Minister to have power to suspend university boards

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

New legislation proposed by the Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris will give him the power to suspend and replace the governing bodies of publicly-funded higher education institutions (HEIs).

The rebranded Higher Education Commission (HEC) will be given greater powers to investigate and discipline HEIs where there are operational concerns. This will include the imposition of financial and non-financial penalties. Only “in very serious circumstances” will the Minister intervene, a spokesperson has said.

The HEC’s strengthened regulatory role will include statutory codes of governance for HEIs and statutory performance frameworks for state-funded HEIs.

If passed, the bill will cut the size of public sector HEI governing bodies. UCD’s board contains the maximum number of 40 members. An OECD report in 2004 advocated that governing bodies in Ireland should comprise no more than 20 members. At present, legislation states the minimum required is 20 members.

The bill will lay out a “set of objects” for the HEC. These 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”.

Minister Harris acknowledged the importance of college and universities maintaining their academic freedom and autonomy but believed that proper oversight and accountability were a just concern for the government and taxpayer, alike.

The Wicklow TD hopes to bring the new Higher Education Governance Bill before the Dáil in the coming months and have it passed into law by year’s end. 

Some academics are worried that this continues a trend of state-led reform and a reduction in the independence of the academy. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UCD, Patrick Clancy feared that minor scandals of university misspending money could be used as an excuse by government to exercise more power over third-level institutions. 

While stressing the importance of fiscal accountability on the part of universities, Professor Clancy added: “There needs to be clear lines of authority and autonomy drawn between the department, the HEC and universities”.

In 2018, the chief executive of the HEA, Dr Graham Love resigned after just a year and a half in his role citing a lack of autonomy and micro-management from the then responsible Department of Education. 

Current legislation around the governance of universities dates back to 1971. The minister told a seminar on governance in higher education that the bill was “not fit for purpose” due to the drastic changes in both society and education since that time. 

In 1971 there were 12 higher education institutions, there are now 33 which receive funding from the state. Similarly, the 1971 student population of 40,000 is dwarfed by the current number which is closer to 250,000.

Labour senator Annie Hoey voiced her concern around the independence of institutions stating that the HEC “must not be used as a stopgap to showboat for the minister”. While supporting the streamlining of governing bodies, she emphasised this mustn't hamper the student voice on such boards.