Ireland’s future economic wellbeing relies on fostering ingenuity and talent

Ireland’s future economic wellbeing relies on fostering ingenuity and talent

Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, takes an outward-looking, inclusive and collaborative approach to investing in education and innovation


Ireland has one of the best higher education systems in the world. All seven of its public universities rank within the world’s top 700 and the country has a long history of welcoming international students with free tuition fees for local and European Union (EU) students. To start this interview, how would you depict the Irish higher education system, and what are some of the key strengths and weaknesses that it has when compared to its peers in the EU?

In many ways our higher education system reflects the values that we have as a country. Ireland’s higher education system is outward looking, it is inclusive and collaborative. We are a small country, a population of 5 million people. Our universities and our higher education system have been to the fore in wanting to collaborate at a European and international level. We have extended what we call a “Céad Míle Fáilte”—a 100,000 welcomes—to so many international students who have come and studied in Ireland.

More than just an educational benefit, we see that as the building of important links between Ireland and other countries, particularly other European countries. Many ministers or prime ministers in the EU have spent some time studying English or learning other subjects in Ireland. It is funny how those relationships built in student days continue to travel on into the world of business and politics. That can only be good for our country and our links.

We are going through a period of rapid change. While I am very proud of our higher education system, we need to continue to reform it: we have traditionally had universities in Ireland and we have had what we have described as institutes for technology. We are now creating technological universities. Some of our institutes of technology are coming together and they are submitting to me applications to be classified as a technological university. We have established two new technological universities: Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) and the Munster Technological University, which just started 1 January 2021.

From a regional development point of view, we want investors to feel confident about investing in the more rural part of our country and to be confident they will find a good supply of high-quality graduates. Also from a regional development point of view, we want people living in rural Ireland to be able to continue to study, work and raise a family there. Embedding our universities there is good.

We are also looking at how we can broaden our understanding of further and higher education, making sure that there are more pathways. We are putting a huge amount of work at present into apprenticeships. In the coming weeks we will launch a new action plan on apprenticeships, to grow from 6,000 apprenticeships that we have now to 10,000 new apprentices registered every year. We think we can learn from European colleagues—the German system in particular—in terms of how other countries have managed to embed apprenticeships very clearly as a part of their education offering.

The establishment of my own department is in and of itself a very important statement of intent from the government as to the focus we want to place on higher education. This is a department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It is a department of the future, a department to try and ensure the economic and social wellbeing of our country in the future. It was the brainchild of our Taoiseach, our prime minister. His view was that if you could take higher education and couple it with research, innovation and science to create a dedicated department, you could perhaps have a real power head. We believe that the future economic wellbeing of countries is no longer going to be relying purely on which country can attract a large factory to come and set up in its region, but rather on the ingenuity and talent of our people, on attracting people to your country, and attracting the best and the brightest to stay in your country in the first instance, to come and learn and live in your country.


Aside from COVID-19, Brexit will be one of the major disruptions occurring this year. It has become a reality in the U.K. and will impact the country’s higher education sector quite a lot, since EU exchanges will be rendered more difficult. To what extent do you think that Brexit will favor the Irish higher education sector in the longer term? In addition, what do you anticipate the impact of Brexit on Ireland’s research and innovation sector will be and how are you preparing for it?

In time, Brexit will be seen as one of the most devastating acts against the self-interest of your own country. Irish people generally feel very sad that our nearest neighbors have decided to leave the EU. I am very proud to live in a country where we want to continue to look out at the world and work with the world. One of the huge success programs of the EU has been Erasmus, which was introduced by an Irish man who was a European Commissioner at the time, Peter Sutherland. The Erasmus program has given countless numbers of students in all European countries the opportunity to study in each of those countries, and beyond that to learn about each other and each other’s cultures, and embed those friendships and personal relationships that stand the test of time.

I have taken a decision in recent weeks to ensure that students from Northern Ireland ­—which is obviously within the UK jurisdiction—can continue to access Erasmus by registering temporarily in Irish higher education institutions, which I think has been broadly welcomed as a sign of our commitment that we want to make sure that young people in Northern Ireland don’t miss out on those opportunities.

On a bilateral basis, we obviously want to build a new and deep relationship with Britain. They are our largest trading partners and our closest neighbors; we have a very long history and a friendship with Britain. We will be looking for every opportunity to continue to collaborate with them. I am very saddened that they made a conscious decision to opt out of Erasmus. But I am very pleased that they did make the decision to stay within Horizon, which I think is good in terms of being able to continue to work together and research.

From a broader point of view, Ireland very much sees Brexit as a negative event economically in Ireland and it will have a negative impact on our economy. We believe it is a negative impact for the EU, for Britain, for everything. We believe it is a lose-lose situation. However, we obviously are continuing to try and adapt and prepare.

