The creation of a new and separate Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is one of the most significant advances and developments in government policy in recent times.
Its creation has been one of the main demands of IFUT for many years, amid the growing underfunding and lack of attention for this vital area of education, societal and economic activity.
Already there is a new focus on the needs of our sector and the impact of almost wanton government neglect, particularly in the period since the 2008 economic crash.
A prime emphasis for IFUT is that all aspects of our work, and how we do it, must focus on how best to support the further development of higher education and to maximise the influence of the new department within government, particularly on the need for enhanced direct state funding for higher education.
Although still in its infancy and not yet fully staffed, it is already clear that the new Department intends to play a significant role in industrial relations issues in the sector. These matters have heretofore been dealt with by the Workplace Relations Commission in tandem with the old Department of Education and Science, which in many cases had proved disastrously frustrating from the point of view of higher education.
Despite the recent overwhelming focus on Covid-19 within government, through discussions with the new Department, we have succeeded in achieving:
- Agreement on a new Forum for Higher Education. Its terms of reference have not yet been signed off on but work continues and IFUT anticipates that it will offer a real mechanism to facilitate a genuine discussion and input on many issues previously swept under the table at every opportunity.
- Already there is enhanced co-operation between Trade Unions in higher education and IFUT is in a position to make a leading contribution to work in this area.
Covid-19 matters will remain ongoing and these are being consulted regularly with the new Minister and Department. Issues like clarification on the 2m rule has been a cause of both concern and confusion and this arose to varying extents in some universities.
IFUT’s approach to resolving national or multi-college issues has also been assisted by the recent development of a much closer working relationship with the Irish Universities Association.
It is a fact that the IUA and IFUT have common cause on issues such as funding of the sector. In addition IUA-IFUT contact and co-operation on issues and disputes in the workplace have matured to a level unimaginable even a few years ago and the need for greater consistency in HR approaches at local college level are among the areas now regularly addressed through positive contact.
This has been accompanied by a generally improved working relationship with HR departments at local level, involving IFUT both nationally and at college branch level.
Difficulty remains where college management seek to ignore or ‘footdrag’ on national level agreements and understandings. IFUT’s approach in such situations continues to be, with some success, to seek to win agreement at local HR level on best practice approaches that prove effective elsewhere in the higher education system. It is unlikely that these issues could be more easily resolved by any potential centralised process of sanction - and appeal - against ‘rogue’ colleges.
Further progress on all the above depends, of course, on the goodwill and determination of all those involved.
Higher Education remains grossly underfunded. Ireland’s lecturer to student ratio remains one of the worst in the OECD. Lecturers, tutors, researchers, librarians and college staff remain extremely stretched in their work, all the more so during the ongoing pandemic.
But there is now some light at the end of the tunnel. The creation of the new Department is a very timely and anchoring development in the effort to create a better education environment - for our members and the broader student and college community generally. IFUT itself is making very encouraging progress and taking a new positive direction in terms of who we are, who we speak for and who it is that we speak to and how.