Simon Harris TD Gives Keynote at IUA Future of Ireland Seminar

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Simon Harris TD Gives Keynote: The IUA Future of Ireland seminar series took place earlier today to put a focus on the Pivotal Role of Universities for Future Skills and Innovation. The Keynote Speech was given by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD.

You can read the speech below:

Good Morning, Everyone,

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you all today.

I would like to thank Dr. Patrick Prendergast and his colleagues in the IUA for hosting the event, and Mike Beary and my fellow panellists for being here today.

Our theme, The Pivotal Role of Universities for Future Skills and Innovation, could not be more timely, or more important for me. It captures the mandate of my new department and your overall theme captures its manifesto – the Future of Ireland.

I don’t wish to be accused of sucking up to the boss but I have to see my speech today as the sequel to his address to you just a little over a year ago.

There are probably few truly visionary speeches but there are surely very few that became a reality so shortly after.

On that day, Micheál urged a new agenda for higher education, based on a renewed focus on research and innovation, strategic consideration for the role of higher education, and an enhanced policy direction for the sector at large.

That event developed the concept of creating a separate Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and today I lead that department.

Twelve months from concept to delivery of the department…with the longest title in Government. Ten words – it’s quite a mouthful.

Sometimes I try to break it down and, in the simplest sense, I see myself as the “Minister for Talent”. Ultimately we are just under 5 million people in a world of 7.8 billion. We represent just over 0.06% of the world’s population. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the world owes us a living. How we develop the talent of our people will determine if we can punch above our numbers and prosper at home and internationally. The exciting thing as a Minister, as a new department and as higher education institutions is the privileged opportunity we have been given to shape that future.

The establishment of the department is the first step on what I see as our collective journey to set a new agenda for further and higher education, one that considers it a vital national resource socially and economically.

Historically, Ireland put its faith in the principle that investing in our people would unlock social and economic progress.

That principle is enshrined in our new department – a lodestar as we chart a new course in a new context.

The need to consider the changing context – internationally, economically, technologically & societally – was well set out by the Taoiseach last year but since then all has changed utterly again.

This has been a year like no other. It has tested us all in different ways and no one is unaffected, but there is no doubt some people are more affected. The stark spotlight COVID-19 has shone on disadvantage and inequality should remain ever in our focus, especially all of us here today.

The higher education sector has also been tested and not found wanting. Not only were you able to maintain teaching and learning in radically challenging circumstances but you also demonstrated the flexibility to meet urgent needs, including the additional university places required. I want to thank you for your leadership and for your continued close engagement with my department on priorities, most recently in implementing the package of student assistance announced in the Budget and which I know the IUA welcomed.

I commend your achievements in a time of crisis for our country. However, even if the horrific COVID-19 crisis is one no one would ever wish it is one we shouldn’t waste. The dynamism demonstrated by higher education is a lesson we must not unlearn.

Our society and the world of work are changing rapidly, and if anything this will be accelerated by the pandemic. Universities will have an important role in equipping us to manage this change. This will entail agility and innovation in how universities operate.

I see this in your recent work on micro credentials and the delivery of certified qualifications in short courses in flexible formats. This is exactly the kind of initiative we need to increase Irish university capacity to extract and adapt high-demand modules from existing programmes, and develop tailored courses, to suit the needs of enterprise and lifelong learning.

For me, the overall lesson of the pandemic is that our ambition must go far beyond our country going back to ‘normal’ but rather to see a chance to transform it.

This will be our mutual mission.

I am not going to recap our key initiatives so far in the July Stimulus and elsewhere as I know this audience has been closely engaged in them or will have been following them avidly, but I hope they are a strong signal of our intent and our fundamental commitment to future skills and innovation.

I and my department are determined to be the driver of a vibrant sector which produces individuals who are equipped with the skills that they need to progress in the way that they want to, and in a way that meets the needs of our evolving economy and contributes to an inclusive society.

The higher and further education sectors are critical sources of knowledge creation, innovation, skills and human capital development.

There is opportunity to deepen collaboration between the two sectors so that they work hand in glove with one another – but also with the industry and enterprise sectors.

Through the new department, we have the structures to to bring about a transformation in Ireland’s response to evidence-informed skills forecasting and truly inclusive policy development. A key contribution will be a strategic policy framework which builds a national consensus on outcomes and provides a framework within which a range of different institutions play a complementary role in providing educational opportunities and the different types and levels of qualifications which we will need for the future.

Developing an appropriate funding model to underpin this framework will be a pre-requisite.

Detailed research is underway to inform the decisions required on this funding model next year. I am not naive enough to believe that research and evidence will be sufficient to generate the right outcome – one that will serve our long term interests. More than ever there are urgent and mounting demands on the finite resources available to individuals and government. But as well as urgent demands there are the strategically important; the areas where investment will set us on a sustainable course which in time will be seen as decisive in our success as a people.

