The details of contentious new government legislation introducing several changes to the higher education sector have been released today.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris published the legislation this morning, which is described as aiming to reform and modernise the higher education sector.
The new legislation, titled the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Act 2021, introduces a range of new measures on the oversight of third level institutions.
The legislation gives power to the HEA to oversee the governance structures of higher education institutions.
One of its functions under the Act is to “support the effective governance of higher education providers by overseeing appropriate governance frameworks to underpin public confidence in the higher education sector and to provide value for money for taxpayers and ensure accountability and compliance with these governance framework”.
The legislation has previously attracted criticism within Trinity over concerns that it would have a detrimental impact on autonomy. The change could mean a reduction in the number of Board members from 27 to as low as 12, an increase in external members, and a cut in student representation from four to two or one.
At a hustings in March between the candidates running for provost, all three professors agreed that the move would have a negative effect on Trinity and that they would seek an exemption.
Now Provost-elect Linda Doyle said that the proposal was set out in a way that suggested there is “only one way to look good” and that she wanted to see what the evidence was for their strategy’s effectiveness. Doyle said democracy and collegiality are a core ethos in Trinity which need to be protected.
The proposed legislation will allow for an increase in the HEA’s powers to set conditions for third level institutions’ funding and performance frameworks, as well as “strong internal governance of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology by reforming the size and composition of their governing bodies”.
The legislation says that the HEA should respect the academic freedom of higher education institutions and staff and “ensure accountability while respecting institutional autonomy”.
Under the act, a Higher Education strategy is to be published every five to seven years.
Additionally, the HEA is to set up a student forum for engagement with student representatives on a “regular basis”.
Minister of State for Skills and Further Education Niall Collins said that these provisions are “not about creating an extensive suite of new responsibilities for the HEA but, instead, its new legal powers will deliver a more robust basis for the functions it is already carrying out”.
Harris said that the release of the legislation marks a “monumental day for higher education and training in Ireland”.
“We want to have the best education system in Europe and to achieve that we need to modernise. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has played a crucial and excellent role in funding and regulating the sector for the past 50 years, but the country has changed dramatically in that time,” Harris said.
“We owe it to present and future generations to provide an education system that will give them the tools they need to compete in a world of work which is increasingly impacted by digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence,” he said.
HEA Chief Executive Alan Wall said that the authority welcomes “this significant step towards reform of the Higher Education Authority Act to ensure that we have an agile, responsive and accountable higher education and research system”.
“New legislation will support the performance of a system that has transformed, grown and evolved, in particular over the past two decades,” Wall said.
The legislation brought forward today is that which was proposed by Minister Harris last November.