The Government is set to consider passing a sweeping new Bill which will enable the Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Research to suspend and replace the governing bodies of state-funded universities if there are serious concerns around their operation.
Alongside suspensory powers, imposing financial and non-financial penalties against universities are also part of the proposed bill. It is intended that the legislation replaces the Higher Education Act 1971 which then Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor referred to in 2019 as “reflect[ing] a different era”. O’Connor states that “new legislation will address the need for best practice regulatory models for higher education, the transformation of the higher education landscape and the requirement to prioritise the interests of students and secure public accountability”
Other envisaged reforms include reducing the size of college boards to “provide for strong internal governance” and the renaming of the ‘Higher Education Authority’ (HEA) to the ‘Higher Education Commission’ (HEC). The Commission will be afforded a “stronger regulatory and oversight role” with regard to adherence to statutory codes of governance of universities such as UCD.
It could also include statutory performance frameworks for publicly funded higher education institutes. Additional powers of reviewing and reporting universities which the Commission has “serious concerns” over their operations.
Aside from such powers, the Commission has been assigned a “set of objects” within the Bill outlining its key priorities. These “objects” include “the central role of the student, the promotion of excellence in teaching and learning in a high quality higher education system, the advancement of equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education, strengthening engagement with the wider education system and wider society and to maximize the contributions of higher education to social, economic and cultural development”.
Currently, the power to suspend a university’s governing authority lies with both the Minister for Education and the Government under the Universities Act 1997. Suspension can only occur after an awkward and lengthy process. The Minister must first, after receiving “report of inquiry by a Visitor” (i.e. Inspector), be “of the opinion that the functions of a university or its governing authority are being performed in a manner which constitutes a breach of the laws, statutes or ordinances of or applicable to the university”.
Secondly, they must confer with the governing authority’s ‘Chief Officer’ (i.e. Chairperson) and consider their observations on the report. Lastly, after 14 days have elapsed since conferral with the Chief Officer and if they are still of the same opinion regarding the university’s functioning, the Minister may recommend to the Government that the Authority be suspended. The decision to suspend ultimately remains the remit of the Government.
Rowan Kelleher – Assistant News Editor