That success must never be measured solely in economic terms. The University of the 21st century must be a beacon of inclusion.

We know now life-long learning is essential for all in an increasingly digital and automated world and that must embrace all the different lives we lead.

Whether you have a physical or intellectual disability, third level education is for you and can very much be a natural part of your journey through life.

Whether you have challenges with literacy, numeracy or digital skills, third level education is for you and can unlock opportunities you and your family should not be denied.

Whether you did not complete second level education or have suffered from poverty and disadvantage, third level education is for you and can enable equality.

If future skills and innovation are the key to our economic success, the role of universities in unlocking their full potential is to ensure that no one is left behind.

The Taoiseach warned last year of the need to avoid the social exclusion that can come with knowledge economies and I want that warning to always ring in our ears.

I want to see our universities take a leadership role on the tackling the societal ills of inequality and sexual harassment and violence.

I will do all that I can to promote female leadership in academia and to provide policy direction on embedding consent principles, but I need to you to rise to this challenge and I know you will.

I plan to introduce legislation next year to overhaul the governance of the higher education sector. With the setting up of the new department we are taking the opportunity to review the existing policy proposals.

It will be important to achieve clarity and complementarity of roles between the department and its agencies, particularly the Higher Education Authority and Quality and Qualifications Ireland. I also think it is opportune to review the legislative provisions relating to the governance of our higher education institutions. I am aware that the sector has prioritised work on governance in recent years, including in enhancing the role and leadership of Governing Authorities. The agility and flexibility of universities are key strengths and this requires an appropriate level of autonomy. Hand-in-hand with such autonomy must go strong governance and accountability mechanisms at the institutional level.

Research & innovation is a very important component of my Ministerial responsibilities. We have a unique opportunity to ensure that research is not in silos and give it greater coherence on the national stage.

The establishment of my department will mean that well over 50% of national public research funding will be under its auspices. This is a great opportunity to bring further cohesion and investment to research and innovation strategy and funding. We need a balanced portfolio of research:

  • from early stage researchers to the globally renowned
  • embracing all disciplines and, increasingly important, at the interface between disciplines
  • from investigator-generated research topics to mission-driven investment in areas of strategic national importance
  • based upon deep partnerships with enterprise, including in contributing to vibrant innovation systems at regionally and nationally level that embrace SMEs
  • and also contributing to the public good and our major societal challenges

Research and innovation will be fundamental to addressing our economic and social challenges such as climate change, digitalisation and public health. People are alive to science and research, to finding a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, in a way that brings science into the public eye in a way that it hasn’t been before.

As Innovation 2020 comes to the end of its term we can build upon considerable success. We have further opportunity in the next phase to greatly strengthen our research ecosystem. Our research community must be interwoven with all of our other efforts and supported if we are to achieve the international standing we seek as an Innovation Leader.

I have talked about a number of individual components that make up our work programme and there are others I could expand upon. But it is in the relationship between these elements that I see the greatest potential.

My vision is to see us become an Innovation Island, with my department providing direction on strategy, funding and structural reform for the research and innovation ecosystem and regional and national linkage with enterprise, in particular SMEs.

An Island of Talent, unleashing the contribution of Higher Education and FET to human capital and lifelong learning.

An International Island, promoting Ireland as a leader in Higher Education and Research.

And an Island of Inclusion & Engagement, driving equity of educational outcomes, social cohesion and the contribution of our education and research institutions to tackling the great public policy and societal challenges of our day.

These are the key strategic themes that we will be taking forward. They encompass the horizontal relationships that form the rationale for the new department.

Our universities are at the intersection of all of these themes – Innovation, Talent, International, and Inclusion & Engagement.

In relative terms my department has a large budget but in staffing – as a new department – it is small, even if I am very fortunate with the calibre of staff.

As I take forward this strategic work with my department I would like to ask you, not just for your support, but that you would commit the resources and intellectual capital of your institutions to assist us.

The creation of a single department encompassing further and higher education, research, innovation and science has changed the policy landscape.

Universities, with their role in transitions from further education, with their development of talented and rounded individuals that contribute to the knowledge economy and an inclusive society, with their strong research base, with their reach into knowledge transfer and innovation, are uniquely placed to shape and benefit strongly from this new integrated approach.

We have many initiatives in train across the remit of the department but I want the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

We aim to drive not only Ireland’s economic success but also to advance social cohesion and inclusion. Every individual must have a path to the place and future that they want, through the means that best suits them. This is our investment for our country’s future.

Yeats said: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”. I can assure you I am fired up and I want this new department to be the ignition in the engine driving the delivery of our joint ambitions for the future of our country.

Go raibh maith agaibh.


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