The Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill 2022 has been passed in the Seanad, including amendments to provide for the formal recognition of students’ unions in the legislation.
The amendments, put forward by Senators Lynn Ruane and Alice-Mary Higgins with support from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), explicitly specifies that student representatives on college governing bodies be drawn from students’ unions.
While the 1997 Universities Act, which the current Bill seeks to amend, stated that student board members must be “elected officers of the Students Union” or other similar representative group, prior to amendment the new bill did not, leading some to call it “regressive”.
Speaking in the Seanad, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation, Research and Science Simon Harris thanked Senators for unanimously passing the bill.
Concluding the debate, Harris said: “The last time we passed substantive legislation on how we govern the higher education sector was in 1971.”
“In 1971, Ireland was a different place. We were not in the European Union and there were 20,000 full-time higher education students in Ireland,” he added.
“There are now over 200,000 full-time higher education students in Ireland so we are in a very different place and it is right and proper that we have modern legislation in place.”
The HEA Bill 2022 was introduced in the Dáil in January, with signification implications for higher education in Ireland, as well as for Trinity specifically.
It provides for far-reaching changes to how higher education is funded and governed, and has faced significant opposition from students’ unions and campaign groups throughout the legislative process.
Given that the bill gives specifications for the composition of college governing authorities, it has prompted College to draft a supplemental charter in order to maintain internal authority over its laws.
In June, lobbying by Trinity College Dublin Students Union (TCDSU) secured increased student representation on the governing bodies of higher education institutions.
In the Seanad yesterday, Harris referred to the successful efforts of then-TCDSU President Leah Keogh in securing this amendment, calling it “a sensible decision in light of the rationale” presented to him by Keogh. He said that he hoped “that this example encourages people in general and shows that changes can be made and that they can influence and make a difference to legislation”.