Rhetoric overshadows substance in Seanad debate over HEA Bill

TCDSU, GSU, and S4C attended yesterday’s debate in the Seanad at which no amendments to the bill were passed

Representative student groups from Trinity attended Seanad Éireann to witness a debate on the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill 2022 yesterday.

Senators discussed and voted on amendments to the text of the bill with concerns raised around government overreach into academia and the institutional autonomy of universities, as well as the role of students’ unions in higher education institutions.

Representatives from Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) and Students4Change (S4C) were in attendance from the public gallery of the Seanad.

Of the 329 amendments before the Seanad, 23 were a result of lobbying by S4C and the GSU.

Speaking to Trinity News before the debate, TCDSU President Gabi Fullam explained why the students’ union were attending: “We wanted to physically attend and give other students the opportunity to go and get involved. We think seeing lawmaking facilities as somewhere that has a place for the student voice is a really important thing.”

She continued: “Beyond that, we think our physical presence, and showing that stakeholders stay engaged throughout the continuation of the process is important.”

“We think that the student body and the student voice and showing our physical presence and our attention to it, so lawmakers know exactly who they’re making the decisions for, is really important.”

S4C said that “the bill remains a disgrace.”  In a statement, the group chaired by László Molnárfi said: “Within universities, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by bureaucracy over students and staff. On a national level, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by the HEA over universities.”

The statement thanked senators who were on the side of S4C and who had submitted amendments the group had lobbied for.

No more than 10 amendments were discussed in the four-hour debate, none of which ultimately passed, before the four-hour period prescribed for the debate expired at 7pm. At this time, all subsequent amendments were automatically dismissed.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris was present in the Seanad to discuss the proposed amendments and to respond to criticism of the bill raised by senators.

In proposing the first amendment of the session, which would have prevented government from commencing the majority of sections of the act, Senator David Norris spoke of the high quality of Ireland’s university sector: “On the international stage, Irish degrees and qualifications are eagerly sought after. Irish graduates are welcome entrants to the great graduate schools of the world as they pursue postgraduate qualifications of the highest rank.”

He continued to emphasise that Irish third-level education is “decentralised, diverse and serves its students and society well”.

Norris added that it is “flexible, student-centred, international and, heretofore, reasonably bureaucrat-free”, condemning the “bureaucratically intense” proposals of the bill.

An argument followed over the decision to guillotine the debate, a condition which meant that any amendment left undiscussed by the expiry and the responsibility for this imposition. Saying that the bill “should not be rushed through ”, Senator Michael McDowell expressed the understanding that this had been done “on the express instructions of the minister”.

Harris denied this claim and said of Lisa Chambers, Deputy Leader of the House: “She is wrong. I am the minister. I am aware of what I say and what I do not say, thank you.”

Following further argument over the responsibility for “guillotining” the debate, Harris said: “I am delighted to debate the legislation with senators but I will not sit here and be slurred.”

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins criticised the rushed pace of the legislation, given that senators “have been told it is foundational legislation that will change the agenda for the next 50 years.”

She continued: “If it is significant legislation that has significant repercussions, we should be allowed to debate it for as long as is required.”

Following this exchange, issues of academic freedom, the autonomy of universities and the powers of the minister dominated the discussion of subsequent amendments. Opposition senators raised concerns of governmental and ministerial overreach, while Harris and government senators emphasised that the role of the HEA was to ensure good governance and financial accountability in the third level sector.

An amendment relating to providing more specific criteria for the composition of the board of the HEA prompted discussion on the power of the minister in this area.

Senator Michael McDowell said that “the minister is not to be left with unfettered discretion to compose this board as he likes”, arguing that the bill in its current form grants “almost limitless discretion in who he or she appoints to the board”.

Senator Malcolm Byrne responded to these concerns by emphasising that the board of the HEA is not a representative body, but rather an administrative one, saying that its members will be chosen for their “skills and experience”.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, who tabled a large proportion of amendments, voiced support for the amendment, given that the bill centralises “extraordinary powers” in the HEA which must be checked.

“In that regard, it is a concern if we have the minister having full discretion over who is appointed to the [HEA board],” she added.

In response to Byrne, Higgins pointed out that a lack of specific criteria could lead to overrepresentation of certain expertise, such as public administration, at the expense of experience “in academic matters”, pointing to the example of the Climate Change Advisory Council.

