Posted tagged ‘universities and government’

The right Department?

May 10, 2009

The following exchange took place last week, on May 7, between the Labour Party spokesperson on education and science and the Minister at a meeting of the (Irish Parliament) Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science:

Deputy Ruairí Quinn:    Other countries have separated the third level sector from the school sector because of the relationship between enterprise and employment and research and development. Many in the education sector to whom I have spoken in the past year regard Marlboro Street as the Department for schools, primary and secondary, and the VEC. They believe there is a disconnect and inequality in the relationship because of the role of the HEA. Is there merit in integrating the three in order to have a proper working Department of Education and Science, or should there be a complete separation to take the HEA out of the remit of the Department of Education and Science and move it to that of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as happened, for example, with Science Foundation Ireland? There seems to be a schizophrenic relationship between the Department of Education and Science and the third level sector, as evidenced by the Minister’s manifest distrust of the value for money that the university sector provides.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe:    My experience is that the Department of Education and Science is all-embracing. It is important to have a continuum in education from primary through secondary into third level. The three should be integrated. I see good integration throughout the sector. I am quite satisfied that the Department is all-embracing in respect of the third level sector. It is important that the education sector was put in place and I am satisfied that it carries out its remit effectively.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn:    Other countries have separated the third level sector from the school sector because of the relationship between enterprise and employment and research and development. Many in the education sector to whom I have spoken in the past year regard Marlboro Street as the Department for schools, primary and secondary, and the VEC. They believe there is a disconnect and inequality in the relationship because of the role of the HEA. Is there merit in integrating the three in order to have a proper working Department of Education and Science, or should there be a complete separation to take the HEA out of the remit of the Department of Education and Science and move it to that of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as happened, for example, with Science Foundation Ireland? There seems to be a schizophrenic relationship between the Department of Education and Science and the third level sector, as evidenced by the Minister’s manifest distrust of the value for money that the university sector provides.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe:    My experience is that the Department of Education and Science is all-embracing. It is important to have a continuum in education from primary through secondary into third level. The three should be integrated. I see good integration throughout the sector. I am quite satisfied that the Department is all-embracing in respect of the third level sector. It is important that the education sector was put in place and I am satisfied that it carries out its remit effectively.

This is an issue I have raised also in this blog in a post last July. The Minister’s view expressed above that there is (or should be) a ‘continuum in education’ is not without logic, but in practice the operation of higher education is totally different from that of primary and secondary education. Universities do have education as a part of their core mission, but they are also bodies that address cultural and economic regeneration, enterprise creation, development of intellectual property, and so forth. In practice even well-meaning government officials charged with overseeing primary and secondary education tend to apply the same basic assumptions to the third level sector. This is not a criticism of either politicians or civil servants, it is simply an inevitability.

The Minister has expressed his view, but it would be helpful if this issue were to be subjected to a more wide-ranging analysis, including a consideration of the experience of placing higher education under different government oversight in the countries where that has been attempted.

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Ministerial responsibility

July 11, 2008

A few years ago, in a piece I wrote for the Irish Times, I suggested that we should look again at the role of the Department of Education and Science in managing the government’s policy on third level. My view then was that when times get rough the Department tends to protect the resourcing of primary and secondary education but allows higher education to be cut. It is understandable that schools will seem to politicians and officials to be a more important infrastructure in which to invest during an economic slowdown.

I still hold the view that putting responsibility for higher education in the same government department that also deals with schools is not ideal. We are already hearing strong hints that those cutbacks that will have to be made in education in the current context of budget cuts will largely be applied to third level – and if that happens, the consequences will be disastrous. We face this risk in part because we have no government minister who feels a particular responsibility to protect higher education. I therefore believe that the time has come, perhaps at the next re-shuffle, to look again at the possibility of allocating responsibility for higher education to a different department; preferably one dedicated to higher education and innovation, but if that cannot be done, then to another (reconfigured) department.

This has been done in a number of other countries, including the UK. It is time to consider this option seriously in Ireland. And now is the right time.