New powers to investigate universities spark fears over autonomy

Minister for Education to be given power to appoint inspectors to investigate misconduct

Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor: “We still want universities to be autonomous, but we want them to be honest brokers.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor: “We still want universities to be autonomous, but we want them to be honest brokers.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Universities accused of wrongdoing face the prospect of being investigated by Government-appointed inspectors with the power to enter their premises and access sensitive internal records.

The move has sparked concern among university presidents over the scope of these powers and whether it will undermine their autonomy.

The Cabinet is this week expected to approve new legislation which will give the Minister for Education the power to appoint inspectors to investigate serious issues in third-level colleges.

While similar powers have been in place for institutes of technology, an amendment to the Technological University Bill will provide for these measures to be extended to the university sector.

The move follows a series of controversies over the misuse of taxpayers’ money and allegations of mismanagement at University of Limerick and other institutions.

In the case of University of Limerick (UL), the college initially rejected calls for an independent inquiry, though it reversed this position when it appointed a new president earlier this year.

At present, the only power available to the Minister for Education – following consultation with the president of the High Court and the governing body of a publicly-funded university – is to appoint a “visitor” to take over the running of a college.

Excessively legalistic

This power has never been used and is regarded by officials as an excessively legalistic procedure.

University presidents accept that new steps are needed to investigate colleges and hold them to account.

However, they are concerned that powers relating to institutions of technology are framed very widely and allow for investigators to examine “the efficiency of instruction given in a college and on any other matters regarding the operation of a college”.

One senior figure said such powers could have a “chilling effect” on academic freedom or criticism of government policies.

The Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, insisted that such measures have been in place for many years among institutes of technology and no such fears had arisen.

“We still want universities to be autonomous, but we want them to be honest brokers. We want them to do the right thing...” she told The Irish Times.

“These institutions receive public money. I am answerable, as is the Government, to the taxpayer. We expect proper oversight and governance. What has happened in the past, in some cases, is not acceptable.”

Alleged misconduct

Meanwhile, shortcomings in human resources and management practices at UL are sharply criticised in an independent review into alleged misconduct at the institution to be published this week.

The investigation was triggered after concerns were raised over the way the university handled a series of disciplinary proceedings against staff, and the manner in which it paid severance packages to people at the centre of allegations.

The report is understood to be critical of many of these practices and at the way some whistleblowers were treated, especially a former employee of the finance department – Leona O’Callaghan – who first raised public concerns.

However it is expected to acknowledge the issues are much more complex in the case of some other whistleblowers who raised allegations.