Today the seven Irish university heads (accompanied by the CEO of the Irish Universities Association) met the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD. To get the substance of the meeting out of the way, it was made clear by the Minister that the growing crisis in public finances would make it very difficult to provide resources for the higher education sector that would compensate for inflation and any accumulated under-funding. We did talk about possible ways of alleviating the problems we faced, and some longer term strategic options (one of which is, of course, the return of tuition fees). It wasn’t a cheerful meeting – there was nothing cheery that anyone could really say. But at any rate it was a constructive engagement between the Minister and the presidents, and that’s a good thing. He means to do the right thing for the sector, I believe, but doesn’t have any discretionary resources, and probably won’t have for some time. We all emerged from the meeting feeling grim. I suspect the Minister did, too. It is, I think, now time for us as a country to face the inevitability of a new understanding as to how higher education is resourced, if we are serious about wanting a quality system.
As for the universities, we are now working together well. We don’t all have exactly the same views on all tactical matters, but we are all agreed on the strategy needed for the sector. If there isn’t much else to celebrate, the strengthening partnership between the seven universities is a good thing.
So what else was there to be observed? The meeting took place in Leinster House. At least, we entered by the front door of Leinster House (the location of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, for those reading this who are not from Ireland), but after that we seemed to be taken on a mile-long hike through the building, or maybe it was eventually another building, to be taken outside for a photograph in what seemed to be at first a completely different part of Dublin. Tea and coffee was on offer at the meeting, and some dodgy looking biscuits, but perhaps in the interests of cost saving nobody dared touch it (and who knows what cut price blends are now being used?). As we sat there, somebody from government said that we were now probably in the worst year, financially, since 1979.
Well, there are interesting times ahead.