One of the things that will be interesting to see over the course of time, as we are the only English-speaking country in the EU, will more students wish to come to Ireland to learn English? Will more students wish to come to Ireland to study? It will be very interesting to see what the Erasmus numbers will be, how many students, perhaps from France, Germany or other places that might have gone to the U.K., because they want to get the experience of maybe learning English, might decide to come to Ireland. I think there will be opportunities for Ireland and welcoming even more people to our shores. In my own department, I have made it very clear that I want to see a significant ramping up of Ireland’s presence and involvement in all international activities, whether that is at the EU level or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development level. I want us to really deepen our roots right across the EU.

In a recent tweet, you said, “2021 will be a year with a real focus on adult literacy and digital skills—both key to ensuring that no one is locked out of society or a job.” Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

I feel really strongly about the issue of adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills because, as much as I privately herald the fact that I live in a country under the EU with a very well-educated people, and with talents and ingenuity, I am also really concerned about the fact that in Ireland—but across the EU also—we are leaving some people behind and that there are some people locked out of full participation in society and full participation in the economy because they did not have the opportunities that my generation had.

In Ireland, roughly 16 percent of adults have literacy challenges. Around 25 percent of adults have numeracy challenges and about 50 percent of us have digital skills challenges. I don’t have at hand the data for other countries, but it is not too dissimilar to a lot of other prosperous nations in the EU. COVID-19 hasn’t caused inequality but COVID-19 has shone a very bright spotlight on input. When it comes to working from home, for instance: not everybody knows and can use technologies or smartphones. Somebody once said to me that literacy is not like riding a bike, you just learn it and it is done. It is like a muscle that constantly needs to be exercised. We need to change the whole conversation around lifelong learning. Every single one of us needs to realize that our learning journey, our education journey, does not end when you leave school or college. It is something that we need to be able to dip in and out of as the need arises.

I am in the process of developing our very first adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy across all government departments and agencies. It will be completed in the first quarter of 2021. One of the things it will contain will be to try and facilitate a national conversation around literacy and to try to destigmatize that issue. Secondly, to look at how we can roll out even more programs to support people in upskilling. While the Irish education system and the European education system have many strengths, sometimes perhaps they have been too rigid and then, if you missed your opportunity at a certain age in life, for no reason and no fault of your own, you could often find it very hard to reengage. We need to tackle that. If we do not tackle that, in Ireland or globally, we will see the digital divide grow. And the digital divide growing is about more than just economic wellbeing. It is also about things like health literacy. We are coming through a pandemic and I want everybody in the world to get a vaccine, but we need to be able to inform people and present information to people to be able to understand that information. It is such a key scale for the wellbeing of all of us: people and society.


Speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic, you also said recently that Ireland’s darkest days are still ahead of us. Last October, your ministry launched the “Skills Connect Program” to assist up to 2,000 people by the end of 2020. It will be particularly aimed at people in hospitality, retail and tourism who are unemployed. Could you tell us a little bit more about this program and other key initiatives that you have launched during the crisis?

I have never been more worried about COVID-19 and yet, at the same time, I have never been more hopeful. They sound somewhat contradictory, but they are genuinely not. We now know how to get out of this pandemic; it is through vaccination. But there is a very dangerous stretch of water between here and the shore, and I am concerned about what I am seeing in terms of hospitalization, in terms of new variants and strains of COVID-19.

What we have been trying to do in my own sector is really prepare for the rebuilding of society and of lives. We have had a situation where people in our own country—and it is the same in the world over—have thought they had such secure jobs and could never imagine themselves being unemployed, but who have found their economic certainty taken away overnight by a decision that sometimes people like me had to make, to close down certain sectors of the economy to save lives. And while I will never doubt that it was the right decision to make, I would always feel a duty to help get people back on their feet. Therefore, we have been working really hard to prepare for the recovery, because there will be a recovery and I think there will be a strong recovery in Ireland, in Europe and across the globe. But to do that, we need to help people get back and we need to recognize that there will be some jobs that will not easily come back. How do we help people have these skills? We launched the program called “Skills Connect”.

The idea for “Skills Connect” is basically targeting people who have lost jobs in sectors that have been particularly badly hit, like hospitality or retail, and trying to match them up with training mentorship and supports for the jobs of the future—if you like, the jobs that are beginning to come into sectors of growth. Also, I have very significantly ramped up the number of third-level places that we have; we have significantly increased our places in further education, in adult education courses. Last year, we provided about 245,000 further education places and courses in Ireland. We are going to provide an extra 50,000 this year. And we have brought in a financial incentive for apprenticeships, where we will pay an employer €3,000 to take on an apprentice. For the first time ever, we are financially incentivizing a business to hire an apprentice. It helps the business, and it helps somebody become an apprentice.

We are trying to think outside the box. The adult literacy strategy is underway and is a societal response to the digital divide, the inequality that COVID has exposed. More places in higher education are available than ever before, more places in further education, new programs like “Skills Connect”, the financial incentive for the apprenticeship. Those are the main areas. We have increased funding in research and innovation as well, recognizing that science and research are often seen by people outside of that community as something remote and abstract. But this year and last year they became very real. We are all talking about vaccines and how do we get out of the crisis. Scientists have become household names. There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get people excited about science and research, and that requires government investment obviously.


