Analysis: If Harris’ tenure in higher education is anything to go by, we really “ain’t seen nothing yet”

In the wake of the unexpected and abrupt resignation of former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar on March 20, Simon Harris would go on to run uncontested for the leadership of the party and will be presumably elected Taoiseach today, April 9.

Harris has never shied away from potentially procuring the role of Taoiseach saying in November of last year how he has “never hidden my ambition, but that’s certainly something for the future”.

The future has now become the present for Harris but does his track record indicate a promising future for Irish politics?

The future of Fine Gael under Harris

With the latest Business Post/Red C poll indicating a one-point drop in support for Fine Gael bringing their estimated backing to 19% and a general election looming, there is a definite need to rehabilitate the party’s image. Harris, well known for his attempts to engage with the younger electorate via his social media presence, was perhaps the safest and least controversial candidate when it came to selecting a new leader of the party.

Hoping to breathe new life into Fine Gael, Harris was quick to hit back at criticisms against the party when he announced his candidature: “To anybody who thinks this party is tired, to anyone who thinks this party lacks energy, you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

“It’s clear Harris is already attempting to appeal to a wider proportion of the electorate than his predecessor.”

Harris is hoping his leadership “is a moment for Fine Gael in government to reset, for Fine Gael in government to reconnect, for Fine Gael in government to renew our commitment to the people” and vowed to prioritise matters of business, farming and law and order to name a few”.

It’s clear Harris is already attempting to appeal to a wider proportion of the electorate than his predecessor. However, does his previous governmental escapade suggest he will come through with his promises?

A positive track record?

First entering the Dáil in 2011 at the age of just 24 Harris has held a myriad of positions during his time in government, serving as a junior minister between 2014 and 2016 and then minister for health between 2016 and 2020.

While minister for health, he attracted much criticism for incorrectly stating on live radio that there had been 18 coronaviruses prior to Covid-19 in what he coined to be “awful boo-boo”.

Harris was also praised, however, for his strong social media presence during the pandemic, informing on updates surrounding health and travel restrictions and regularly hosting Instagram lives to answer people’s questions. Combined with attempts at humour such as posting about needing a haircut, his online presence has already earned him the title of the “TikTok Taoiseach”, although it’s not clear how much this translates into gaining support among young voters.

Harris has also expressed the importance of the upcoming inquiry into how the government handled Covid-19, acknowledging it is “really important”.

After regaining his seat upon the 15th count during the 2020 election for the Wicklow constituency, Harris was assigned as the minister of the newly created Department of Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science as a part of the coalition government including Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

Higher education: Student welfare

During his four-year tenure as higher education minister, Harris attempted to appeal and garner support from college students. This can be seen through consecutive Budgets containing financial reliefs for students.

In his time, €20.9 million was designated to fund mental health services across the sector of higher education. 77 counsellors for universities were also hired in 2022 under Harris.

2023 saw 17 institutes of higher education across Ireland receive an additional €5 million in mental health funding. It was his self-proclaimed ‘on the ground approach’ which saw him prioritise the psychological needs of students: “Since I became minister, I have travelled to almost every college campus in the country and one of the consistent messages I receive is that students need support in this area.”

Despite the extra funding allocated to college mental health services by Harris, a recent report by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) revealed wait times for College counselling services have doubled since 2017, suggesting a level of inadequacy within Harris as his work fails to reach into students’ daily lives.

Following on from his efforts to increase psychological support for students, Harris also attempted to address the prevalence of bullying in higher education. A report, originally confirmed by Harris back in 2020, detailing the findings of a survey into bullying across institutes of higher education was launched in September 2023.

The survey found that 18.4% of students were subject to bullying during the first semester of the 2022/2023 academic year. It concluded by recommending a number of  ways to combat the prevalence of bullying across colleges.

Speaking at the launch of the report Harris thanked “all the students across the country who took the time to engage with this survey and share their experiences of bullying with us”.

The fulfilment of this report is a positive indication of Harris’ ability to hold true to his promises.

