Sunday 18 August 2019

John Downing: 'Government needs to make hard choices on universities'


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John Downing

John Downing

It's a sentiment pretty much as old as politics itself. Dáil veterans used to lampoon it as: "We need a minister for Leitrim because Leitrim will never get anything until it gets its own minister."

So, when there's a big problem in any given sector, we reach for the "give it a minister all of its own" response. It doesn't often change very much - but it can take down the political heat for a time.

Thus enter Micheál Martin with his call for a special dedicated department for higher education - separate from the Department of Education where he presided as minister from June 1997 until January 2000.

Down the years the brass engravers were kept busy making new name plates as government departments were re-named, moved to different locations, and given a new gloss via different permutations.

We went through a phase of dedicated junior ministers being appointed to generate an impression of movement around an issue that was generating bad publicity. That trend still continues, as to this day we have Jim Daly, responsible for older people, and Michael D'Arcy struggling with spiralling insurance premiums.

There were even twists in the names of departments, like the Department of Foreign Affairs' officials, showing themselves in theory as willing to sully their hands with commerce, by adding the word 'trade' to the title. For a period in the 1980s, when there was much public hand-wringing about the lack of emphasis on science, the Department of Education added the word 'science' to the title.

More recently, that same department is acknowledging the lack of apprenticeships and the development of skills, by adding the word 'skills' to its title. It makes one wonder why 'science' fell off the naming grid.

Granted, things change and the configuration of government departments must reflect that reality.

We no longer need a Department of Lands to deal with the tailback of change from landlordism and big estates, nor happily do we need a Department of Supplies to deal with necessary rationing in time of war.

Equally, we must acknowledge there is a big problem with our third-level sector. It is chiefly related to underfunding and the failure of the Government to face up to some hard decisions this side of an election. We have already come through the expert study and report phase.

Three years ago, the options were set out in a report from a group headed by trade union leader Peter Cassells. Choices centre on the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly State-funded system; continuation of the current student contribution charge coupled with increased State investment; and the introduction of an income-linked loan system.

Our politicians must choose. A new standalone third-level education department will not change the need to make hard choices about scarce resources.

One for everyone in the audience will not work here.

Irish Independent

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