The 33rd Dáil has elected outgoing Minister for Health Simon Harris as the Minister for the new Department of Higher Education, Innovation and Research. He will succeed Mary Mitchell O’Connor who held the junior position since higher education became a partial ministry of the Department of Education in 2017.

Harris took to Twitter on Friday to acknowledge his new position, saying that he will approach the role with “enthusiasm and energy.” Before becoming the Minister for Health, Harris served as the Minister of State at the Department of Finance from 2014 to 2016 and was first elected to the Dáil in 2011 as a TD for the Wicklow constituency. 

The new department is a welcome addition to the government as third-level institutions have suffered a major reduction in public funding and have had to adopt a business-like approach to develop additional revenue streams. In a statement, Joan Donegan, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) said: “State funding per student to third level institutions is now 40% below what it was a decade ago. The financial model had become unsustainable and can now be effectively addressed.” Donegan sees the department as a “rebirth for higher education” and believes it will “enable lecturers, researchers and students, and teaching staff to achieve and deliver their full potential.”

UCD President Andrew Deeks has announced that “the creation of the Ministry of Higher Education, Innovation and Science is the most exciting development the sector has seen since I came to Ireland at the beginning of 2014.”  He also explained that the creation of the new department has the “potential to facilitate a greater contribution of [the] Irish university sector to the post-COVID-19 recovery and to the future of Ireland than was previously possible.”

Similarly, Jim Miley, the Director General of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), considers the new department a positive change. In a recent press release, he stated that the addition “clearly recognises the central importance of universities and other third-level institutions as producers of the talent pipeline for the economy and as hubs of research and innovation.” However, he also added that “It is crucial that the first action of the minister is to secure the funding for the third-level system to recover from the COVID-19 financial collapse and to follow with the long-awaited reform of the funding model for the system.”  

In a statement released earlier today, the UCD Student’s Union said that they look forward to engaging with the Minister and his department and that the Union will be “advocating for the department to move towards a publicly funded model of Higher Education and the reduction of tuition fees.” Additionally, they hope to see further development of “ring-fenced funding structures” for student counselling and support services for students.

Professor Patrick Paul Walsh of University College Dublin’s (UCD) School of Politics and International Relations also welcomed the creation of the new department. Speaking to The College Tribune, he said that Simon Harris had done well over the pandemic and has witnessed first-hand the importance of having “a science lead frontline with a funded capacity to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.” Professor Walsh said that the Academy can do great things for the public good in the areas of the economy, society, environment, and governance, but insists that “Innovation and Science need to be oriented towards a public return and not captured by any private interest or quango of government” saying that the latter has become a major problem in the sector.

Walsh added that putting the procyclical needs of the quangos and commercial interests on campus first will ultimately lead to the decline of the Ministry. Professor Walsh concluded that “the Irish State needs the Academy more than ever to promote Innovation and Science for the public interest.” However, he is worried that Simon Harris’ recent tweets suggest the Ministry is already economy-oriented. Walsh hopes that the “education, research, innovation and policy work is for all members of society and not captured by narrow vested interests.”

Emma Hanrahan – Reporter