly growing.’
Over recent years the impression has grown amongst politicians that Ireland’s higher education system is too fragmented and inefficient. Fine Gael has been at the heart of this drive to introduce ‘reform’. While the detailed plans set out in the manifesto are somewhat vague, they nevertheless paint a picture of system in which government will exercise greater control over institutions and change the nature of the academic employment relationship. Universities will need to engage with the party as a matter of urgency, with a good case.