Postgraduate representation in College and balancing internal and external interests on College Board were among the issues discussed at a town hall meeting held by College today.
The meeting was held to discuss the procedures by which Board members should be appointed to Board in light of the provisions of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Act 2022 which was signed into law last month.
The town hall meeting was moderated by Pro-Chancellor and former Registrar Shane Allwright.
Provost Linda Doyle welcomed attendees, and added that while “there are things that are within our control, and there are things that are not within our control”, with regard to the composition of Board, “the point today is to tease out those things that are within our control”.
Following this, Registrar Neville Cox opened the discussion, assuring attendees that the meeting was “genuinely consultative”: “There’s not any question of, decisions having been made, this being some sort of performative rubber stamping. We genuinely want to hear what people have said.”
The registrar identified four key issue areas of Board membership: internal (College) members, student members, external (non-College) members, and College officers.
The HEA Act 2022 significantly reduces the representatives from each of these “constituencies” except for external members, which has been increased from two to nine.
Internal members have been reduced from eight to five, student representatives from four to three, and College officers from five to one, the sole member being the provost.
According to Cox, College has “the choice between either amending our statutes over the next 12 months, and therefore being in compliance with the legislation, or, as it were, acting illegally”.
Dr John Walsh of the School of Education suggested that College use its external appointees to “remedy the reduction in staff representation” by appointing alumni and retired College staff to Board to act in the interests of staff, saying that external membership should not be thought of “as a category that is for a corporate or business membership primarily”.
While Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey, a present member of Board and a Fellow, expressed “agreed wholeheartedly” with the points made by Walsh, they met disagreement from Dr Ann Nolan of the School of Medicine, who noted that unlike many, she welcomed the HEA Act.
Nolan said that she would said that she would be “quite hesitant” to recruit alumni and retirees rather than non-College affiliates: “I think we should be open to fresh and totally non-related-Trinity-perspective people who know nothing about the organisation and to maybe bring a wide range of different world experience into the university I think would be a very valuable thing.”
She added: “There’s a risk of us being to insist you listen to inward looking in our approach and protectionist and I don’t ever think that’s a good thing. We should welcome debate, we should welcome criticism and fresh perspective.”
Nolan expressed a preference for including people “who are strong in terms of governance and leadership” on Board over those who “just sort of [tick] a whole load of boxes”.
As well, Nolan expressed a need for “a mechanism for the chair to get rid of dead weight” such as term limits on Board membership. It was noted by College Secretary John Coman that both the new act and Trinity’s current provisions already contain a limit of two four-year terms for Board members.
Speaking after Nolan, junior sophister PPES student László Molnárfi expressed “solidarity” with the trade unions and with previous contributors Walsh and Alyn-Stacey, saying that it is important as a student “to support the demands of staff” with respect to Board representation.
Molnárfi, who is School of Social Sciences and Philosophy Convenor in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), called for precariously employed staff to be eligible to vote for a representative in Board elections.
The 2016 Cush report found that over 50% of third-level teaching and lecturing staff in Ireland are employed on a part-time or temporary contract. Speaking in College last month, Provost Linda Doyle addressed the issue of precarious employment, saying that “some of them we can do something about, others we may not be able to”.
Molnárfi also voiced support for Walsh’s suggestions, saying that it is an important opportunity to retain institutional autonomy within the provisions of the HEA Act, saying that Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris would prefer to appoint “corporate-leaning” members to Board to further a government agenda “which would be just a further constriction on our autonomy as an academic institution”.
Though it was acknowledged that it is largely to be decided by students themselves, the issue of student representation on Board was also discussed at the meeting.
Molnárfi spoke first, making the point that since student membership has been reduced from four to three, the fourth student representative should be invited “ex-officio”, with the right to speak at Board meetings without holding a vote.
Molnárfi said: “It’s not just about the votes at Board, it’s not just about that balance, but it’s also about the expertise that they bring. So, even if ex-officio, their contributions, I think, are extremely valuable.”
Molnárfi also added that it is important that postgraduate students are properly represented, expressing his view that the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) should be reinstated as a College body and fulfill this role on Board.
This echoed a point previously made by Alyn-Stacey who said that she “would be very much in favour of the GSU having a representative on Board, because it does represent over 5,500 students”.
The provost responded to this, saying: “We’re in a situation where the students themselves have to decide on the future of the GSU.”
In September, College cut ties with the GSU, withholding and reallocating its funding to TCDSU.
Doyle continued: “So the reason why that question at the moment is more open ended than it might otherwise be, is because they are going through a process, not influenced by us, as to where they go next in terms of that representative voice.”
“That representative is maybe a voice that isn’t an independent union, or [is] maybe a voice that comes through the students’ union as a postgraduate officer of some sort.”
“It’s for the students to decide whether they want that. And I think the key thing is as to whether or not students union, that is the person that represents the graduate students,” Doyle added.
Doyle emphasised that “we may not be in a situation where all of that is cleared up by the time we have to make some changes to the statutes”, leaving the role of postgraduate representation on Board potentially ambiguous.
John Walsh reiterated the point of selecting external members who are more in line with College staff interests rather than external interests: “I don’t think we should necessarily help the minister to get the representation that he wants by using our five external nominees to do that work for him. So if he wants people from SFI [Science Foundation Ireland] and Enterprise Ireland, then we shouldn’t do that work for him and leave him with another three wildcards for him to use.”
Molnárfi called for external members to be used as an opportunity “to bring in people who can contribute to the university in other ways”, giving the examples of environmental experts, mental health advocates, and experts in developing Universal Design for Learning.
Closing the meeting, the secretary advised attendees to bear in mind that external ministerial appointees will not necessarily be unwillingly imposed on College or unwelcome additions to Board.
Coman described the last ministerial appointment to Board as “a very cooperative process” with government, saying that “the then-Provost was closely involved in the assessment”.
“I think it’s fair to say we got a very good person who is chief officer of a university in Scotland and a Trinity graduate,” Coman concluded.