Higher Education Authority seeks new laws to clarify its independence

HEA chief resigned this year amid frustration over Department ‘micro-managing’

Dr Graham Love resigned from the Higher Education Authority amid frustration over what sources described as ‘micro-managing’ by the Department of Education. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Dr Graham Love resigned from the Higher Education Authority amid frustration over what sources described as ‘micro-managing’ by the Department of Education. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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The State regulatory body for higher education is seeking new laws which would clarify its independence from the Department of Education.

There was controversy earlier this year when the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) chief executive Dr Graham Love resigned amid frustration over what sources described as “micro-managing” by the department.

In a submission to the department, which is reviewing legislation for the authority, the HEA says it is seeking a “new and comprehensive statement” of its power and functions provided in law.

It says this should address the role of the HEA in relation to advising the minister on policy as well as issues such as priority areas for research investment.

On the question of what role the Minister for Education should have in relation to regulation, its submission states that the authority believes the “powers and limitations on the powers of the HEA and those of the Minister should be clearly set out in legislation”.

It notes that the OECD and an expert report have previously recommended that the department should “remove itself from operational roles and focus more on strategy and policy development”.

The submission also states that there may be an increase in the establishment of foreign higher education institutions following Brexit.

While these may be not be entitled to State funding, they may be eligible for funding under competitive funding programmes such as Springboard.

The HEA is also seeking powers to collect more data on students and staff in publicly-funded institutions, such as PPSN numbers, Eircode data and – in the case of staff – salary bands and gender.

It adds that the Irish Research Council should be established as a statutory body operating under the aegis of the HEA.

The submission notes that the HEA was established in 1971 at a time when just 20 per cent of school leavers progressed to higher education. This figure is now in excess of 50 per cent.

While the funding role of the authority forms the backbone of this legislation, it notes that this has been overtaken by a much enhanced and expanded system performance role.

In a statement, the department acknowledged that the legislative framework governing the HEA has not kept pace with developments over the past 50 years.

At a consolation forum with education partners on Friday, it said the views of the sector will feed into its review of the legislation,

It is expected that the heads of a new bill will be produced early next year and legislation could be enacted during 2019.

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