Higher Education Authority’s review powers in spotlight

Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

A legal review of the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) powers to undertake investigations and reviews in third-level colleges has held up a report on spinout companies at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) that was due out a year ago.

Waterford Institute of Technology

The issues behind the delay emerged as outgoing HEA chief executive Graham Love explained to TDs how uncertainty over the organisation’s regulatory powers was a key factor in his decision in August to resign.

He told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that over 70% of his time, since taking up the job 18 months ago, has been on the regulatory and oversight aspect of the HEA’s work rather than the sectoral development of the third-level sector which attracted him to the role.

Mr Love was responding to questions by Waterford Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane about the status of a report commissioned by the HEA into spin-out and sale of companies from the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group at WIT. It began in June 2017 and was due to be completed at the end of last October.

However, the PAC heard that the authority has received a draft report, but after circulating it for feedback had to modify it due to concerns about potential litigation and damages if it were published. Subsequent legal advice raised questions about the HEA’s powers to conduct the investigation in the first place and this was referred to the Department of Education.

William Beausang, the department’s assistant secretary general responsible for higher education policy, said the Attorney General’s office has been asked to consider more broadly the question of the HEA’s powers to conduct reviews or investigations.

The question of compliance and regulatory issues emerged as one of four factors in Mr Love’s letter of resignation, sent by email to HEA chairman Michael Horgan on August 18.

In the letter, released to the committee, Mr Love said he had reached a decision to resign “after much consideration”.

I have formed a view that the role has not matched my expectations and the actual nature of the job militates against any realistic opportunity to deliver much-needed strategic development in the sector,” he wrote.

“A number of serious concerns have led me to this conclusion, including the lack of role clarity between the HEA and the Dept [sic] of Education and Skills, the level of risk posed to the higher education system by the failure to resolve the overall funding issue, the nature of the Board/Executive relationship in the HEA and the dominance of the compliance/regulatory agenda,” his resignation letter stated.

Department of Education secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú said he did not fully agree about the level of challenges as raised by Mr Love. Work is underway in the department to design new powers for the HEA, he said, under laws whose draft outline Mr Beausang said should be ready to go to Government in the first quarter of 2019.

Mr Cullinane raised concerns that if the Attorney General review determines the HEA did not have legal authority to have the review at WIT carried out, staff who came forward with information would be let down by the entire process.

Mr Love earlier told him that the 50-plus people who responded to independent investigator Michael McLoone’s invitation for submissions or contact was much more than had been expected. However, he and Mr Horgan assured Mr Cullinane and the PAC that a report on the matters being probed will be published.

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