New legislation to reform the governance of higher eduction could end up undermining the autonomy of universities, the provost of Trinity College Dublin has warned.
The Higher Education Authority Bill represents the greatest shake-up in the governance of how third-level institutions are governed in 50 years. It is due to complete its passage through the Oireachtas later this week. The legislation will strengthen the power of the Higher Education Authority to set performance frameworks, stipulate conditions for funding and “remedial measures” if there is non-compliance.
Dr Linda Doyle, provost of Trinity, said the legislation follows a worrying international trend towards “reining in” the autonomy of higher education institutions, and said the “devil will be in the detail” of how the legislation is implemented.
“It does represent another step in the direction of reduced autonomy, in the main. From the perspective of the [higher education] sector, I’m not speaking alone,” she told The Irish Times. “I’m not saying that the Bill will lead to this, by any means, but if you lose autonomy you could potentially have somebody telling you what to teach, who to hire, and what to do research on.”
A key benefit of the university sector, she said, is having autonomous institutions which can critically challenge society and engage in independent research to the highest of standards. “Sometimes people think that [our concerns] are just about not wanting to comply. But it’s about making sure that we have that [autonomy] ... if you look across the world, what I see is a genuine trend towards an erosion of autonomy,” she told The Irish Times in an interview.
Academics in EU members states such as Hungary and Poland have criticised curbs on academic freedom where governments have been accused of leaning on higher education institutions to drop courses and research that are critical of their policies.
“I don’t think you can sit back in a country like Ireland and just think everything will be fine. Because we have countries in the EU, like Hungary and Poland, where things are not fine. So, I don’t think we should rest on our laurels and say, ‘oh, we’re great’. To a certain extent there should be a kind of tension and uncomfortableness, but a productive one.”
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has insisted that the new legislation safeguards academic freedom and the autonomy of higher education institutions. He said recently that the legislation was not about creating an extensive suite of new responsibilities for the Higher Education Authority, but providing it with new legal powers to deliver a more robust basis for the functions it is already carrying out.
Mr Harris said the focus of the legislation is to empower each institution to realise its mission, purpose and value to society.
“We value autonomy,” he told the Oireachtas recently. “It is about trying to get the balance right between putting the structures in place to empower a governing authority and allowing it to get on with its own internal governance. I am satisfied that the provisions in the legislation cover all of that.”
While Trinity previously expressed concerns over the impact of the Bill on its “distinct” 400-year-old legal structures, Dr Doyle said these concerns have been largely addressed.
“I’m very happy that we had very good collaboration with the Minister and the department. And they recognise Trinity has a very different legal structure to the other universities, and some of the ethos and legal structures are reflected there. I am happy that that collaboration was productive”.