Will new powers to regulate third level erode autonomy of universities?

Government insists moves will simply place key functions on a legal footing

Minister for Education Joe McHugh. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Minister for Education Joe McHugh. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


An ice-sculpture for a €13,000 retirement party. Painted portraits of senior staff commissioned at a cost of €20,000. VIP-style expenses for relocating a staff member including delivery of a fitted kitchen.

This is just a selection of examples of mis-spending by some third-level institutions which have been subject to scathing criticism by the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee.

So, it’s likely the public will welcome Government plans to introduce major changes to the regulation of third-level colleges in a sector which benefits to the tune of about €1.5 billion in public funding.

There’s little doubt there are problems with the current regulatory regime, drawn up in 1971 at a time when there were just 20,000 students. Today, there are about 200,000 students in a sector which has expanded massively and caters to a much more diverse student population.

Gaps in the legislation have meant that in cases where there have been evidence of misconduct, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the statutory body over the sector, has often resembled a sheriff without a gun.

The only meaningful power it has had is to advise the minister for education to seek permission from the High Court to appoint a “visitor” to take over the running of an institution. Such a step has never happened, given that the threshold to allow for such a move is regarded as so high.

Sweeping powers

The outline of proposed legislation for reforming the Higher Education Authority Act would 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 in cases where they have been misused.

While these steps are likely to be popular politically, there are mounting concerns within some universities that the move is an attempt to erode their autonomy. They argue that while they have no issue being held accountable, this latest step could lead to more micro-management and interfering with academic freedom.

This, they argue, is crucial to securing the right research conditions that lead to scientific progress, benefiting society at large.

There are also concerns within the sector that the reforms will end up “clipping the wings” of the HEA, which has played an important role in the past in advocating for the sector. They see significance in the planned new name for the authority: the Higher Education Commission.

This, some say, would transform the authority into a more compliant regulatory body rather than one causing potential problems for the Government by highlighting inconvenient facts.

After all, the previous chief executive of the authority, Dr Graham Love, recently resigned over what sources described as frustration with “micro-management” by the department.

However, Government sources insist that the moves are simply an attempt to place many of the HEA’s existing functions on a statutory footing.

“The legislation for the higher education sector hasn’t kept pace with the developments in the sector,”said one source.

“This is about putting in place the legislation we need to underpin the excellent work of the authority.”