Harris highlighted that the powers set out in the Bill are not new, and that the board of the HEA is already appointed by the minister. “We are trying to do something that wasn’t done in the 1971 Act,” Harris added, arguing that the proposed changes are an upgrade rather than a regression on pre-existing legislation.

Craughwell said that the proposed amendment was important “to prevent overreach” by government. On this point, McDowell drew attention to the potential effects of the funding conditions outlined elsewhere in the bill, referring to the “conditions of funding” outlined in sections 38-42 of the bill. Highlighting that the government can threaten the funding of any university which does not comply with government policy, McDowell said that this was “deeply corrosive of the notion” that universities like Trinity and the National University of Ireland are independent institutions.

Byrne responded by affirming that this is “not a bill to do with autonomy”, but rather to do with governance and financial accountability. Addressing concerns that the bill expands the powers of the HEA, Byrne said: “It does.”

Byrne said that the need for this was brought about by the mishandling of public funds by the University of Limerick (UL), referring to the 2019 purchase for €8 million of a site in Limerick city centre which a previous valuation had put at €3 million. Byrne said that UL had touted institutional autonomy to defend this use of public money, a situation which the provisions of the new Bill seek to avoid by curbing autonomy in the area of funding.

Byrne said that while there “have to be checks and balances” on the power of the HEA itself, ultimately “this is about governance and financial accountability – it’s nothing to do with autonomy”.

Higgins responded firmly to this argument by highlighting that certain sections of the bill grant the HEA “extremely strong powers that are not related to governance and financial accountability”. In Higgins’ view, the power of government to force compliance with “codes, guidelines or other documents” raises cause for concern for the academic freedom of third level institutions, and she called on Harris “to explicitly preclude requirements to comply with policies in relation to academic matters”.

In response, Minister Harris said: “Academic autonomy is protected, but autonomy cannot be used as a catch-all word to include other issues.”

Again raising the point of ensuring the appropriate use of public funds, Harris added: “There’s another stakeholder called the citizen. There is a link between public funding and public policy.”

Another significant debate centred around the inclusion of a definition of “student union”. In its current form, the bill defines a student union as a student representative body “recognised by a higher education provider or by the minister”, without reference to its aims, objectives or mandate from students.

Concerns were raised that the wording of the bill left ambiguity as to whether students’ unions must be elected by students. Senators argued that it was important that “students choose their own union” and that unions were not simply bestowed recognition by the governing authority of a higher education institution.

Higgins emphasised that it is “really important that we future-proof this legislation” given that future ministers may have differing points of conflict and methods of engagement with students.

“I will put it to you that it is fundamental that students’ unions are elected by students,” said Higgins.

Senator Lynn Ruance, a former president of TCDSU, pointed to the “imbalance of power” that such a vague definition creates between governing authorities and students’ unions.

Without a student mandate, universities have the power to grant recognition to student representatives at their discretion. In this scenario, the governing authority of that university may refuse to recognise the constituent students’ union when students take “more radical action” over issues such as fees, accommodation, or boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS), or when they employ more radical strategies.

“I wouldn’t like to see that type of imbalance affect the work that students’ unions do,” Ruane said.

Senator Annie Hoey said “I don’t know why we’re not doing it”, saying that students’ unions should be given “the recognition that they deserve”. She highlighted the opportunity “while we’re deciding the future of higher education, to embed students’ unions into that”.

Harris answered this by citing legal advice given by the attorney general’s office when drafting the legislation. Given that the bill provides for a specifically consultative role for students’ unions, Harris argued that defining students’ unions more broadly in the bill could have the opposite effect of confining their role in higher education institutions. “A prescriptive definition could lead to exclusion rather than inclusiveness,” he told the Seanad.

The debate concluded abruptly at 7pm, despite verbal agreement that it would be extended to 7.15pm given that a recess had had to be taken twice during the proceedings to allow Harris to attend votes in the Dáil. This prompted shouts of anger from senators who had proposed amendments to the bill, who accused government senators of dishonesty and bad faith. The debate was not extended, and consequently over 300 remaining amendments were deemed lost.

The HEA Bill will now enter the report stage of the Seanad, the last opportunity for amendments to be made to the legislation before it is signed into law by the president.

David Wolfe

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