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Sam Boal/
no justice for us

Third level 'needs full attention' of Harris while he takes Justice brief, say lecturers

Harris is taking the role of Minister for Justice in addition to his current job until Helen McEntee returns from maternity leave.

UNIVERSITY LECTURERS AND student representatives have expressed concern at a pledge by Higher Education Minister Simon Harris to prioritise his new, additional role as Minister for Justice in the coming months.

Harris was given the role of Justice Minister in the Cabinet reshuffle last week, which he will hold in addition to his Higher and Further Education brief until Helen McEntee returns from maternity leave in the summer.

Speaking on Newstalk over the weekend, the minister said: “I have a very good department that I enjoy in the Department of Further and Higher Education” but it “tends not to be in the political crosshairs that often.”

He said he wanted to “assure the people of Ireland that the security and safety of citizens of this country and of members of An Garda Síochána will be my absolute main priority for the coming months.”

new cabinet 273 (1) Simon Harris receives his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins Sam Boal Sam Boal

But various third-level stakeholders have said they are worried about what this will mean for their sector.

Speaking to The Journal Frank Jones, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), said his organisation was pleased that Harris was retaining the Higher Education brief, but “it’s still, in our eyes, a brand-new department and it needs full attention.”

Jones said there are issues in the sector which need to be urgently addressed, particularly the precarious employment of teaching staff.

Post-doctorate researchers and more junior academics are often given short-term contracts or low, hourly wages with no pension or sick pay.

Niall Kennedy, a lecturer in Trinity College, said “the intersection of precarity with the housing crisis and the cost-of-living crisis is causing really severe problems in higher education.”

40-year-old Kennedy was homeless for six weeks this year and lived in a hostel while working in Trinity. He is a founding member of the Irish Precarity Network, which aims to end precarious working conditions.

A review on precarity in academia was due to be completed by the end of the year but this has not happened.

Kennedy said it was “extremely disappointing” that Harris “is saying now [that] his focus is going to be elsewhere.”

Precarious employment, he added, “is having a very real and immediate impact on students’ education.”

Molly Greenough, the president of UCD Students’ Union, told The Journal in an email: “It is perfectly understandable that ministerial duties would be shared around in the event of a member of Government taking maternity leave.

However, the extent to which Minister Harris has outlined his intent to essentially give his undivided attention to the Justice brief is a cause for concern

Jones added that the gender pay gap in universities was another major issue which was tied to precarity. “It’s mostly females who are in doing the hourly-paid teaching … that’s going to need the focus of a minister, not a minister who has his attention elsewhere.”

He said equality was a high priority for IFUT and acknowledged that “when you go on maternity leave, you get someone to come in and replace you. Your job doesn’t become part of somebody else’s job.

“People on maternity leave need to be replaced, albeit temporarily, but replaced fully.”

Labour councillor John Walsh, who is a lecturer in Trinity, said Harris’s statement was “deeply disappointing and unacceptable.”

“Higher education was sidelined for many years within the Department of Education,” Walsh said, “which was preoccupied with primary and secondary schools.

“The decision by the current government to create a new Department of Further and Higher Education was very welcome and appeared to suggest a greater commitment to tackling long-term problems of precarious working and chronic underfunding of teaching and learning in higher education which have been neglected for years.”

“There is plenty of work to be done to deliver on promises that Minister Harris to end precarity in working conditions and fund higher education on a sustainable basis.”

In a statement to The Journal, Harris said: “I was delighted and honoured to be re-appointed to Government. I am really pleased to be continuing my work in the Department of Further and Higher Education, while also covering the Justice portfolio for the next period.

“We have an ambitious programme of reform underway in the Department of Further and Higher Education, vital work that I am committed to completing.

“We are continuing to progress proposals on student accommodation, delivering on educational reform and driving down the cost for students and their families.

“I am determined to make a success of my time as Minister for Justice.

“But I am also single-minded in my focus on creating a third-level education system where everyone, no matter their background, has an equal chance to learn the skills they need for the career the want.”

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