Every now and then, an opportunity arises for a country to fundamentally reset expectations. One example was former minister for education Donogh O'Malley's decision to open up secondary education to all Irish people. A second example was Sean Lemass's decision to ditch protectionism in favour of an open economy. With talent now the lifeblood of societies everywhere, the debate begun by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to create a Department of Higher Education and Research has the potential to be another such moment.
There have been two really significant moves to advance our higher education system. The first came in the ten years after 1969 with the creation of the Higher Education Authority, the Regional Technical Colleges, the NIHEs (later University of Limerick and Dublin City University), as well as the removal of anachronisms such as the Catholic Church's "ban" on Catholics studying in Trinity.
The second came with the creation of a research system: The Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland were all created within a year or two either side of the year 2000. Almost everything else that happened in Irish higher education since the foundation of the State was steady incremental investments and some rebranding.
Two big moves in a century is hardly enough. It’s time to be ambitious again.
We need to follow the lead of other countries and create globally-competitive universities that perform the ground-breaking research that drives innovation economies. To do this, the State needs to invest in our students with a coherent strategy to create the talent for the next phase of Ireland's development. A department with a focus on higher education and research is the best means to achieve this. Countries which invest in research tend to power ahead. There is a reason that places such as New Zealand and South Korea have coped so well with the corona virus.
Here in Ireland, higher education is rarely top of the agenda within the Department of Education or society despite the best efforts of many officials. It was a handy target for cuts when the economic crisis washed over us a decade ago. Since then public funding per student has fallen from almost euro9,000 per student a decade ago to just over euro5,000 today. It amounts to a public neglect of Ireland's greatest asset.
Mary Mitchell O'Connor battled hard for the sector when she became the country's first Minister for Higher Education. With limited staff and resources she pushed through a number of reforms including the creation of 45 professorships to improve gender balance and launched an action plan for safer campuses. She gave a tantalising glimpse of what could happen if we had a full-blown ministry similar to those operating in many other countries such as Denmark and Finland. The European Commission recently created a Directorate-General linking education and research.
A new department with a focus on higher education and research would be able to build bridges to other advanced societies which are prioritising education and research. It would also understand the delicate balance that needs to be struck between supporting research and the autonomy from interference that great researchers need to thrive.
Despite its reduced funding, the State is continuously looking for greater control over universities. But universities don’t exist merely to serve the skills needs of the economy. Universities’ autonomy allows them to best serve society by the independent pursuit of knowledge. They are acknowledged as using their autonomy well in the COVID 19 pandemic in researching, advising and explaining the course of the virus. The academics who are at the forefront of this battle have solid grounding in research practices that extend beyond meeting immediate industry needs. Third-level institutions have responsibilities to their students and staff, to society, to the environment as well as to the economy: that’s why higher education and research go together.
A new Department of Higher Education and Research with a combined annual budget of around euro3bn could become a major driver in Ireland’s efforts to become one of the world’s leading knowledge economies. It would send a strong signal to the world that we are serious about preparing for the future. It would help Irish researchers to meet some of the immense challenges from climate change to technological disruption and medical emergencies. Crucially, it would help build a better future for our young people. That, more than anything, is why it’s good idea.
Patrick Prendergast is an engineer and Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In 2020 he is chair of the Irish Universities Association.