‘Sweeping reforms’ not to threaten autonomy of universities

Institutions fear emphasis on ‘control’ in significant shake-up of third-level governance

The Government has insisted that sweeping governance changes to the higher education sector will safeguard the autonomy of universities and protect academic freedom.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris published the Higher Education Authority Bill (2021) on Thursday which amount to the biggest shake-up in third level governance in 50 years.

It plans to dramatically slim down university governing bodies, empower the minister to appoint a majority of external members on college boards and provide a legal footing for carrying out reviews into the performance of colleges.

Universities, however, are concerned that the measures will restrict their autonomy given their emphasis on “control” of institutions.

Trinity College Dublin, in particular, has expressed alarm at the changes and is seeking private legislation to exclude it from some of the measures.

Mr Harris insisted the new legislation merely aims to ensure higher education institutions provide greater accountability and transparency, as well as value for money for public funding.

"This is a monumental day for higher education and training in Ireland. We want to have the best education system in Europe and to achieve that we need to modernise," he said.

“The Higher Education Authority has played a crucial and excellent role in funding and regulating the sector for the past 50 years. But the country has changed dramatically in that time and that’s why this Act is so welcome and necessary.

“We owe it to present and future generations to provide an education system that will give them the tools they need to compete in a world of work which is increasingly impacted by digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence. I firmly believe this Act will help deliver on that promise.”

He said that while the authority will have stronger powers, the new legislation will safeguard the autonomy of higher education institutions and will not change current legislative provisions related to academic freedom.

A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said he was open to working with universities on addressing any areas of concern.

In relation to Trinity College Dublin, she said Mr Harris’s officials are due to have further meetings with the college and to examine whether a different legislative approach may be needed due to its status under law which stretches back to 1592.

However, she said the Minister has signalled that the fundamental principles of the Bill in providing greater accountability and transparency, as well as value for money for public funding, will not change,

‘Collegiate governance’

Trinity warned in a submission to Government last month that the planned changes threatened to undermine its autonomy, damage its academic standing and end its tradition of “collegiate governance”, which has served the college well for more than 400 years.

It says there is precedence for this given the university was excluded from reforming legislation in 1997 and allowed to institute its own reforms. The college says it would be sensible for a similar measure which is “sympathetic to Trinity’s unique legal character when undertaking reforms”.

The new Bill, meanwhile, provides strengthened powers for the authority including performance frameworks for State-funded colleges. This includes applying “remedial measures” if there is non-compliance across a range of areas.

The programme for government committed to changing how colleges operate by enhancing performance, financial management, governance and transparency and to utilising the system performance framework to drive accountability and improvements.

The sector receives about €1.4 billion and provides education for more than 200,000 students.

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