Increasing accessibility to education was a repeating motive under Harris’s tenure. February 2024 saw Harris declare his intent to establish ten new college courses for students with intellectual disabilities. Set to commence during the upcoming 2024/25 academic semester, the rollout will see 150 students enrolled within the first year. Along with this, Harris announced the deployment of €1.8m to fund the implementation of sensory maps across college campuses and anti-racism measures.

Higher education: Funding

Funding allocated to the sector of higher education under Harris was plentiful, including €4.5 million announced for regional campuses and a €113 million cost of education package for students under Budget 2024. This included a €1,000 reduction in undergraduate fees reducing college costs for 96,000 students.

€17 million was also allocated by Harris and Minister of State Niall Collins in order to expand apprenticeships across higher education equating to 132 apprenticeship craft training blocks.

“The former higher education minister was subject to heavy criticism in the lead up to Budget 2024 over the €307 million funding gap.”

In lieu of these measures, the former higher education minister was subject to heavy criticism in the lead up to Budget 2024 over the €307 million funding gap present within the higher education sphere.

This issue had been carried over from Budget 2023 which saw €40 million allocated to the sector, accounting for a mere 13% of the €307 million gap.  A statement issued by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) at the time called the lack of funding “very disappointing”.

Higher education: Student Accommodation

When evaluating Harris’ competence it is crucial to examine the current state of student accommodation across Ireland.

February of 2024 saw Harris state his intention to amend legislation in order to stop student accommodation providers having mandatory minimum 51 week long leases. This came following prolonged backlash from students where many of whom were being forced out of leases pertaining to the 40-week academic term. The legislation amendments were brought to Cabinet in March, with Harris promising it will be enacted before the government’s summer recess to ensure the new tenancy protections are in place before the new academic year.

A €434 million plan for 2,700 affordable student housing beds to be built on college campus was announced by Harris after obtaining €200 million from the European Investment Bank (EIB) with the additional €234 million to be covered by the Housing Finance Agency (HFA). This scheme has yet to materialise despite being announced in October 2023.

Despite these measures being put in place, there is an overall sense of inadequacy from Harris when it came to tackling the student accommodation crisis with the Union of Students Ireland (USI) claiming in January 2024 that the government has been “engaging in smoke and mirrors in relation to student accommodation by announcing and reannouncing the same ‘news’ and ‘policies’ without any concrete plans or information”.

With Vulture Funds owing more student accommodation in Dublin than Trinity, Dublin City University (DCU) and University College Dublin (UCD) combined at 7,538 beds in comparison to 5,602, it is hard to negate his failure to do more to regulate the sector despite students’ pleas.

A 2023 National Survey on Student Digs carried out by the USI detailed that the popular alternative to the private student housing sector was equally as bleak with 39% of respondents detailing that they had no written agreement of their residency with a further 8% facing imminent eviction from their rented residence.

“His legacy as minister for higher education is to be defined by the ongoing and worsening crisis within student accommodation.”

Harris’ failures when it comes to student accommodation are further solidified when considering that 92 of 300 students who deferred their start at the University of Galway in 2022 did so due to housing-related issues.

In the same year, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) saw 10% of students defer their round one CAO offers citing the same reason.

While Harris’ record of following through on his promises suggests his tenure as Ireland’s new Taoiseach will see plentiful policy changes in the eyes of many, especially students, his legacy as minister for higher education is to be defined by the ongoing and worsening crisis within student accommodation.

Harris’ constant and continuous attempts to appeal to and reach the younger electorate through his online engagement have arguably yielded little success. A recent poll conducted by Trinity News showed student support for Fine Gael stands at just 10.4% suggesting the ‘TikTok Taoiseach’, despite his best efforts, has failed to rehabilitate the overall image of his party.

With the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) already issuing Harris a warning that he must follow through on all unfulfilled promises he made while Minister for Higher Education and coining the lack of funding toward the education sector in recent years “shameful”, the pressure is already building on Ireland’s newly appointed Taoiseach.

Aoibhinn Clancy

Aoibhínn Clancy is the Deputy News Editor of Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.