So now we know; some elevations, side moves and swaps. The Taoiseach this afternoon announced his new cabinet with Education and Skills and the related portfolio of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation amongst those most dramatically reconfigured. The two principals with the greatest degree of input to the higher education sector – Batt O’Keeffe and Mary Coughlan – have alternated roles, but further consideration will have to be given to the new make-up of the departmental portfolios.
Perhaps one of the most surprising announcements is that responsibility for the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) moves to Enterprise. While there is a logic to the move in terms of moving the commercialisation of research agenda centre stage, there may now be a danger of a disconnect with the third level sector itself.
In the Taoiseach’s own words, this reflects the focus of the Innovation Taskforce report, through a sharpened focus ensuring ‘a streamlined and focused programme of funding of research and development, aligned with the objectives of enterprise policy’.
Given the controversies that surrounded FÁS, it is perhaps unsurprising that the organisation has been dissected this afternoon. Responsibility for skills and training policy is being re-allocated to Education and Skills, ensuring, Mr Cowen said, that ‘the training activities of FÁS will therefore be aligned more closely with the further education and training activities of the VECs, the institutes of technology and programmes such as Youthreach’.
What difference will these changes make to the lives of our citizens and to the operation of the third level sector? Will discussion of the personalities involved overshadow the substance of the changes made?
It’s difficult to know at this juncture, although the position of higher education in the broader third level portfolio now appears to be more disjointed than before. Perhaps the appointment of one of the new junior ministers to a dedicated HE post would remedy the matter. We await the Taoiseach’s further pronouncements.