Higher Education Authority waits months to fill board positions

Education Minister Richard Bruton has left eight positions vacant on the board of one of his most important agencies for more than three months — and it could be months more before they are filled.

The governance vacuum is at the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the chief funding body for third-level colleges and an important advisory body on policy in the sector. The situation arises less than a year after Mr Bruton filled 10 long-standing vacancies on the board, a situation he inherited after the February 2016 general election.

He was made formally aware in mid-November that vacancies on its 19-seat board would arise from January 31. The number of vacancies also means the HEA is two short of the legal requirement that it should have seven academics.

Both the HEA and Department of Education insist the authority has the required numbers to fulfil its legal functions. The minimum attendance at meetings is six, but only six attended its meetings in May and July last year.

HEA chairman Michael Horgan assumed the role last September after the position was left vacant for eight months in the political vacuum before and after the election. He wrote to Mr Bruton on November 16 and set out a number of choices on how to fill the six vacancies that were then looming.

One was to reappoint members whose terms were set to end. He also suggested Mr Bruton could leave them vacant and allow a smaller board, like the HEA itself is advocating for colleges.

Mr Horgan told board members in November that they should be willing to consider this. A majority of authority members favoured a reduced board when consulted as part of a structural review in 2015.

They did not back the recommendation of that report, or in the 2011 Hunt report on higher education reforms, that membership be limited to 12. HEA members raised the issue of legal authority of a smaller board without any change to the law on its membership first.

The Department of Education said the HEA has continued to operate at full capacity since the vacancies arose at the end of January.

“The process to fill these vacancies is under way and the minister is considering a number of options to expedite the filling of these vacancies,” said a spokesperson.

At least five of those whose terms ended in January had served just one term, and are therefore eligible for a quick and easy reappointment. But if the minister decides to open the vacancies to a full recruitment process through the Public Appointments Service, the board might have to continue with almost half of its seats empty until the autumn.

Two of the vacancies filled last July had existed for over a year. Scientist and researcher Graham Love became HEA chief executive in March, seven months after the retirement of his predecessor, Tom Boland.

The governance gaps come at a time of significant change in the higher education sector. The HEA and several third-level colleges have been grilled over the past six weeks by the Dáil’s public accounts committee on funding, policies, and governance questions.

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