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The talk of education

What gives in the relationship between the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority?

Over the past six months the HEA has taken on a huge workload as it seeks to modernise the third-level sector. As part of this it has commissioned a series of reports from international and local experts and from the ESRI.

One might imagine that Minister Ruairí Quinn and the department would welcome this input and the subsequent debate on the future of the sector. But the opposite appears to be the case.

When the report from international experts recommending a UCD-TCD merger leaked in September, the Minister quickly rubbished it. The department has also worked behind the scenes to “nuance” the HEA reports before publication to ensure contentious material was erased.

To make matters worse, the HEA reports – some completed way back in July – were finally issued only late last Friday, in what was seen as an attempt to limit media coverage. Why is the department being so cautious?

On a related note, two leading academics worked on the HEA analysis of new higher-education structures published last Friday. But neither Dr Richard Thorn nor Prof Vin Massaro was credited in the final version “approved” by the department. All very strange.

Susi must have sounded good on paper

The idea of centralising the third-level grant-application process from 66 existing VECs and county councils into one national grants awarding body, called Susi, was a good one.

Giving the contract to City of Dublin VEC also seemed sensible, given the much-praised role of its CEO, Jacinta Stewart, in the allocation of grants to former residents of institutional care. So where did it all go wrong?

The biggest flaw was to believe you could handle complex applications online with a fraction of the staff who had processed applications in every county council and VEC.

The old system was very labour intensive, but it worked. Staff could support students in getting their documentation together. Replacing that with 65 people at the end of telephone lines who knew nothing of the circumstances of the callers was a huge error.

Since the end of August Susi – which was supposed to be an online service – has taken 180,000 calls from anxious students and parents. This averages out at 2,770 calls per staff member, 277 a week or 55 a day – small wonder there were delays.

The big winner in the Susi grant shambles?

Step forward new Fianna Fáil education spokesman Charlie McConalogue, who first uncovered the scandal and made the media running on it.

And the losers? City of Dublin VEC, which promised a modern, efficient service, and Ruairí Quinn, who inherited the new structure from his predecessors – and was still forced to apologise.

Twitter@SeanFlynnEd