The statutory dimension

The Irish university system as it is currently constituted has its legal basis in the Universities Act 1997. This statute was the outcome of lengthy discussions and deliberations and an in-depth consultation process involving the sector. It created a single legal framework for all the universities (before that different institutions were governed by different Acts), and it set out a number of principles for higher education, including institutional autonomy for universities, protection of academic freedom, allocation of responsibility for quality assurance, and recognition of the distinction between governance and management. The Universities Act in essence produced a settled framework for higher education and research, and allowed Irish higher education institutions to become serious global competitors. Its significance could not easily be over-stated.

In the light of recent developments, and more particularly in the light of government decisions to re-position responsibility for the monitoring of quality assurance and to dissolve the National University of Ireland, it has become necessary to consider legislation to amend the Universities Act. It may seem that such amending legislation will be limited and will not change the nature of Irish higher education. But as we have not seen any draft Bill so far, and indeed don’t even know for sure what issues the Bill will address and in what way, we cannot be sure about its potential impact. For example, we do not know whether the idea of university autonomy will be compromised, nor do we know whether the legislation will impose greater burdens of bureaucratic controls.

We hear about a likely time frame for the legislation – it has been suggested that the Bill will be published before the summer and will be enacted early next year – but such a tight timeline will be easily managed only if the substance is limited to quite specific and narrow changes. But we have also become aware of the complexities of the proposed legislation, particularly  in relation to the intended winding up of the NUI (which has generated some resistance and criticism); in a recent report the Irish Independent has suggested that there may now be ‘major delays’. In the meantime, according to a report in the Sunday Business Post, a spokesperson for the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, has suggested that one of the purposes of the new framework will be to bring to an end the ‘self-regulating’ nature of the current higher education system.

I confess that all of this makes me pretty nervous. I am nervous because I do not know for sure where all this is going: I am not sure whether we will see a limited and essentially non-controversial update, or whether the principles of the 1997 Act set out above are about to be changed. If the latter, then we should really be having a wider debate (or indeed, any kind of debate) about what is proposed. And it would need to be seen in the context of whatever is going to be proposed in the report of the higher education strategic review now nearing completion.

But even if the intentions of the legislation are presented as limited in nature, they may not be that in practice. For example, quality assurance (which will definitely be affected) goes to the heart of the system, and transferring the responsibility for monitoring this from university governing authorities (which they have delegated to the Irish Universities Quality Board) to a state bureaucracy is not a minor step and may have profound implications for the nature of Irish higher education.

Universities cannot insist that a perfect state has been reached under the 1997 Act and that nothing can ever change. But they can and should argue that the 1997 Act represents a major national settlement on what constitutes a high value university system and that it should not be changed lightly or without proper concern for the implications. What we have right now is a move, at least potentially, to change the system on the back of budget considerations and anecdotal comments on university performance. If that happens, it would not be good enough. So it is now time to explain what is intended and to open discussions on the details. Irish universities are key to Ireland’s economic, social and cultural future. They can and should be reviewed critically, but not casually.

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12 Comments on “The statutory dimension”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    In the light of the apparent threat to the IUQB I felt obliged to revisit its website to see if my previous (perhaps somewhat caustic) comments were unfair. Looking at the departmental reviews instead (which are internal) for a select few departments I conclude, on mature reflection, that this process is a complete and utter waste of time. I particularly recommend the review for UCD’s (now defunct) Department of Welsh. As far as I know, my opinion is not uncommon in the universities.
    I don’t know how much the IUQB costs per annum. Maybe €600k+? There are better uses of this money -leaving aside the option of not taking from taxpayers in the first place. You could buy a letter-opener for Tallaght Hospital for example-with a few quid to spare.
    Its all very well to call for more debate on the future of higher education blah-di-blah but if that debate is dominated by the same geniuses who have been running the show then it is really very hard to be optimistic.

    • Kevin, I had a look at the Department of Welsh review and am not totally sure why you are so negative about it. Sure, the reviewers were clearly anxious to support an argument for this particular discipline, but beyond that there are some sensible and worthwhile proposals for improvement.

      I obviously cannot speak for attitudes in UCD – but you may get a better fix on this when your own Department is reviewed imminently, I believe – but in DCU the process has considerable support, and there is widespread agreement that improvements and a better understanding of the issues facing particular disciplines have followed quality reviews.

  2. Vincent Says:

    ‘This statute was the outcome of lengthy discussions and deliberations and an in-depth consultation process involving the sector’.
    That’s one way of putting it. I was attending UCG as an undergrad at the time and even at that level of self-centered wonder the smell of brimstone was choking.
    I think that one of the reasons you are going through a degree of hell stems from this time. When the Dept of Ed’ discovered exactly how easy to set you at each other.
    You lot need a Boardroom, a neutral Boardroom. There must be something that you all have put in private money, for you really need regular face time. For since ’97, and especially now that the NUI has been smothered you really are like Bishops sitting within your own Provence.

  3. Ned Says:

    Vincent – the Irish Universities, Presidents included, do work collectively together – via the IUA. Check us out at The Irish system is based on competitive/collaborative model in the sense that a substantial amount of university funding is competed for, but the State also proactively encourages competition. There is a strong collegality in the Irish system but this is moderated by the competitive element, in the interests of ensurng that universities are competitive in the broader sense of that word also.

    • Vincent Says:

      Yes but they need to be Seen that they are working in concert at the top levels. And seen as in press spokesperson. They collectively are one of the truly major employers, if that button needs pushing. While delightful as competition is at departmental you are still in the area of the Ford Motor Co. setting one car plant in competition with its sister.

  4. belfield Says:

    You’re probably right to be concerned. The level of sophistication evident in constructive and sector- engaging policy planning under the current minister’s aegis has been marked by its total absence.
    It’s clear that the sector is being targeted. The discourse and faux hand-wringing is increasing and the structures of what’s there are already being probed – ‘self-regulation’, NUI redundancy, grade inflation, IUQB as an instrument of state will & intention…
    Perhaps you should reconsider your intention to have that conference on Irish higher education futures in June? It could all be gone south by then.

  5. Sally Says:


    in which it appears the UK DES is about to ‘monitor’ the ‘self-regulation’ of universities.

    “… universities will be audited for how well they do their own quality assessment …”, says the writer. Just how you assess self-assessment isn’t made clear (to me). And is assessment different from regulation? And is monitoring anything like auditing?

    And is Ireland about to adopt a system that’s just been replaced in the UK? They’ve every right to of course, but it’s worth asking.

    • kevin denny Says:

      And is there any evidence that this self-assesment / monitoring/ auditing whatever is effective at improving specific outcomes? I doubt it.

  6. John Says:

    Kevin, perhaps we need to monitor that.

    It would certainly create more jobs – which many middle-of-the-road Keynesian pundits, including our host blogger, seem to think is the purpose of an economy.

  7. Sally Says:

    While it’s clearly a rational way to proceed to set goals, devise a strategy for achieving them and to monitor outcomes so the strategy can be modified where necessary, the question of who should set those goals, and in whose interests, seems to me to be the main point – and not just in education.

  8. maestro Says:

    measurement, measurement, measurement, when will we ever be allowed do what we are paid to do (and are passionate about): teaching and research – or am I just naive.

    • Sally Says:

      Isn’t measurement a fairly fundamental component of a scientific world outlook and thus many HE courses?

      I take the point though. I personally prefer teaching and learning to measuring myself teaching and learning, but a colleage from Queensland is an “educationist” at QUT and has done very well for herself in teaching what educationists calls pedagogics. Her students are thus in the interesting position of learning to teach education. One wonders how far you can take this sort of thing.

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