‘Tackle funding crisis, plug skills gaps and boost pay’: the key challenges facing the new Minister for Higher Education

Simon Harris has left his successor Patrick O’Donovan with a series of complex challenges

Simon Harris’s appointment as Taoiseach has opened the way for Limerick TD Patrick O’Donovan to take on the role as Minister for Further, and Higher Education.

The challenges in the new minister’s in-tray are complex, to say the least.

With less than a year to go in office before the dissolution of this Dáil, O’Donovan will have his work cut out to make substantial progress across even some of these issues.

These are the key areas he will need to tackle over the coming year:

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1. Address the funding ‘crisis’ facing higher education

The Irish Times reported earlier this week that universities are set to run deficits of €15 million as some institutions continue to struggle with rising costs.

Some in the Government say this amounts to a funding “crisis”, with about eight of the 18 publicly funded higher education institutions in the red last year.

While Simon Harris was the first minister to grasp the nettle of agreeing a new funding model for higher education, many in the sector grumble that delivery is taking too long.

He identified that an additional €307 million over about three years or so was needed to meet funding challenges – but only some of this has been delivered.

Can the new minister deliver the resources needed to help keep universities in the black, as well as lowering student/teacher ratio from 23:1 to nearer the EU average of 15:1?

2. Realise the potential of new technological universities

The jury is out on whether technological universities will be the success they were promised to be.

Enrolments across the five new technological universities dropped 9 per cent in the past two years, whereas the eight universities grew by 4 per cent.

O’Donovan will need to help realise the potential of these universities whose governing structures are now in place, but who are still awaiting the long-term capital investment to build the physical infrastructure necessary to justify their university status.

3. Grow apprenticeships and plug skills gaps

Apprenticeships are growing fast – but from a low base. In addition, there are backlogs of thousands of apprentices waiting for off-the-job training.

O’Donovan will need to clear these, as well as continuing the rapid expansion of the sector which now cover some 70 apprenticeship areas ranging from traditional fields, like construction and mechanics, to newer areas, such as financial services and insurance.

This will be vital in plugging skills gaps and meeting national targets in areas such as green skills and retrofitting.

In addition, the Government will need to promote lifelong learning for adult learners, across all elements of tertiary education, to ensure the skills of the workforce meet the demands of a modern economy.

4. Help the further education sector to flourish

There is a need to streamline and consolidate the integration of the further education sector to eliminate duplication at local level, while ensuring that the full range of courses are available within each Education and Training Board region.

In addition, the recently launched tertiary degrees – which provide access to college degrees outside the CAO application process, starting off in further education – are important for the sector.

About 40 tertiary degree options will be available in September 2024 – but will students opt for them?

5. Navigate choppy waters over the new Research Ireland agency

The Research and Innovation Bill 2023 aims to establish a new research and innovation funding agency called Taighde Éireann – Research Ireland by amalgamating the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

It is not a universally popular move by any means.

Science Foundation Ireland has name recognition and its enterprise focus has, undoubtedly, delivered huge results for Ireland.

So, there is a sense of jeopardy over plans to dissolve it and transfer its responsibilities to the new Research Ireland agency.

Will it prove to be the right move in time?

6. Tackle pay and conditions

O’Donovan will need to address the concerns of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland regarding the terms and conditions of employment of lecturing staff in technological universities who previously worked in the institutes of technology.

This will involve agreeing the establishment and pay scales of the grades of assistant professor and professor within the new technological universities, alongside their senior management structures.

He will also need to issues raised by the TUI regarding the remuneration levels of teaching staff in further education colleges, who are now timetabled to teach on year one and possibly two, of four- or five-year tertiary degree programmes.

There is also the issue of low-paid PhD researchers. Despite their vital role in higher education, many survive on less than €10,000 a year.

Simon Harris pledged that the PhD stipend will be increased to €25,000, the level recommended by a national review last year. But will O’Donovan be able to deliver?

7. Make education affordable

Harris, to his credit, delivered cuts to the cost of third level for hard-pressed families, as well as improvements in grants.

The cost of living is, however, continuing to rise - and accommodation isn’t getting any cheaper or easier to find.

Can O’Donovan maintain progress in lowering education costs, while also prioritising badly-needed investment for the sector?

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