The Higher Education and Research Bill 2014 – 1. Introduction

Current legislation on higher education in Ireland is a mess. The Higher Education Authority Act 1971 is over 40 years old, and despite being amended several times over is well past its sell-by date. The Universities Act 1997 is not in quite such dire shape (imho), but certainly needs revision. The ITs are still mostly governed by the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, the Institutes of Technology Act 2006 and a mix of amending Acts. The contemplated technological universities, which will be neither ITs nor universities, will require new legislation all of their own; their draft heads of legislation suggest that it will be lengthy. And all this is before we get on to individual pieces of legislation for individual institutions, of which there are a number.

Against this background, Senator Barrett’s bill has two stated sets of objectives.

The first set of objectives is to modernise the legislation, in various specific respects. Senator Barrett himself summarises the bill’s goals as follows:

  1. Create a more modern approach to public expenditure management for funding higher education.
  2. Place all universities, institutes of technology and the new technological universities under one single regulatory structure.
  3. Address the problems created by the Cahill v. Dublin City University case [2009] IESC 80 with respect to academic tenure.
  4. Create a clearer definition of academic tenure and academic freedom.

How these objectives are reflected in the legislation, and to what extent these are the goals we should be pursuing, will be discussed throughout these blogposts.

The second stated set of objectives is to consolidate and simplify the legislation. This is more problematic, as at first glance Senator Barrett’s draft bill does nothing of the sort. It does not abolish much previous legislation, and certainly would not avoid continued reference to any of the Acts mentioned above. Certain provisions of the bill are said to “supersede” the Universities Act 1997 and the Institutes of Technology Act 2006 (cl 3(5)), but those Acts themselves will remain. The abolition provisions (cl 3(2) and (3)) would sweep away a few obsolete statutes, but by-and-large the bill would leave the law on third level a good deal more complicated than it finds it. Anyone inclined to support the bill on the ground that it would simplify the law should therefore be very careful, that they are not being sold a false bill of goods. However, all may not be as it seems, for reasons which will soon appear. The bill cannot fairly be judged on its own, but rather as part of an ongoing process, of which it may turn out to be an important part.

Proposed by Senator Barrett and recently discussed in the Seanad, it is a private members’ bill. It is being mooted at a time when the government is contemplating both a Technological Universities Bill (to introduce a new type of third-level institution) and a Higher Education Governance Bill. In that context, Senator Barrett’s bill is viewed as a useful contribution to the debate on university reform – which may be why Jim D’Arcy (FG Seanad spokesperson on Education) has now stated that the bill will be supported to committee stage. So while it is very unlikely that this bill will reach the statute book in its current form, and it may not get there at all, nonetheless it is for now the public focus of university reform. For that reason alone it deserves close attention.

In this series of blogposts, I will review the main provisions of the Barrett bill, under the following headings:

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