The Higher Education Authority (HEA) currently has only 10 members instead of the 19 it should have by law, with two positions vacant for over a year.
Among the unfilled positions is that of chairman, a seat which has been empty since the end of January.
The HEA is one of a number of bodies with long-standing board vacancies, but the Department of Education says the positions are to be filled very shortly.
Stephen Kinsella, a board member since 2014 and economics lecturer at University of Limerick, has been acting as chairman since former Ericsson Ireland executive John Hennessy’s term ended.
Six board positions have been vacant since December 6 last year, and two others since April and June 2015. The board’s role in the absence of a ministerially-appointed chairman was discussed at the end of March.
While the board has continued to meet every two months in accordance with normal schedules, attendance has fallen significantly from an average of 14 during 2015. Its January meeting had 10 people present, eight attended its March meeting, and only six made the May 24 — the minimum required to hold a meeting and make decisions.
The shortfalls are understood to have made the remaining membership reluctant to make decisions on critical issues until the board is restored to full strength.
The vacancies were advertised last December, and nearly 140 applications were received by the Public Appointments Service. It forwarded a list of those who met the criteria to the former minister Jan O’Sullivan after the application deadline.
In response to a query on the HEA board, the Department of Education told the Irish Examiner on June 2 that the process was being finalised “with a view to filling the vacancies as soon as possible”.
While none have been made since, it is understood that announcements on the revised membership could now be made by Education Minister Richard Bruton within days.
HEA board members are paid a fee of €7,695 each, while the chairperson is entitled to a fee of almost €12,000.
As part of a self-evaluation exercise last year, over half the board recommended a reduction in membership to between 12 and 15 members. Consultants Prospectus, who facilitated the exercise, recommended a membership between nine and 12, although the numbers to serve on the board are dictated by law rather than being set by the authority itself.
In an unrelated situation, an earlier recruitment process to replace the HEA’s retiring chief executive Tom Boland has been revised ahead of his departure at the end of this month.
In order to avoid an even deeper governance crisis, the chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment Anne Looney recently agreed to take the HEA role for a few months on an interim basis, requiring a colleague to act in her own position during her absence.
Replying to a recent Dáil question on education agency board vacancies, Mr Bruton told Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne that not all board appointment are at his sole discretion.
“Individuals may be nominated for appointment by various organisations in the relevant statute of the body concerned,” he said, although this is not the case in relation to the HEA.
Other than the HEA fees, most education bodies’ boards are not paid positions, although members may be entitled to reimbursement of expenses associated with attendance at meetings or other duties.
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