Bill will enable political ‘cronies’ to spy on universities, claim presidents

Universities write to Minister complaining about initiative to ‘resurrect’ pay controls

Jan O’Sullivan: The presidents have written to the Minister saying any attempt to “resurrect” the Universities Amendment Bill could do serious damage to the higher education sector. Photograph: The Irish Times

Jan O’Sullivan: The presidents have written to the Minister saying any attempt to “resurrect” the Universities Amendment Bill could do serious damage to the higher education sector. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The presidents of the seven universities have written to the Government expressing dismay at plans to introduce legislation which they claim will allow Ministers to appoint “cronies” to spy on their operations.

In a letter to Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, the presidents say any attempt to “resurrect” the Universities Amendment Bill could do serious damage to the higher education sector.

“If the Bill reflects the contents of the original draft scheme, its enactment could have far reaching consequences for the autonomy of the universities and academic freedom generally.

“Our concerns include the potential for future Ministers to misuse the Act to influence university appointment processes based on political agendas, or to appoint cronies as ‘investigators’ or persons to carry out certain functions of a university, and we would have no option but to strongly oppose the changes.”

Top-up payments

The Bill was first mooted by former minister Ruairí Quinn in 2012 in the wake of a series of controversies in higher education, including unauthorised top-up payments for senior administrators.

The Bill, which would amend the Universities Act 1997, has since fell down the department’s list of priorities but Ms O’Sullivan said she planned to introduce it before the summer.

In their letter dated January 6th, 2015, which was obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, the universities say discussions with the department and the Higher Education Authority has already led to more “clarity and transparency” as well as “significant changes to remuneration practice”.

Spoke out

The signatories include University College Cork president Dr Michael Murphy who spoke out in 2012 in defence of his ¤232,000 salary, saying university presidents were under the same “stress” to meet their bills as other people.

The department has since forced the presidents to reduce their average pay to about €200,000.

In a second letter, Trinity College Dublin provost Dr Patrick Prendergast, the outgoing chairman of the Irish Universities Association, highlighted positive indicators at third-level including Ireland’s strong ranking in a survey of skilled labour.

He said “this success may be jeopardised” if the Bill goes ahead.

“Some of the measures proposed in the draft Bill are punitive and, if enacted, will send out the wrong signals to universities abroad with whom we wish to establish joint activities and, I fear, to potential foreign direct investment partners and university philanthropists,” Dr Prendergast wrote.