Posted tagged ‘Department of Education and Skills’

Irish higher education: facing a difficult future

April 2, 2011

In a welcome spirit of openness, the Irish Department of Education and Skills has published the briefing that it gave to the new Minister, Ruairi Quinn TD. The document sets out a fairly detailed summary of current issues facing the Irish education system, as well as some of the steps that are being taken or planned by the government. A particularly interesting passage addresses the funding problems, as follows.

‘In the current economic climate it will be a matter for the institutions to manage their resources in 2011 and where necessary to effect economies across all levels of activity. In that regard, the HEA is working closely with the institutions, via a steering group, to identify ways of cutting costs. Significant savings have already been identified through the introduction of shared services and collaborative procurement. Notwithstanding this, it is recognised that funding cutbacks are being imposed on already reduced budgets and will necessitate further difficult spending choices at the level of individual institutions such as restricted modular choices for students, impact on tutorial and library services and erosion of the staff-student ratio.’

The document also refers to ‘the use of part-time and flexible options, open and distance learning etc’. It concludes:

‘There is a strong commitment across the higher education sector to accommodate current increased demand by increasing the number of places they offer, to prioritise the maintenance of core teaching and learning activities and to ensure that maximum value is achieved from existing resources.’

The picture painted for the Minister in this briefing is a bleak one, and it may give a slightly benign view of the mood in the sector as it is attempts to accommodate the financial pressures. On the other hand the writer is correctly stating the willingness of universities and colleges to play their part. What may need to be added, however, is that this scenario, however much it describes the inescapable problems and inevitable steps to correct them, is not sustainable, and will not allow a more vibrant future system to re-emerge. It is to be hoped that plans being considered by the new government take this into account.

Shuffle and reshuffle

March 24, 2010

Whenever the leader of a government re-allocates ministerial responsibilities we expect to see some overall direction, purpose or strategy. To get a better sense of that, I have been looking at official government websites, and oddly enough I have been unable to find any statement, press release or other documentation setting out the cabinet changes and perhaps adding a narrative. The only website that has any information at all, if you know how to look, is this page listing cabinet ministers and their responsibilities; though while you can see that the individual ministers have been placed alongside their new portfolios, the changes in government department names and areas of responsibility have not been made here. And that is all I have been able to find at the end of the day of the reshuffle. The Government Press Office, for example, is totally unaware that anything has happened; though to be fair to them, it’s not just the reshuffle, they are unaware that anything of any kind at all has happened since 23 February.

This makes it slightly more difficult than it should be to find out what exactly the Taoiseach’s intentions are regarding this new configuration of the government. However, the Taoiseach’s speech to the Dáil (parliament) setting out the changes is available on the Oireachtas website. We also have some assistance from the media: both the Irish Times and the radio station Newstalk have reproduced the Taoiseach’s speech in full. The key passage in the speech explaining the changes is this:

‘In approaching the reconfiguration of Departments, the starting point has to be clarity about the objectives to be achieved. The changes I am making are intended to ensure that political leadership and administrative capacity are aligned with the core objectives of economic recovery, job creation and support for those who have lost their jobs. In particular, I am strengthening our approach to supporting innovation and overcoming barriers to structural change, responding better to the needs of unemployed people, supporting productivity and growth through skills development, maintaining progress in a coherent and strategic way towards important social policy goals and accelerating the pace of modernisation of the public service.’

In general terms this has involved a renaming of departments, and some shuffling of areas of responsibility between them. So for example, the new Department of Education and Skills will get much of the training agency, FÁS. But Education also loses something:

‘Within the framework of the Government’s commitment to fiscal stability and the restoration of a functioning banking system, economic recovery will require a renewed focus on supporting enterprise and driving innovation. The agenda set out in the recent report of the task force on innovation highlights some of what needs to be done, building on the very significant presence of overseas companies and the potential for a much faster rate of growth of our many high-potential indigenous companies. I propose to sharpen this focus within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which will be renamed the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, by transferring to it funding for the programme for research in third level institutions. This will help to bring together a streamlined and focused programme of funding of research and development aligned with the objectives of enterprise policy.’

We therefore learn that the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) will move to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. This raises at least two questions. First, as PRTLI is administered by the Higher Education Authority, and as the HEA is an agency of the Department of Education, how will this work in future? Secondly, PRTLI is now largely a research capital infrastructure programme, and its remit goes beyond science and technology and those areas that fall naturally under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation; therefore, will research support for the humanities and social sciences continue to be covered by PRTLI, and will it be effectively supported? I might add that there is no reason why it should not be, but the question is worth raising.

As a result of the reshuffle and the departmental reconfigurations, we now have a system where, even more than before, higher education is the responsibility of two separate government departments. Given the record of each department, it is possible that higher education in its teaching role will continue to loose out to schools when funding is distributed, while in its research role it will potentially enjoy greater resources and a higher level of commitment. This separation of functions may not work well in practice, particularly (which is not at all unlikely) if different monitoring and control mechanisms are used by each department. This could perhaps be helped if a junior minister with higher education responsibilities were appointed to straddle the departments.

It will be interesting to see how the two ministers explain their strategies for their departments, and in particular whether we will be able to see how the higher education piece can be kept strategically coherent across the departmental boundaries. This is something to watch over the coming days.

PS on the morning of March 24. Oddly enough the Government Press Office now has an item on the appointment of junior ministers, but still nothing on the cabinet reshuffle itself.

Understanding the reshuffle

March 23, 2010

Maybe readers were expecting this particular change, but I wasn’t. Anyway, we have now learned that the Department of Education and Science is to become the Department of Education and Skills, and that the Minister is to be Tánaiste Mary Coughlan. She therefore replaces Batt O’Keeffe, who will swap places with her in the (also re-named) Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. There are other changes, too – but I think I need to get a fix on the education changes before worrying too much about anything else.

What are we to make of this? It has of course been a subject of intense speculation over past weeks whether Mary Coughlan would be moved from her post, and most of the reasons given would not have been complimentary to her; though in fairness she has also had her supporters, who have argued that perhaps the chorus of criticism of her performance might have sexist undertones. But nevertheless, what does it mean? What significance is there in this in terms of the government’s sense of priority for education? I’ll give it all the benefit of the doubt and assume that, particularly as she remains Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Mary Coughlan’s appointment indicates that Education is seen as a key Department representing urgent national needs. Also, the part of education that she would have got to know best in her last post would be higher education, and so we may perhaps hope that she will show a strong sense of commitment to this brief; but we will need to wait and see what she says early on.

Progress in the higher education agenda can only come from close and constructive collaboration between the Minister, the HEA and the universities and colleges. We will need to play our part to ensure that this is how it plays out in practice. Mary Coughlan has my best wishes, and I hope that she will find her appointment to be rewarding and successful.

More comments on the changes will follow later.