Higher Education Bill 'essentially a Government takeover of academia', researchers warn

Higher Education Bill 'essentially a Government takeover of academia', researchers warn

New bill follows several high-profile revelations in recent years of corporate governance and financial mismanagement across higher education.

The first major legislative reform of higher education in more than 50 years “amounts essentially to a Government takeover of academia.”

That is the warning from a new paper complied by researchers who oppose the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill 2022, which is currently before Seanad Éireann at the report stage.

The HEA Bill, the first major revamp of higher education legislation since the Higher Education Authority Act 1971, looks at modernising the role of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and generally reforming the sector.

It follows several high-profile revelations in recent years of corporate governance and financial mismanagement across higher education. 

The current HEA bill proposes withholding funds in cases of misconduct, as well as a “performance and accountability framework” to “safeguard” exchequer funding.

It also will place an onus on higher education institutions to have "robust" governance and accountability structures and processes in place within their institution.

However, those who oppose the bill argue it may limit the autonomy of universities. 

A new paper complied by László Molnárfi, chairperson of the collective Students4Change, and Gisèle Scanlon, vice-president of the Irish Federation of University Women, argues the proposed bill is a move towards “a UK-like environment for academia culminating in student loans and student debt.” 

Who controls the money will control the policy. Small courses could be cut, programmes merged and academics laid off. In other words, the corporatisation of academia will intensify.

The paper also argues the proposed bill takes away student and trade union representation, reduces democratic input into universities by removing local representatives from university governing authorities, and gives the Government unnecessary powers to interfere in higher education institutions.

The proposed legislation looks at reducing the numbers that make up college governing authorities and will include appointments nominated by the higher education minister. 

However, the paper argues this "ignores" best international practices. “Some of the best-performing institutions have large, diverse, and democratic governing bodies, with internal majorities.”

The real issue is that Irish institutions have been starved for funding for decades. If the Government is concerned about value-for-money, governance issues, or inadequate performance, it needs to look no further than itself.

The paper also argues the HEA bill has not been properly debated due to the impact of Covid-19. 

"It put a stop to a consultative process, and everyone was preoccupied with other matters. This bill should have been debated, line-by-line, on every campus in the country." 

“At Trinity, the inner-institutional consultation process with the wider community was a Microsoft Teams call lasting one hour on May 30, 2022, from 1pm to 2pm, for a bill that will define the future of academia for decades." 

"Furthermore, some of the consultative processes, like the one in February 2021 to March 2021, open only 11 days, were extremely short and rushed.”

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