The Higher Education and Research Bill 2014 – 4. Individual institutions: Governance

The governance provisions of the bill are pretty dense, and their purpose is not altogether clear, as in many respects they simply restate the existing position – here as elsewhere, the bill rides two horses, seeking to restate the law and to reform it, and ending up not quite achieving either. However, there are a number of distinct proposals for change here:

Governing authority – chair. The bill introduces, for all higher education institutions, the same rule as is currently in force for universities, namely that the governing authority decides for itself whether its chair will be the chief officer or an independent chair (cl 16). I would imagine (though it is not awfully clear) that this choice is meant to be made afresh with each new governing authority – this needs to be clarified.

Governing authority – tenure. Tenure of all governing authority members is now stated to be 48 months, “one-time continuously renewable” (cl 15(4)). This is a considerable reduction from the current position, and it might be questioned whether this is long enough. (Senator Averil Power has already questioned whether this is long enough for the chair.) Is a one-size-fits-all rule really needed? A general reduction in terms is certainly possible without specifying in legislation the precise number of months that are to be served.

Chief officer – tenure. “The chief officer shall have tenure of 48 months, renewable once” (cl 23(3)). Again, a considerable reduction, and without much explanation. It is not enough to parrot that industry CEOs can usually expect such short terms – higher education institutions are a good deal slower to move than commercial firms, and correspondingly greater harm can be done by heads desperate to make their mark over a short period. More explanation needed!

Loss of institutional control. By cl 36(8), an institution that exceeds its budget for more than 24 months “will be placed under the direct financial control of the Higher Education and Research Grants Committee”. Given that most costs of Irish higher education institutions are staffing costs, there is a pretty clear threat here, especially given what is said later on redundancy.

Each of these proposed changes has its merits, but the overwhelming conclusion is that the true scale of the problem is not being taken seriously. Each institution is unique, and the balance of interests within it needs detailed attention – which is why the Universities Act 1997 s 16 (“Composition of governing authority”) ended up making separate provision for each of the institutions it covered. Broad aims such as reducing term limits need not be carried out in such a prescriptive way: local flexibility must be part of the mix.

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