The Higher Education and Research Bill 2014 – 2. The third level sector and government

Someone looking for a clear statement of what the Irish third level sector is, and a description of its relation to government, will not find it in the statute book. The HEA Act 1971 gives a few hints, including (in the amended s 1) a definition of “institution of higher education”, but this may be starting in the wrong place; the HEA was never meant to govern the sector, but rather to act as a buffer between the various government departments and the various third-level institutions.

The Barrett bill seeks to recognise and define the sector more thoroughly. By cl 3, the sector will consist of Category I institutions (universities), Category II institutions (ITs) and category III institutions (technological universities). There will also be a category of specialised institutions (such as the RIA), over which the HEA will have “a special regulatory and advisory role” (cl 5). The “aim, objective and functions” of the sector will for the first time be expressly spelled out (cl 10), with the sector’s mission stated as “to promote free research and academic and artistic education, to provide higher education based on research, and to educate students to serve their country and humanity”.

As to the sector’s relations with government, two significant changes are envisaged:

  • A new body, the Higher Education and Research Grants Committee, will inherit from the HEA “[a]ll powers related to the resource allocation process for higher education and research” (cl 4). In other words, the HEA will cede its money powers to this new committee. The committee’s membership provision is complicated; highlights are that, of the 12 members, half are to be appointed by the DES and half by PER; 4 must be “active lecturing and research staff at Universities” when appointed; the others will be selected on the basis of other strengths. (Is “Universities” really what was meant? What will the ITs make of that?).
  • Government powers to restructure the sector are re-stated and to a certain extent enhanced. These are a power over mergers (cl 7, mirroring Universities Act 1997 s 8); a power to recognise new institutions (cls 8 and 21-22, mirroring Universities Act 1997 ss 9 and 23 ); and a power to authorise changes of institutional name (cl 9, mirroring Universities Act 1997 s 10). The provision on recognition of technological universities (cl 42) is surprisingly specific, even down to specifying the chair of the expert commission to consider each application (the Chancellor of Oxford – Chris Patten? really?) and the 12 foreign universities that are to contribute members (The choice of institutions might not satisfy everyone).

Trying to define a coherent third-level sector, and to say definitively what it is for, is a dangerous strategy. If our leaders promise government that the sector is x, we will all be in the wrong if is turns out to be not-x. Promise government that the sector will benefit Ireland in a particular way, and we will find itself audited on that precise point and punished when considered to fall short. Perhaps the idea that third level is for anything in particular is a snare and a delusion. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames hit on something when she commented:

What is the rationale for placing all universities, institutes of technology and the new technological universities under one single regulatory structure? There is widespread suspicion that such efforts constitute the homogenisation of third level. Moreover, without an assessment of existing models one runs the risk of undermining diversity in the third level sector. That diversity inspires competition and innovation. It is not good if we are all the same – diversity is critical.

Senator Barrett has quietly acknowledged this, by noting the dangers of a “purely instrumentalist approach” which implies that the role of universities is solely defined by the needs of others, and by seeking to build institutional autonomy and freedom into the very definition of the third sector (see especially cl 10(c) and (f), and cl 13). How much of this will survive the ongoing legislative process remains to be seen.

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