Trinity Provost Patrick Pendergast has written an open letter calling for the foundation of a Department of Higher Education and Research. The letter, which was published in the Irish Times’ opinion section, says such a Department is the “best means” to achieve a globally competitive third level education sector with “ground-breaking research that drives innovation economies”.
The opinion piece follows another open letter with over 800 academic signatories which was published last week. It requested the formation of a full cabinet ministership devoted exclusively to higher education. The letter criticised a previous lack of funding in third level education, and said “government must prioritise the funding of higher education and research, as crucial to building national recovery and ensuring future prosperity and preparedness”.
Looking back into Irish history, he mentions both the 1969 reforms to third-level education and foundation of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), as well as the research systems created and implemented around 2000 as the 2 groundbreaking reforms of the last century which changed the nature of higher education. In calling for a Department of Higher Education, Prendergast says that “it’s time to be ambitious again”.
Prendergast has been a vocal supporter of increased third-level funding in Ireland, which he dubbed a “public neglect of Ireland’s greatest asset”. Currently government investment in the third level sector is €151 billion lower than what was called for in the 2016 Cassell Report.
In the letter, the Provost argued that the investment of “a combined annual budget of around €3bn” into such a group would “build bridges” with other countries that have prioritised research and education and still allow a degree of autonomy in research pursuits.
The Provost cited the Covid-19 pandemic multiple times as an example of when independent research adds value and important knowledge to a country, saying “the academics who are at the forefront of this battle have solid grounding in research practices that extend beyond meeting immediate industry needs”.
He also criticized the State’s perpetual pursuit of “greater control over universities”, “despite its reduced funding”. The letter is adamant that “universities don’t exist merely to serve the skills needs of the economy” and that their “autonomy allows them to best serve society by the independent pursuit of knowledge”. He said that colleges’ greatest asset is to “help build a better future for our young people”, and “that, more than anything, is why [the department] is a good idea.”