Trinity seeks legislation to exclude it from sweeping Government reforms

Planned changes threaten 400-year tradition of independence, college warns

Trinity College says  the planned changes threaten to undermine its autonomy, damage its academic standing and end its tradition of “collegiate governance” which has served the college well for over 400 years. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Trinity College says the planned changes threaten to undermine its autonomy, damage its academic standing and end its tradition of “collegiate governance” which has served the college well for over 400 years. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Trinity College Dublin is seeking private legislation to exclude it from sweeping Government reforms aimed at strengthening the accountability of higher education institutions.

In an unpublished submission to Government, it says planned changes threaten to undermine its autonomy, damage its academic standing and end its tradition of “collegiate governance”, which has served the college well for over 400 years.

The proposals sparked alarm at a lengthy board meeting of Trinity on Wednesday, with one senior source stating that Government plans could spell “the end of Trinity as we know it”. The concerns stem from a move 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 dramatically slim down university governing bodies, empower the minister to appoint a majority of external members and provide a legal footing for carrying out reviews into the performance of colleges.

Strengthen governance

In its submission, Trinity says while it agrees with plans to strengthen governance and accountability, significant elements of the proposals present “fundamental difficulties”.

It is seeking legislation which would exclude it from key aspects of the Government reform plans in order to preserve its “unique character and principles”.

It says there is precedence for this given the university was excluded from reforming legislation in 1997 and allowed to institute its own reforms.

It says it would be sensible for a similar measure which is “sympathetic to Trinity’s unique legal character when undertaking reforms”.

A key concern within Trinity is a Government plan to “vastly reduce” its board from 27 to 12 members with a majority of external members appointed by the minister.

Most of Trinity’s board is currently drawn from staff, students and elected fellows and moves to provide a majority of external members would lead to a “knowledge deficit and a representation and morale deficit”.

It argues that the proposed changes are disproportionate, given that falling State funding now accounts for about 40 per cent of Trinity’s funding.

Trinity also said it has a distinctive status under law that sets it apart, with legislation governing its relationship with the State stretching back to 1592.

It says its elected participative governance system of checks and balances differs to most other universities in the State.

Internal reforms

Trinity said it was already well advanced with its own internal reforms, which could be advanced if the Government’s new legislation grants the university the space to do this.

“We believe that reforms could be introduced which respect the Government’s wishes while also preserving many of the best aspects of Trinity’s model,” it states.

It says Trinity’s governance has been an important factor in its strong performance as Ireland’s highest-ranked university in all rankings.

The Government’s plans for a “co-regulation model” need to be carefully adapted to respect university autonomy and individuality. A failure to do so, it says, could damage the college’s standing and international reputation.

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

He has 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.

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