Universities fear sweeping reforms will undermine autonomy

Trinity seeks private legislation to exclude it from some proposed Government changes

‘This is the most serious threat Trinity has faced to its autonomy in many decades because it strikes at the heart of who we are and everything we want to achieve as a university.’ Photograph: iStock

‘This is the most serious threat Trinity has faced to its autonomy in many decades because it strikes at the heart of who we are and everything we want to achieve as a university.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Universities are concerned that sweeping Government reforms aimed at strengthening the accountability of higher education institutions will restrict their autonomy.

The Irish Times reported on Thursday that Trinity College Dublin has expressed alarm that the planned reforms could damage its academic standing and end its tradition of collegiate governance.

It has now emerged that other universities are also concerned over the plans, which they say place a heavy emphasis on “control” of institutions.

The comments are contained in a submission from the Irish Universities Association – which represents Dublin City University, Maynooth University, NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, University College Dublin and University of Limerick – to the Government.

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 would cut the size of 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.

Dramatic impact

The changes would have the most dramatic impact on Trinity, which has a 400-year-old tradition of collegiate governance and a large majority of internal members on its board, which is chaired by its Provost. Most other universities currently have a majority of external members on their boards and an independent chair.

While Trinity is seeking private legislation to exclude it from aspects of the proposed reforms to allow it to introduce its own internal changes, Government sources indicated a reluctance to do so.

“We’re open to changes and we’ll be sitting down to talk with institutions. But by making an exception for one institution over others, it risks everyone seeking exemptions which, in turn, could dismantle the wider reforms,” one said.

The Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, said on Thursday that he intended to bring legislative proposals to Cabinet next month to overhaul the governance of the higher education sector.

“I fully support academic independence and the autonomy of institutions, but I also know the taxpayers of this country invest about €1.8 billion of their taxes into our universities each year,” he told Newstalk.

“We need to modernise the governance... you have some governing bodies where the CEO is also, effectively, the chair of the board. These situations aren’t sustainable in the 21st century.”

‘Wreck’

Trinity’s three candidates in the election to be the next provost have come out strongly against the proposed changes. Prof Jane Ohlmeyer said the Government’s planned legislation “has to be stopped” and would “wreck” Trinity’s collegiate governance structures.

“This is the most serious threat Trinity has faced to its autonomy in many decades because it strikes at the heart of who we are and everything we want to achieve as a university,” she said.

“It will disempower Trinity, destroying the ability of our college community to make decisions about our future. Government needs to understand that what we have works and that their proposal offers nothing extra of value. In fact, it threatens to destroy the very things that make Trinity the leading university on this island and Ireland’s university on the world stage.”

She said some aspects of the legislation could be open to consideration, such as the proposal that an external person might chair the board. Other elements, she said, were not acceptable, including a potential reduction in student representation and the removal of internal expertise in order to prioritise government appointees.