The government is going to decide who is on the governing body

There are some interesting developments on higher education governance in the (Republic of) Ireland, with a big row brewing over autonomy.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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In a context of “increasingly rapid change”, Ireland’s Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD has been promising to consider the institutional and governance framework for higher education since assuming office.

Now some 20 months after the cabinet first looked at draft legislation on the subject, the big news is that the government has (re)approved the publication of a Higher Education Authority Bill to reform the oversight and regulation of Ireland’s higher education institutions, and modernise the regulatory role of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority.

The framing here isn’t hugely different to the way in which reform is being sold in Wales. The legislation will seek to provide a comprehensive governance, performance and accountability framework to “safeguard Exchequer investment” in the sector and “ensure accountability” in the system.

The legislation will also include provisions for strategic planning for tertiary education, engagement with students, equity of access and participation in the higher education sector, lifelong learning and the collection of data for advice, planning and research. It will also aim to promote and safeguard the interests of students, and advance equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education.

Precisely how it will do all that remains to be seen. At the national level the HEA will be formally allocated the kinds of tasks that the tertiary Commission will shortly get in Wales, along with duties over planning, promoting, supporting and funding research in the system in accordance with national research policy.

But for universities (and institutes of technology and technological universities), what’s being suggested is a “co-governance” model. Harris says:

Institutions will remain autonomous but [the legislation] will ensure the investment the government is making in the sector is safeguarded and there is accountability for that funding.”

There appear to be two ways in which that will be done. The first is via an accountability and reporting requirement to the Higher Education Authority, where performance or other failures that are not adequately and transparently dealt with at the institutional level would result in remedies to protect students, public funds and the reputation of the sector.

That sounds a lot like the kinds of conditions of registration we have in England and will shortly have in Wales.

But the second strategy is the one attracting the most attention.

The intention is for legislation to fix the size and composition of governing bodies, with a common structure of 17 members comprised of the chair, eight external members, two students, the chief officer and five other internal members.

More controversially, three of the external members will be nominated by the Minister, five of the external members will be appointed by the governing body – although all will be appointed “based on the competencies required”.

As you might expect, the plans have received a mixed response. Trinity College Dublin’s unpublished submission on the proposals last year described features of the plan as presenting “fundamental difficulties”. Its 27 member board (that includes four student reps) is currently exclusively made up of its own staff, students and elected fellows, and said that changing that would lead to a “knowledge deficit and a representation and morale deficit”.

Trinity said its tradition of “collegiate governance” had served it well for 400 years, arguing that its independent governance has played a key role in it being the highest ranked Irish university in the world rankings.

So much pressure has been exerted to preserve the “unique character” of the college that Harris’ people have briefed that there will be “Trinity-specific provisions” in the legislation which are “reflective of the distinct legal basis to its governance structure”.

Last year 59 of Trinity’s fellows, non-fellow academic staff and support staff – alongside something called the “Scholars’ Committee” published an open letter arguing that it was the managerialist and corporate culture within third-level education in Ireland that must change, not the Board:

Whilst managerialism has eroded the traditional liberal ethos of the third-level sector over the last two decades, establishing a culture inimical to academic excellence and freedom, the Board has upheld its democratic functions primarily through the free and open election of its membership. It should not be the latest casualty of a shift towards an increasingly top-down undemocratic governance structure.”

If, as seems likely, the government repeats the exemption it gave Trinity from legislation back in 1971, the lingering question will be whether those that hold the above view will back off, or demand a Trinity-style settlement for the whole of HE.

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