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.