Breathnach to alter Universities Bill

 

THE Minister for Education, Ms Breathnach, has undertaken to amend the Universities Bill which began its second stage in the Dail.

The Bill was the subject of "ongoing consultation and dialogue," she told deputies. The amendments would be consistent with its fundamental objectives and with the principles of the White Paper on education.

The Bill's three main objectives were to restructure the National University of Ireland, provide revised governance structures and a framework for interaction between the universities and central government and for the universities' accountability to society.

Ms Breathnach said she wanted to dispel "any impression that this Bill indicates that the Minister intends to take control of the universities". It was her firm intention that the Bill would not involve "one jot more of involvement in the day to day activities of the universities by the Government. And I can assure the House that I will give generous consideration, in consultation, where necessary, with my Government colleagues, to any amendments which may be necessary to ensure that universities retain their academic freedom in harmony with their accountability to the wider society."

There appeared to be a fear, fuelled by rumour, among some university staff that the Bill would worsen the pay and conditions of university staff. "There is nothing in this Bill that could conceivably have this effect." However, she would provide in the Bill that the tenure, pay, allowances and pensions of existing staff would be no less beneficial than before.

The charter of Trinity College would be amended by a private Act, sponsored by the college, in a way that would be consistent with the Bill.

The power given to the Government to remove the chairperson of a governing authority of a university would be amended.

The Bill made clear that the guidelines of the Higher Education Authority on budgetary matters were non binding, but to remove doubt about this she would bring forward an amendment at committee stage.

Her Department was continuing to have dialogue with all the interested parties.

The Fianna Fail spokesman on education, Mr Micheal Martin, accused the Minister of choosing to "reject the contributions of the past, ignore the difficulties of the present, and put the future in a strait jacket".

It rode rough shod over the contractual rights and conditions of university workers retrospectively cancelling the status of existing agreements, and proposing arbitrary powers for suspension and dismissal.

Fianna Fail, in office, would repeal the legislation, and develop a new partnership with the universities based on mutual trust and respect.

The Bill, he said, suggested that in some way or other universities had not been doing their job. He would agree with the recent OECD report on the Irish economy which stated that in terms of economic benefits, both to individuals and to society as a whole, the returns on higher education were high in Ireland.

He said that a "democratic deficit" was reflected in the alterations being proposed for the internal governance of universities. "I welcome the fact that the Minister has recognised that the ethos of Maynooth and Trinity College should not be overwhelmed by external representation on their respective governing bodies. However, it is a principle that should be extended to each of our seven universities."

Opposing the Bill, the PD spokeswoman on education, Ms Helen Keogh, said that it represented an "unwarranted interference with the autonomy and independence of our university institutions". If enacted in its present form, the Bill would dramatically enhance the powers of the Higher Education Authority, with universities becoming little more than subsidiaries of a semi state agency.

She said that its provisions would impact particularly heavily on Trinity College, the oldest university on this island, and an institution with more than 400 years of independent academic tradition behind it.

Ms Keogh said the university colleges in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Maynooth would find themselves at the bottom of a very tall bureaucratic pile. "Each of these is supposed to become an independent university in its own right. Yet, each of them will be subservient to the NUI in Dublin, which, in turn, will be subservient to the Higher Education Authority, which, in turn, will be subservient to the Minister for Education."