How has Ireland performed during the pandemic in terms of innovation, research and development (R&D)? What would be some of the breakthrough projects that have come out of the country during this crisis?

We have a long list of projects that have come about through investment. We provided funding through Science Foundation Ireland, which is an agency under my ministry, where we went out to universities, to researchers and to scientists asking how they could help and assist with COVID-19. We saw the most amazing ideas. One that always sticks in my mind is a project we funded to try and improve the comfort of PPE for frontline healthcare workers—conscious that we all had to get used to wearing masks, but that is very different to somebody having to wear one for 16-17 hours, besides they can cut the skin and so on. We worked with researchers and medics to look at how we could improve it. In parallel, we saw a project to modify plastics and surfaces to make it harder for COVID to live on them—so, a whole range of really fascinating and interesting ideas that we are still funding as we speak.

That rapid response to coronavirus was interesting, and our science community really stepped up. We have seen our scientists come out from the labs, step out to the microphones and talk to the people of Ireland, talk to them about vaccines, about COVID, about how to keep each other safe, and they have played a major role in that. Also, in a very practical way, our scientific community helped provide equipment to our health service, whether that was PPE, loaning labs and the like. Scientists really stepped up to the plate in terms of the national effort.


How important are innovation, research and science within the Irish state budget?

The fact that Ireland had so prudently and carefully managed its economy provided us with some flexibility to put in place the supports that we have been able to—such as our social welfare support, our financial assistance to people who have lost their jobs, our wage subsidy schemes to help businesses keep their staff on while temporarily closed and so on. The reason we could do that was because our economy was in very good state before the pandemic hit. We had more people at work than ever before and we had a very healthy budget surplus.

It is heartbreaking to see the turnaround now, which has happened the world over, from surplus to deficit. But I often think about what would have happened had we not had the economy in such good shape and had that flexibility. We have taken a decision at European level that, if there was a time for the governments to spend money, even borrowed money, to support their citizens, that time would be now. This is a pandemic that is unparalleled and we have to provide people with those financial supports, to be able to save lives, to ensure that our citizens can follow public health advice.

Research, innovation and science have been playing a major role in our economic recovery. People who invest in Ireland will tell you one of the reasons they invest in the country is because of our R&D ecosystem. People talk a lot about Ireland’s tax, but they also need to talk about Ireland’s talent. I hear regularly through IDA, our foreign direct investment promotion agency, that one of the reasons people invest in Ireland is because of the access to the talented workforce and the research ecosystem that exists. We have so many multinational and Irish indigenous companies that have partnering collaborations with research institutions and with higher education.

As much as the road of research, innovation and science was important in our last economic recovery, it will be even more important now, because the world is not going back to normal. The conversation should not be about when are we going back to normal; it should be how are we going to get to a better normal, how are we going to be a lot better, how will research, innovation and science come together to make sure we are ready for the next pandemic, how do we make our digital world accessible for all, how do we make sure that we have the skills for people to be able to benefit from that.

More and more investors are looking at how well countries support research and innovation. That is one of the reasons why my new department was established, because it is a very clear statement of intent that Ireland wants to prioritize.


How would you summarize your priorities at the ministry for this coming year? What are the key challenges that are lying ahead of you with regard to higher education, science and research?

Two important aspects that we work on, that are interlinked but also standalone, are social cohesion and economic wellbeing. I want this department to be a driver to create a truly cohesive country, society and economy that leaves nobody behind and enables everybody, no matter their age, gender or social belonging, to get to where they wish to get to in life. From an economic point of view, this department should be able to prepare our country for the jobs of the future and the changes that are going to come in terms of working life. That is why we are investing more than ever before and will be continually doing so, in terms of providing more higher education places and more further education places.

One of the challenges we face, which is not exclusive to Ireland, is the need for a more flexible and agile higher education system. We need to be serious about lifelong learning and it’s not just a political pitch. We need to recognize that not everybody can pack their bags and go off to university for four years. Some people are 45, with three children and a large mortgage, they need to keep working but also wanting to learn. So we need more modular courses, we need an education system that is not built around the institution but is built around the learner. Our job is to break those silos by funding a system; it needs to be better funded, we need to invest more and continue to invest. But in return for that, seeking to make sure that the system is as flexible and agile as it possibly can be.


What would be your final message to conclude this interview?

We entered 2021 in a time of extraordinary worry, concern and anxiety. But we also entered 2021 with more opportunities to shape our world and rebuild it, probably more than any generation of politicians has in decades. I think the challenge for all of us is to try and ignite a conversation about when we emerge from this pandemic—and we will emerge from it—what is the dividend, what are the goods that our society and our economy will get, because after all people have been through, they will want something positive to come from the most awful of times.

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