While most members of this cabinet have been desperately trying to keep their reputations afloat while serving in the most unpopular government in history, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has been having a much easier time at it than most.
The Fine Gael public relations golden child received the political opportunity of a lifetime when this Government was formed. Parting ways with his four year long tenure as Health Minister at the better end of the first wave of this pandemic, the 34 year old hit the jackpot when he was assigned the newborn Department of Further and Higher Education.
Though it feels like a lifetime has passed, Harris was facing a motion of no confidence in his job as health minister just nine months ago. Now, he will receive an award from the Trinity Law Society for his “admirable work” in his previous position. Higher education is the perfect place for him to preserve this newfound likability.
The Irish government has not attempted to court student voters in over a decade. Higher education is riddled with systematic issues but it has been totally neglected and it is no secret that neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil have any intention of embarking on fees reform, or productively tackling the student accommodation crisis.
He hasn’t done anything extraordinary in the job so far, but that 250 euro payment and increasing post graduate grants made great headlines to people who don’t understand the crippling difficulties burdening the sector.
Unfortunately, just like this government, a lot of voters do not have higher education reform on their list of priorities because the stakeholders, i.e. students and their parents, have such a high turnover rate .
Harris knows that as long as it appears he is making some progress, the majority of the country will not bat an eyelid. This gifts him with much more free time than he had in his previous post, allowing him to focus on his side work of being Fine Gael´s media puppy.
Fine Gael’s main problem right now is appearing out of touch and to be undermining the work of this government. Harris helps rectify this (to an extent).
In a government where basic communication is such a headache, Harris has positioned himself as a compassionate messenger. He is constantly talking to the press, not just about higher education, but delivering information that his successor, Stephen Donnelly, fails to do so.
Harris was the one who broke the government´s silence on upping the restrictions, delivering some clarity to a country that was flung into the chaos of speculation that weekend. There is a gap in the Fine Gael market for someone who is genuine and down to earth, and Harris is definitely trying his hardest to fill that role.
The bar is so low right now for progress to be made in higher education that with any ambition at all to improve the sector, Harris will come out of this ministry with a lot less baggage than the Department of Health gave him.
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