Major changes to the structures and powers of university boards have been backed by their presidents.
The Higher Education Strategy report published early last year recommended a major overhaul of the size, make-up, and responsibilities of university governing authorities.
In a report to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, who had asked for their views on the issue, the presidents’ representative body has come out largely in support of the reforms recommended in the blueprint document last year.
It said the membership of governing bodies should be reduced to no more than 18 from the current range of 20-40, most of which are at the upper end.
The Irish Universities Association (IUA) is recommending to Mr Quinn that the number be between 10 and 20, but suggests a specific number should not be set in legislation.
Its report also says the majority of members should be external to the college, with procedures for rotating membership rather than fixed terms, and that there should be a legal requirement to hold at least six meetings a year.
The IUA says there needs to be a change to what it calls the anomalous situation in law governing universities where, instead of the president and college management presenting budgets to the board for approval, the opposite is the case.
“The change recommended here would increase transparency by ensuring that the primary focus of responsibility for the effective management of university financial resources is clearly seen to lie with the chief officer and senior management team, appropriately overseen by the governing authority,” it says.
The presidents have also proposed greater autonomy for colleges on hiring and firing staff, as well as setting pay levels, which they say are issues where Irish universities have less freedom than other countries. Although it recommends greater flexibility be given to their governing bodies in these areas, it plans to return to Mr Quinn with greater detail at a later date.
Similar changes have been suggested as necessary by John Hennessy, chair of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which advises the minister on policy in the third-level sector.
The IUA report does not relate to the growing difficulties faced by colleges to cope with growing numbers of students against a background of falling government funding.
The HEA is working on a report to Mr Quinn which is likely to recommend some form of increased student fees to bridge the widening gap that is causing concern about the effects on quality of education being provided. While there is speculation that fees of €5,000 and €6,000 could be suggested, Mr Quinn has been reported as intent on keeping student fees to a maximum €3,000 by 2015.
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