Higher education: voters uninterested?

In a somewhat downbeat (but realistic) assessment of the state of Irish universities and colleges, the outgoing chair of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, laments that there are ‘no votes’ in higher education. Politicians won’t take the decisions they should take, he may be suggesting, because they are not under any pressure from the electorate.

While understanding where he is coming from, it is nevertheless not necessarily a correct assessment. There are many votes in higher education, but they tend to  converge on certain issues that are hot buttons with the public. Tuition fees are an example: politicians know they will draw the wrath of the middle classes if they abandon free tuition, and so generally they don’t. And then of course there are the local higher education issues: ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issue, and you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region.

Nor is this confined to Ireland. In advance of the last UK general election, there was an interesting analysis in the Guardian newspaper about the higher education issues in England that would potentially have an impact on the vote. Indeed many people would suggest that the near-collapse in the vote for the Liberal Democrats was caused by their higher education policies. In the meantime in the United States student debt is gaining status as a key election issue.

The problem for universities is not that politicians aren’t interested and that voters don’t care. Rather it is that voters don’t much care about the key issue that drives much else: higher education funding. The narrative that has undermined much of higher education is that quality and global competitiveness can be achieved and maintained without anyone having to pay much for it, and that in any case there is too much waste in the system. There is little evidence that voters are concerned, for example, about institutional slippage in global university rankings. Politicians understand what voters care about and so they tend to those issues; and sometimes neglect the issues that really determine the success of a national higher education system.

Universities do register with politicians and voters; but not always in the way they would like. They will need to work out how to re-balance the political narrative, and how to do that in partnership (rather than in conflict) with the key politicians.

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4 Comments on “Higher education: voters uninterested?”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    Third level education has an image problem both with politicians and the general public. It is quite clear that many observers perceive third level as involving little more than large numbers of students sitting in lecture halls for a few hours per week. There seems to be no understanding of the diverse ways that students are taught, especially in the sciences and engineering where laboratory teaching is so important. There also seems to be a lack of understanding of the crucial role that postgraduate students play in the delivery of undergraduate education – they are effectively a source of cheap labour.

    I think there is a good case to be made for some sort of exchange scheme whereby academics could be seconded to work in education policy (e.g. in the HEA) and senior civil servants seconded to the universities for shortish periods. It would also be great if there was more diversity in our politicians. There is only a handful of TDs in the Dail who have a science background.

  2. cormac Says:

    Re “ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issueand you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region. “,
    Oddly enough, that is not the case this time around. For example, the six most prominent candidates for seats in Waterford were interviewed live on RTE1 Monday before last, and only one of them mentioned the university issue, and that only in passing.
    I suspect the reason is the proposed merger has left citizens and politicians alike somewhat flummoxed – damned if you do and damned if you don’t !

  3. paulmartin42 Says:

    Most parents, in their lives, only have a relatively brief interaction with HE. The choice of institution really is made by the student now and thereafter finishing the enterprise with a manageable debt burden is the main concern. In the same way junior doctors seem to be getting little public support for their strike Universities have little resonance with the majority of the general public.
    Outreach programmes have been one approach and have had some success but otherwise the publicity for the tertiary sector focuses on the vagaries of the student political wing eg #rhodesmustfall and miscellaneous money matters such as golden goodbyes for FE senior staff in the central belt and in today’s Herald large pay increases for those at the top. Most of the latter seeming to prefer challenging their political masters in the same press rather than trying to get to common ground.

  4. Vince Says:

    How about actively saying that only those with tenure are paid from the university coffers. Everyone else is paid from income derived from their efforts to bring people to the place.
    At the moment we have the very worst of all posible structures where all players except those that are drawing a pension are being abused. Students are being charged the earth for what may or may not outlast the duration of the period of study to supply fodder for IT companies that don’t even pay tax.
    Some students operated a quasi romantic delusion of the good for it’s own sake. But that only works when everybody plays the same game.
    We are now into pushing Maths and maths related subjects much like languages wes tha buzz in the 90s. What will it be next fad.
    And why on earth was maths downgraded in the first place.

    On Waterford. People in the southeast have come to the conclusion it will not matter one whit what WIT is called, it won’t keep people in the area. It will be interesting after Sunday April 24th 2016 when the numbers and the age split is exposed by the census just who’s gone. From my point of view, there seems very few people under 35.


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