The Higher Education and Research Bill 2014 – 3. Individual institutions: Objectives and functions

What are third level institutions for? This question has excited debate in many context across the centuries. When the question is being asked for legal reasons, and so with an eye to asking which pies those at third level can stick their fingers into and which they cannot, a very broad answer seems to suit everyone best. The definition in the Barrett bill (cl 11) is pretty broad: here are some samples from what is said to be included in the objects of third level:

  • to advance knowledge through teaching, scholarly research and scientific investigation (cl 11(a))
  • to promote learning in its student body and in society generally (cl 11(b))
  • to foster a capacity for independent critical thinking amongst its students (cl 11(d))
  • to promote the highest standards in, and quality of, teaching and research (cl 11(h))
  • to promote gender balance and equality of opportunity among students and employees of the higher education and research institution (cl 11(k))

Two points about this, one general, the other specific.

The general point is that while there is an element of vacuity in general statements of this kind – not all of the problems implied by these provisions are solvable, not all of them are exclusively for third level to solve, and the list is not stated to be definitive or to exclude other possible objects – nonetheless such statements are desirable, because the alternative would presumably be a much more restricted list. Political pressure to achieve particular limited goals is unavoidable; there is no need to add legal ones as well. So in this case, maximum verbiage – a calculated rhetoric of reaching far beyond our grasp – is a badge of autonomy.

The second point is more specific. Some will find the wording of cl 10 familiar, particularly to those who have read Universities Act 1997 s 12: the two are practically identical. In short, Barrett has taken what is currently the authoritative statement of objectives of universities, and proposes to enact that these are the objectives of all third level institutions. There is of course nothing wrong with plagiarism in this context – if a particular form of words does the job, of course it is legitimate to copy it. But there is a strategic point: cl 10 as it stands is a declaration that all third level institutions have the same basic objects, that any apparent differences are merely ones of emphasis. So the same bill that introduces a distinction between Category I institutions (universities), Category II institutions (ITs) and category III institutions (technological universities), also quietly undermines it by suggesting that their basic objects are pretty much the same.

This is heady stuff, and (it must be emphasised) quite different from what current legislation says, or the government seems to be proposing to say. There is no grand statement of objects in the legislation on ITs, beyond that each should “provide vocational and technical education and training for the economic, technological, scientific, commercial, industrial, social and cultural development of the State with particular reference to the region served by the college” (Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, s 5(1)). The draft heads of the Technological Universities Bill is rather more expansive (head 50) but falls way short of the lofty generality of the Barrett proposal. If all third level institutions have the same objects, the logic of regulation suggests that they should be subject to similar rules and should have similar entitlements to resources. How much similarity do we want?

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