This afternoon, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science met to discuss the Higher Education Authority Act 2021.
The committee also discussed a motion pertaining to Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann’s approval of the Technological Universities Act, 2018.
In attendance were representatives from the Irish Universities Association (IUA), Technological Higher Education Authority (THEA), Higher Education Colleges Association (HECA) and Association of Irish Local Government (AILG).
The new legislation was published on May 6 by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, and is described as aiming to reform and modernise the higher education sector.
Introducing a range of new measures on the oversight of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), the proposed legislation has been criticised for increasing the power of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to oversee the governance structures of HEIs, raising concerns that it will impact colleges’ autonomy.
The bill would also grant the government the ability to impose financial penalties on higher education institutions.
IUA Director General Jim Miley said that while he welcomed the bill, it was essential that the bill “differentiate clearly” between the roles of the HEA and the roles of the Department of Higher Education.
He continued: “It is important, however, that the agility of individual universities is not unduly constrained” and that the provisions of the bill “do not compromise autonomy”.
Dr Joseph Ryan, THEA chief executive officer, emphasised the importance of the HEA’s independence. He also told the committee that the bill could pose a “risk in constructing governing bodies [of HEIs] that are too small”.
He added that “a cap of members results in practical housekeeping difficulties”.
The proposed legislation could see a reduction in the number of members of universities’ governing bodies, alongside an increase in external members, providing the HEA with stronger governance.
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen asked: “Given that autonomy is necessary, how does the public ensure that [taxpayer] money is being well and properly spent, and are not representatives from the local authorities on governing bodies part of that process?”
Joseph Ryan told the committee that the “key to success” in a university is embracing a “competency model” rather than a representative one.
Councillor Mary Hoade, president of the AILG told the committee that “we are deeply committed to education at all levels” with a “particular commitment to third level education”.
She claimed that only by “closer collaboration” between Government and HEIs could “society’s challenges” be dealt with, such as modernisation and climate change.
Senator Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil questioned what the appropriate relationship between the HEA and the Department of Education was. He also emphasised the necessity of balancing the autonomy of HEIs with accountability, asking what sanctions would potentially be built into the legislation.
Jim Miley responded by saying that “only in cases where absolutely necessary would the HEA step in”.
Rose Conway-Walsh of Sinn Féin reiterated the importance of striking the correct balance between the role of the Department of Higher Education and the HEA.
The committee heard concerns about the funding crisis in third-level education. Conway-Walsh said that “the sector has been starved of funding for the last decade” and that “the legislation will not deliver this change needed”.
When questioned on the feasibility of catering for an “increasing population” at third-level, Miley said that while “the system is pretty stretched at the moment…whoever is in the system needs to be funded properly”.
The proposed Higher Education Authority Bill would have specific ramifications for College. Trinity is the sole university that is specifically mentioned in the bill as being omitted from proposed reforms relating to governance.