The Irish Times view on third level reform: university autonomy should be protected

Third level institutions must be accountable – but it is important to strike the right balance between accountability and independence

Top-performing universities require freedom to create the right research conditions that lead to scientific progress, benefiting society at large. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Top-performing universities require freedom to create the right research conditions that lead to scientific progress, benefiting society at large. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Government plans to introduce greater accountability for the third-level sector, which receives about €1.5 billion in public funding, make sense on the face of it. The Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee has raked over dozens of high-profile examples of inappropriate spending by third-level institutions in recent years. They include spending millions of euro on unsanctioned severance packages for staff and pensions for private contractors, as well as generous expenses for relocating staff and lavish retirement parties.

Even though the bulk of misspending is linked to a small number of institutions, the examples have shaken confidence in the wider third-level system. Gaps in legislation mean that the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the statutory body over the sector, has struggled in some cases to hold institutions to account.

The outline of the Government’s proposed legislation for reforming the Higher Education Authority Act could help address this by giving the regulatory body sweeping powers to carry out reviews into the performance of third-level colleges. It would allow for the appointment of an “observer” to sit on the governing body of colleges where there are concerns. In addition, it could withhold or request a refund of State grants. The HEA itself would be renamed the Higher Education Commission, with a remit more focused on regulation and less on advocacy for the sector.

While these steps are likely to be popular politically, there are genuine and credible concerns within universities that these sweeping powers could end up undermining their autonomy. Institutions must be accountable. But it is important to strike the the right balance between accountability and independence.

Top-performing universities require freedom to create the right research conditions that lead to scientific progress, benefiting society at large. However, in recent years there has been a drift towards more centralised control of the sector though a moratorium on hiring staff and increasing restrictions on the allocation of public funds.

The move towards greater control has happened at a time when State funding has fallen significantly – though it has increased in recent years – prompting universities to generate the bulk of their income privately. It is no coincidence that during that time classes grew larger and contact hours with students fell.

While the latest proposals would increase accountability, they could also lead to even greater control and micro-management of the sector. We need to tread carefully when it comes to protecting the autonomy of universities. The history of third-level institutions as self-governing associations extends back hundreds of years. It has been a key reason for their success in the past. It doubtless will be again in the future.