Harris’ Higher Education hijinks

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Michael Bergin explores whether Simon Harris has done well in his new role as Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation, Research and Science.

In politics, it is rarely those who are only used to winning that succeed, but rather, those who can take a loss and not be deterred. Perhaps nobody knows that more than a Health Minister.

Four years into the job, Simon Harris had escaped with a relatively clean record. True, he had presided over the CervicalCheck scandal, which rightly enraged a misled public, and also managed to blow over €2 billion on a new National Children’s Hospital (the most expensive in the world), which prompted a motion of no confidence. However, there were good days too. In 2018, after generations of struggle, the Eighth Amendment was repealed and the Oireachtas was permitted to legislate for abortion, making Harris an extremely popular figure. Temporarily. 

By January 2020, Harris was a hugely influential figure in Fine Gael, with a guaranteed future at the top of Irish politics. That was, until the whole world came crashing down. In February, Sinn Fein’s unprecedented electoral success signalled the end of traditional Irish politics, and forced a long and drawn-out period of negotiations between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to form a government. Not that Minister Harris had much time to devote to these talks. Instead, the minister had to implement Ireland’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, which in itself made him a household name and the focus of much scrutiny. By June, these talks had resulted in a government formation deal. And what was the reward for Minister Harris, after months of hard work, sleepless nights and gritty determination? Demotion.

For Harris, a completely new position was created. The Minister of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (or the elegantly acronymic FAHERIAS), would have special responsibility for higher education institutions and universities, and immediately faced a number of challenges. Firstly, with the position being totally new, Harris would have to convince the public that there was genuinely a need for a Minister for Higher Education, and that the job could not be efficiently done under the remit of the Minister for Education. Secondly, he would have to ensure that universities were able to return in some form for the academic year, while keeping students’ unions on side. Finally, he would have to provide supports to students who may not be returning to college due to Covid-19. All told, not an easy task.

To begin with, the friction between Harris and his colleagues in the Fianna Fail party seemed to have created some inconsistencies in the running of the department. For instance, when the tough news was broken to higher-level students that colleges would be allowed to charge the full €3,000 administration fees regardless of the amount of time a student will spend in college, the announcement was made by the Minister for Education and Skills, Fianna Fail’s Norma Foley. Why would the government go to the trouble of creating a whole new department, only for the Minister of another department to make announcements on its behalf? Where exactly did the remit of the Minister for Education stop with regards to higher education? For a new department, this was surprisingly unclear. Of course, some will say it was a political decision, with Simon Harris not wanting to make more unwelcome announcements immediately after putting the whole country into lockdown. However, the uncertainty remained.

And so, possibly conscious of said uncertainty, it became ever more apparent that Harris had to make a positive announcement, and fast, in order to maintain his credibility in the new role. This announcement came in the form of a €168 million package of support for universities and higher education institutes, which crucially not only went to the provision of Perspex screens and PPE in universities, but also was spent on supports for students who will be learning from home. This helped students who would otherwise have missed out on educational opportunities due to geographical or economic factors. Harris’ messaging on the issue of the new higher academic year has also been clear. He has repeatedly stated that while the new college year will of course be different than ever before, it must not be inferior. This reassuring messaging comes as a relief to students, who so often this year have been faced with blinding uncertainty.

In order to further clear up this uncertainty, Harris has committed to publishing a new further and higher education roadmap, which will provide clarity at a time when it is needed most.

The fees border on extortionate at the best of times and are a major disincentive for students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

Of course, there are those who say that Harris has not done enough. Colleges will be operating in a severely reduced fashion this year, and some would argue that there is no way that they should be allowed to charge the same fees as any other ‘normal’ year. From an objective viewpoint, this seems hard to justify. The fees border on extortionate at the best of times and are a major disincentive for students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. As well as this, there has been broad criticism over the manner in which colleges seem to be returning, with there being no general consensus as to which way is the most suitable. While some colleges opt for a phased, one-week-on, two-weeks-off approach, others have opted for a more consistent return. This lack of unity amongst colleges will be one of the major challenges Simon Harris will face as he goes forward.

Simon Harris is not a man who will make the correct decision every time. He has however proven over his political career to be able to acknowledge, survive, and learn from his mistakes - an attribute far more important. In his dealings with the realm of higher education and his plans to get students back to colleges, mistakes have been made. However, there is nothing to indicate that Harris won’t improve on these mistakes in the future.