15-minute minister in a land of limbo

October 15, 1999

Three months ago, Northern Ireland had its first minister for higher and further education - for about 15 minutes.

Brid Rodgers, a veteran of John Hume's Social, Democratic and Labour Party, was nominated as minister for the new department during the farcical attempt to set up a cross-party executive.

The exercise collapsed after David Trimble's Ulster Unionists boycotted the meeting because of the IRA's failure to begin a "credible process" of decommissioning its weapons and explosives.

It is ten months since the Northern Ireland assembly agreed to split the existing Department of Education in Northern Ireland (DENI), setting up a discrete department for further and higher education, training and employment.

But the political stalemate has prevented it becoming a reality, and, with the dark humour which is always just under the surface in the province, the department's DFHETE acronym is pronounced "defeat".

The stasis has meant a number of decisions have been left marked pending, issues left hanging, and the universities and colleges left with nobody to hold accountable. DENI refuses to speculate about what might have happened by now had the changes taken place, and is equally tight-lipped about any new higher education initiatives in the near future.

But Ms Rogers said: "I would have hoped by now to have set up a real in-depth investigation into third-level education and links with industry and business. Instead, we have been just dragging along for the last year."

Gerry McKenna, UU's vice-chancellor, said: "I think we have something of a planning blight as government departments are waiting to be reformed, and we are waiting for new ministers to emerge to take longer term strategic decisions. I think we are suffering from that impasse."

George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's, said the failure to set up the department mattered a great deal. But he stressed he was not criticising DENI.

"This is not a conspiracy, this is a cock-up, by nobody's incompetence but by the political situation. They thought that this was going to be a period of a few months and it's stretching and stretching and stretching," he said.

"It's very, very unfortunate, and it really does create a problem. If we're not going to get a formal peace coming out of the negotiations, I imagine we will have to make a decision: are we going to proceed on the old basis, otherwise I think certain things are going to grind to a halt."

But Penny Holloway, vice-chair of the Association of University Teachers at UU and national vice-president, believes the impasse may be preferable to a new department already taking decisions on the tertiary sector, since it offers the chance of more debate.

"We would like to have a lot more discussion about its role before it's established," she said.

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