Analysis: What is the Higher Education Authority Bill and what does it mean for Trinity?

The Bill will oversee drastic changes to how universities are funded and governed. Here’s what you need to know.

On Monday, College will hold a town hall meeting to discuss the drafting of a supplemental charter. The supplemental charter is a response to major proposed changes by Government to the structure of higher education in Ireland, contained in the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022.

The Bill has prompted discussion about the future of higher education in Ireland, and has particular implications for Trinity. Here is a breakdown of what the Bill specifically entails, and why it has prompted College to move to amend its charter.

What is the HEA bill? What does it propose?

In January, the Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris presented the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 to the Dáil. The primary purpose of the Bill is to revise the functions and governance of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), and to reform its oversight of higher education institutions in Ireland, which includes seven universities, five technological universities, and two institutes of technology.

If enacted, the Bill will replace the Higher Education Authority Act 1971, which first established the HEA as well as amending a number of other acts. Most significantly for Trinity, it will amend the Universities Act 1997 which acknowledged Trinity’s right to determine the structure of its own Board.

It comprises the greatest change to the structure of higher education in over fifty years. The most significant changes proposed by the Bill are to the funding and internal governing authorities of higher education institutions.

Funding

Chapter 2 of the Bill outlines a framework for the allocation of funding to higher education institutions by the HEA. It specifies that institutions who receive funding from the HEA must, among other conditions, “use the funding in a cost effective and beneficial manner”, “operate according to standards of good governance,” and comply with the guidelines, codes and policies of the HEA.
If higher education institutions fail to satisfactorily comply with these conditions, the conditions of funding may be revised, funding may be withheld, or the institution may be told to repay funding to the HEA.

Governing authorities

The Bill also specifies the composition of the internal governing authorities of higher education institutions. In Trinity, the governing authority is known as the Board, and currently has 27 members. The Universities Act 1997 which the Bill aims to replace states that the governing authority of a university must be made up of no fewer than 20 and no more than 40 members. The 2022 Bill fixes this number at 17.

Special reference is made to Trinity however, which allows five additional members to sit on the board outside of those specified by the Bill. The Bill states that this provision is made “in recognition of the distinct legal basis of Trinity and particularly the distinct role played by Fellows within the Trinity community, including within the governance of the College.”

In March 2021, College requested an exemption for Trinity from government reforms to the third level education sector.
Trinity was exempt from certain aspects of the Universities Act 1997, also in recognition of its distinct legal heritage, and this was cited as a precedent for the exemption to be granted. The Trinity-specific provisions of the Bill, which allow the college to appoint five additional members to its Board, is seemingly a compromise between College and Government.

The Bill also reduces the number of student representatives on the Board from four to two, a change which has provoked criticism from Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). This may mean that some of the additional places granted to Trinity, intended for fellows, may be sought by TCDSU and the GSU, a point which may potentially lead to contention between the students’ unions and College.

How has College responded to the Bill?
College has strongly opposed any threat to its autonomy by government proposals. In March 2021, amid talks of government changes to higher education, College sent a submission to Government requesting that Trinity be excluded from government reforms and be allowed to implement its own Board reforms which would not undermine its long-standing independence as a higher education institution. Nonetheless, the reforms to governing authorities provided for in the Bill do apply to Trinity, with the provision of five additional members being the only allowance made to College’s request.

College is now also undertaking an amendment of the College charter so that it may be consistent with new legislation after the Bill becomes law. This is being done using a supplemental charter, a provision of the Universities Act 1997. The value of this is that it allows College to uphold the principle that only the College itself has the power to amend its charter. By amending the charter before the HEA Bill is enacted, it avoids being overruled by Government authority.

In a video explaining the College’s actions, Neville Cox, the College Registrar, explained that while “perhaps substantively there’s not a great deal on the line” in the context of the changes this Bill makes to the charter, it is important that a precedent is not set which may allow Government to make more invasive changes to the College’s charter in the future. Cox has termed this “first mover status”, explaining that it is important that College is ahead of Government in enacting changes.

Why is College holding a town hall about it?

The process of drafting a supplemental charter requires that the college community be consulted as to what changes ought to be made. At 1pm on Monday, May 30, is holding a town hall at which staff and students are invited to discuss and provide comments on the draft supplemental charter.

After a supplemental charter is drafted, it will be submitted by the Board to the government, who will then recognise the charter.

How have students responded to the Bill?

The Bill has been strongly criticised by both TCDSU and the GSU for its reduction of student representation on the Board from four places to two. In March, TCDSU submitted an amendment to the Bill through the Union of Students in Ireland, which would maintain four student representatives on the Board.

TCDSU have lobbied TDs to support this amendment, and are currently seeking support from Senators as the Bill approaches the Seanad stages.

TCDSU is also critical of the inclusion of three ministerial nominees to the Board, compared to two student representatives, given that government funding makes up approximately 13% of Trinity’s overall income, while student fees make up 41%. TCDSU therefore say that it is “important that the key stakeholders of the College have at least an equal stake as the Government.”

Other student groups have been vocal in their opposition to the Bill. Campaign group Students4Change have criticised the far-reaching influence of the Minister for Higher Education in the proposed legislation, calling the Bill “essentially a government takeover to control academia.”

The group has launched a petition calling on students to “save the future of higher education in Ireland,” calling for the “abolition of student fees, adequate funding for higher-education and protection of our universities’ autonomy.”

Is the Bill related to Funding the Future?
No. Funding the Future is a policy outlining the future funding of higher education which is separate from the HEA Bill, which focuses on higher education structures rather than funding. Published in March, Funding the Future seeks to reduce the cost of higher education by gradually reducing the student contribution charge, and expanding the student grant scheme facilitated by SUSI. Government has ruled out the possibility of introducing student loans into the system of funding higher education. The University Times’ have put together a helpful breakdown of Simon Harris’ Funding the Future plan.

Does the Bill affect academic freedom in universities?

According to the legislation, no. The Bill explicitly specifies that the HEA will “respect the academic freedom of higher education providers and academic staff in those providers” in the performance of its functions. The HEA is to have influence in the governance and funding of the university, but not in teaching and research.

However, the conditions of funding outlined in sections 38-42 lead to ambiguity around the government’s level of influence, particularly universities’ obligation to comply with “the guidelines, codes and policies” of the HEA, and “such other conditions as may be determined by the Chief Executive Officer.” These leave open the possibility for the government to attach certain conditions to funding that are not explicitly named in the Bill.

Realistically, the government is unlikely to interfere with academic freedom, and government influence over academia itself is not the purpose of this legislation. However, the room for interpretation of the conditions of funding is a step towards greater government interference in the activities of third level institutions, putting academic freedom at greater risk than before, even if the threat is only marginal.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is News Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as Assistant News Editor and as copyeditor.