Trinity College Dublin fears third-level reforms will threaten its autonomy

University says regulators will have ‘dawn raid’ powers under new legislation

  Trinity College Dublin has expressed alarm over Government plans to reform university governance. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

Trinity College Dublin has expressed alarm over Government plans to reform university governance. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Trinity College Dublin has expressed alarm over Government plans to reform university governance which it says could threaten its autonomy and independence.

The university said it wants to be excluded from planned legislation that would give regulators “dawn raid” powers to conduct audits and abolish its long-standing systems for resolving internal disputes which date back hundreds of years.

The concerns stem from Government’s plans to reform governance and accountability of the third-level sector by replacing the Higher Education Authority Act (1971 ).

The changes – the biggest shake-up in higher education in 50 years – would slim down university governing authorities, allow for more outside members and provide a legal footing for carrying out reviews into the performance of colleges.

This includes allowing 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 in cases where they have been misused.

A deadline for submissions to a consultation process relating to the planned legislation expired on Friday.

Academic freedom

Trinity’s comments are contained in a submission to an earlier round of consultation on the legislation, which have only now come to light.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said it is vitally important that robust and refreshed legislation for the higher education sector is in place.

He said the Government’s vision is to ensure institutional autonomy and academic freedom is protected, while also making colleges accountable to learners and the State.

The Trinity submission states that the college has a “centuries’ old tradition of independence which has been respected by many governments over the years” and which has cherished academic excellence, freedom of thought and the views of many minorities.

“Over the decades, governments of many hues have adopted measures to respect Trinity’s unique position in Irish life. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was at pains to ensure Trinity’s independence in the 1940s and this tradition continued into the 1990s and beyond,” it states.

It said the Universities Act (1997) allowed Trinity to be excluded from some aspects of this legislation in order to preserve the college’s character and principles.

It is seeking similar measures which would allow the university to make many of the proposed changes over a three-year period, while retaining some of the structures which have served the “university, students and Irish people well for centuries”.

‘Disproportionate’ powers

The college has also voiced concern at “disproportionate” binding powers which it says would allow regulators make demands regarding the budget to spend on different activities.

In addition, it said the provost of the university would no longer be able to chair the college’s governing body, unlike many of the world’s best performing universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

The Irish Universities’ Association – the umbrella body for the country’s seven universities, including Trinity – is generally understood to be supportive of the reforms.

Its submission from the last round of consultation states that while it supports rigorous accountability procedures, some proposals run counter to principals of autonomy for universities.

It notes that the best performing universities in Europe and globally are those which have the maximum level of flexibility, but that the autonomy of Irish universities has been “eroded” in recent years.

Ireland, for example, ranks poorly on a number of key criteria for autonomy in European terms.