Higher Education Authority board members raised the role of the Department of Education in their work with a senior official less than three months before the authority’s chief executive stepped down.
Graham Love’s resignation, announced on the HEA website a week ago, is strongly linked to the perceived micro-management of the statutory body’s work by the department.
Its involvement in HEA functions is not a new issue but it was raised directly by authority board members when a Department of Education official attended one of their meetings at the end of May.
According to the meeting minutes, the department’s recently appointed head of higher and further education and training policy, William Beausang, said credit was due to the HEA board and staff for achieving so much despite the limitations of the 1971 law under which they operate.
The HEA’s main functions are to allocate public funding to third-level colleges and advise the education minister on policy. There has been growing frustration in recent years over its expanded oversight role on governance in the sector without proportionate increases in resources.
The May 29 meeting saw board members raise a number of issues with Mr Beausang, including the relationship between the HEA and the Department of Education. Particular mention was made about clarity regarding the roles of each body, and it was agreed that he would discuss the issue with its chief executive.
Mr Love’s departure in October will come 21 months after taking up the HEA chief executive role, in which time there has been no political progress on the increased funding needed by third-level colleges.
The Cassells report of a review of higher education funding, published by Education Minister Richard Bruton two years ago, identified a shortfall of €600m by 2021 if quality of provision is to be maintained. But increases to date by the Government have been limited to €110m over three years, and do little to keep up with the past decade’s rising student enrolments.
The absence of movement on the question, and limits on the ability of the HEA to advocate for greater investment, are also understood to be factors in Mr Love’s decision to resign.
Following last week’s announcement, the Department of Education acknowledged his contribution to the sector, and said that key targets for higher education are set through a performance delivery agreement and work plan agreed annually with the HEA.
Mr Beausang was asked by HEA board members about a review of higher education funding needs being undertaken by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. He said the department needs to be able to see the impact of any additional investment, and that it was no longer enough to outline what inputs are required by the sector.