Legislative reform of the higher education sector will be “meaningless” if institutions do not receive adequate funding, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Miley, welcomed the Government’s Higher Education Authority Bill 2021, but he said the issue of “serious underfunding” of the sector must also be addressed.
The legislation, which would supersede the Higher Education Authority Act 1971, aims to reform and modernise higher education by advancing equality, diversity and inclusion, with all institutions required to publish an equality statement detailing how they will encourage access for everyone in society, regardless of economic or social status.
The proposed legislation would strengthen the powers invested in the Higher Education Authority (HEA), while working to safeguard the autonomy of universities. Currently the HEA’s core legal function is to allocate recurrent funding for higher education institutions.
When the original Act was signed 50 years ago there were approximately 20,000 students in higher education. This has increased to over 200,000 students in the present day, with the HEA now responsible for a much more extensive and diverse university sector.
Mr Miley said it is “essential” that the Bill differentiates clearly between the role of the HEA and that of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research and Development. The HEA should maintain a “strong” advocacy role, while the Department should focus on providing funding and setting policy, he said.
Much of the questioning from Oireachtas committee members focused on finding the balance between university autonomy and ensuring they are accountable in providing value for public money.
Mr Miley said the balance between these competing two requirements is “outlined well” in the early draft legislation. Provisions for accountability must be strong, he said, but it is “essential” too that institutional autonomy is not compromised. Decision making must lie as close as possible to the “frontline” of institutions, namely their governing authorities, he added.
He warned that if the State exercised greater control of the sector through this legislation there would be a “real risk” that existing loans of institutions would be cast onto the State balance sheet. He noted that seven institutions have debt of close to a billion euro that could be affected in this way. Such an overstep, which he believes can be avoided, could hamper the ability of universities to borrow in the future, he said.
Dr Joseph Ryan, of the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), said the quest for necessary accountability cannot lead to “micromanagement” of institutions.
In response to a question on the role of sanctions, should an institution misuse public funds, Dr Ryan said governance structures should work to ensure such issues do not arise. The draft legislation could lead to a shrinking of governing bodies to such an extent that their ability to ensure economic accountability could be compromised, he added.