Concerns over student representation in College governance dominated the HEA Bill townhall this afternoon.
Student representation on Board risks being halved under the proposed plans.
An online town hall meeting was held this afternoon to discuss the drafting of a supplemental charter to the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022.
The purpose of the supplemental charter is to amend the existing charter to be consistent with Irish law after the enactment of the HEA Bill 2022.
By ensuring that its charter is consistent with the law before it is changed, Trinity will protect its legal autonomy and its sole right to amend its own charter, without setting a legal precedent that the government has the authority to do this.
The draft supplemental charter will be submitted to the government who are legally required to recognise it, so long as it is consistent with the law.
Provost Linda Doyle began the meeting by emphasising that while College are working hard on the larger aspects of the bill, this town hall was focused specifically on the part that applies to Trinity and the supplemental charter.
Neville Cox, registrar of Trinity, explained that while many people across Trinity, and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) are concerned about the bill, the meeting today was to deal with section 74 of the HEA Bill, which would remodel the nature of Trinity’s Board.
Cox acknowledged student concerns that student representatives on College Board would be reduced to two from four through this charter but argued that this would increase student representation in other higher education institutions across the country overall.
In fact, every higher education institution in Ireland already has at least two student representatives on its governing authority, excluding SETU which has not yet fully established its governing body. Six of these have three, while two, University College Dublin and Trinity, have four. The proposed changes do not increase student representation in any higher education institution.
Cox also noted that while Trinity insists that College alone has the power to change its charter, the government disagrees. Cox highlighted this “point of principle” as the main “disagreement” between College and government.
The goal, Cox highlighted, is for Trinity to amend its own charter and to “assert” that Trinity is the only body with the power to do so.
“This would only happen when the deal is done,” Cox emphasised, saying that an amendment can only be made once the bill is passed by the Dáil and Seanad, before it is signed into law by the president.
The supplemental charter process works in conjunction with the Universities Act 1997. In line with this act, a university may have a charter not in conflict with this Act, setting out that a university has control over the composition of the governing authority and its functions.
In preparing such a charter, the governing authority must consult with the academic staff and other employees of the university, any recognised trade union or staff association, any recognised student union or other student representative body, or with any other person or group, both within and outside the university.
Secretary to the College John Coman highlighted the work of the Board Review Working Group (BRWG) which began in 2019. The BRWG put together a report with recommendation for the reconfiguration of Trinity’s Board which was submitted and subsequently approved by the Board. This report was subsequently sent to the government.
According to Coman, the HEA Bill which was introduced in January 2022 was “effectively …in line with the recommendations of the BRWG” in Trinity’s case. The Trinity-specific provisions of the bill, which allows for the appointment of five fellows to Trinity’s board, mean that Trinity retains an internal majority on its Board. This is in contrast to other universities who, according to Coman, have an external majority on their board. He also proposed that membership of committees be increased in order to tackle the issue of student representation.
Chairperson of Students4Change László Molnárfi objected to the narrow focus of the meeting, also highlighting the issue of reduced student representation, stating, “We as a community must look at how we are able to keep student representation”.
He said that the proposal to have student representatives as “ex officio” members was a “last resort”, saying “I don’t think this proposal is a replacement for current student representation”.
Speaking at the townhall, TCDSU President Leah Keogh added that the student representatives are “like a broken record” at Board meetings about their opposition to the 50% cut of representation. Keogh added that the union are “taking steps” at a governmental level, through submitting a document opposing the halving of representation on Board through the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).
Keogh continued to emphasise that there is a “sense of apathy” at governmental level, and there is a need to “reassure” that students will be appropriately represented.
Cox responded that it would not be possible for the supplemental charter to include greater student representation on Board, as this would be inconsistent with the provisions of the HEA Bill 2022. Government is required by section 31 of the Universities Act 1997 to recognise a supplemental charter submitted by Trinity, but only if this is legally consistent with Irish law.
Given that the HEA Bill specifically limits the number of student representatives on governing authorities to two, this number could not be increased in the college charter without risking government refusing to recognise the supplemental charter. This would endanger the “first mover” status which is key to Trinity’s strategy to protect its future autonomy.
Speaking again, Molnarfi suggested that discussion around the wider aspects of the bill had been brought up during the town hall because “College has not given us opportunities” to discuss the bill as a whole.
He continued: “This whole town hall is a farce, it’s managerial and there’s a lot of censorship going around.” Molnarfi labelled the bill a “power grab” by government over higher education institutions, and called for students and academic staff “to unite against the further corporatisation” of third level education.
He further argued that College had not been active enough in opposing the bill, and that by responding by amending its charter, the College was presenting the bill “as a fait accompli”.
“I do not agree with it,” Molnarfi said, referring to the meeting’s narrow focus on the supplemental charter and lack of discussion of the bill as a whole. “I think we should let people speak our thoughts relating to the wider bill.”
Cox responded to this by reasserting that Trinity does not have authority to prevent the bill from becoming law, and must act accordingly. He reiterated that College’s response must be prudent and conscious of the fact that the bill is likely to go through regardless of university opposition.
“It’s completely wrong to say that this has been presented as a fait accompli,” said Cox. “The difference between presenting something as a fait accompli and acting prudently and responsibly.”
“We would hope, however unrealistically, that this bill would not go through,” he added, but said that should the bill pass in the Dáil and Seanad, as it is likely to do, College must be ready to act.
Highlighting that the process of drafting a supplemental charter requires “a meaningful consultation process,” Cox said that the town hall would allow Trinity “to act agilely and swiftly” in submitting a supplemental charter to government before the HEA Bill 2022 is signed into law.
Additional reporting by Adam Balchin and Ellen Kenny.
This article was updated on 31 May to include the fact that every higher education institution in Ireland already includes two student representatives on its governing authority.