Posted tagged ‘National University of Ireland’

NUI redux

March 17, 2011

In January 2010 the then Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe (now retired from politics), announced that he intended to ‘dissolve’ the National University of Ireland (a statement that made the NUI appear to be a kind of giant Alka Selzer). It was never entirely clear what was the reason for this decision, but in fairness to Mr O’Keeffe there were plenty of people expressing doubts about it. At least two of its constituent colleges had been seeking its demise, and ‘An Bord Snip Nua’ (the ‘Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes’, chaired by economist Colm McCarthy) had recommended that it be abolished. Subsequently it was announced that some of its functions would be transferred to the new quality body that was to be created.

Now the NUI has made a dramatic comeback, with the new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, announcing that it isn’t going to be disbanded after all. Just as Mr O’Keeffe’s announcement came out of the blue and didn’t seem to owe much to any consultation, so the restoration of the NUI is also not set in the context of any particular strategy, nor have the reasons been explained (as far as I can tell). I suspect that there will be some raised eyebrows, both amongst the NUI colleges and the board of the yet to be fully established new quality authority.

I have never worked for an NUI college, and so I don’t have much emotional capital riding on this, but I do wonder about this reversal. What exactly is it for? What does Ruairi Quinn have in mind when he suggests that he will have new, additional roles for it? Given all the chatter about the restructuring of the higher education sector, could he possibly even intend that it should have other members and that it would have coordinating or regulatory functions? That would, I imagine, open up a whole new set of concerns on the part of other universities and colleges. And if the NUI is to be reinvigorated, what will the implications be for the UCD-TCD alliance, given that TCD is not a member of the NUI?

I think that the Minister will really need to explain what exactly is in his mind before the speculation gets out of hand.

The statutory dimension

March 18, 2010

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.

One last NUI-related issue: the Seanad seats

January 22, 2010

As has been mentioned before in this blog, it is now more than 30 years since the electorate voted in favour of a constitutional amendment allowing the franchise for the university seats in Seanad Eireann (the Senate, or Upper House of Parliament) to be widened beyond just graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. Over all that time, nothing whatsoever has been done about it (a kind of contempt of the electorate on the part of all political parties that have been in government in that time).

Now that the NUI is to be abolished, something will presumably have to be done about this issue. The choices are simple enough: (a) compound the contempt of the electorate already shown by restricting the franchise to TCD and graduates of the newly separate former NUI colleges; (b) against all the odds, do nothing, so that only those who will have graduated from TCD and the NUI can vote (i.e. only Trinity graduates in future years, with the remaining NUI graduates still voting but gradually dying out); (c) extend the franchise to graduates of all the universities; (d) extend the franchise to all third level graduates (meaning that these seats will soon have a constituency of about half of the entire population in Ireland and a good many abroad); (e) abolish these seats altogether without any other reforms; or (f) undertake a wholesale reform of the Seanad so that the university Senators (who are generally thought to have been very good) might find other likely constituencies.

Of course there could always be the option of abolishing the Seanad, as Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny suggested in his solo run last year. We haven’t really heard much more about that.

Abolition of the NUI: a postscript

January 22, 2010

It is probably fair to say that in the 24 hours from the Minister’s announcement that he would ‘dissolve’ the National University of Ireland (NUI) some issues have become clear. First, while it probably could be said that the Minister’s actions were decisive, it is a worrying precedent that a decision with major implications for some universities, and some implications for all – never mind the implications for other people’s livelihoods – could be publicly announced without any prior discussion or consultation whatsoever.

It is obviously right that the decision was not a surprise per se: it had been signalled in the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’ – the McCarthy report), and indeed it had been known for a while that some NUI member institutions would not be unhappy if it were to be wound up. Notwithstanding that, the report of a special committee does not constitute discussion or consultation, nor indeed had there been any real indication that this was a recommendation the government would implement in a hurry. Furthermore, the NUI has a relatively new Chancellor and some senior officials, and one would have expected some consultation with them. This is underscored by the publication on Thursday afternoon of a statement from the Chancellor following a meeting of the NUI Senate, in which several arguments are made against abolition.

For those of us who are not NUI members, there are broader issues about how the strategic direction of the university sector in Ireland is being set, and what level of input there can be from those most affected. In a couple of months we expect a report from the steering group  undertaking the strategic review of higher education. I would expect any recommendations in that report to be implemented only after consultation and an inclusive discussion. That is to say, I would hope that it will work that way, I am not now sure that I expect it.

So farewell then, NUI…

January 21, 2010

It is quite possible, indeed likely, that others will have been given advance notice of the demise of the National University of Ireland (NUI), but I first became aware of it by reading it on the RTE website. Of course DCU (like TCD and UL also) is not a member of the NUI, and to that extent is not directly affected, but clearly there will be some implications for the whole university sector. The complete absence of any prior discussion therefore strikes me as odd.

What actually happened was that yesterday (Wednesday) the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, issued a press release in which he declared that he ‘is to dissolve the National University of Ireland’. That, it would have to be said, is a fairly grand statement. The NUI is a statutory body established under the Irish Universities Act 1908 (enacted by the Westminster Parliament), as amended by the Universities Act 1997. In that sense the Minister cannot ‘dissolve’ the NUI any more than I can, though of course he (unlike me) can introduce legislation with that end in mind. That, presumably, is what his statement is intended to convey, and indeed the suggestion in the press release is that this will be done as part of the legislation that is to establish the new quality assurance agency.

It may be worth reminding ourselves about the origins of the NUI. It emerged from what had initially been the establishment of the three Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway in 1845, under the umbrella of the Queen’s University of Ireland (which, with some modifications, became the Royal University of Ireland in 1879). In 1908 the NUI was established, with Cork and Galway changing their names to University College Cork and University College Galway, and these were joined by University College Dublin (previously the Catholic University). Queen’s College Belfast became an independent university outside of the NUI. While the constituent colleges were given a fair amount of autonomy, a number of quality and administrative functions were exercised by the NUI, though these became less significant after the enactment of the Universities Act 1997. The NUI also has a single Chancellor for all of the constituent and recognised colleges.

It is clear that the configuration of the Irish university sector is currently undergoing significant change, and within that setting it was always unlikely that the NUI would survive for long, not least because some of its members were forging strategic links with non-NUI institutions. For all that, this announcement by the Minister was rather sudden, and it might have seemed more logical to wait for the report of the strategic review of higher education that he himself commissioned last year and which is due to be issued in March.

I cannot argue very much with the decision as such. But I do wonder about the way it was taken and communicated, and about the absence of any strategic context for it. It is alarming that such steps continue to be taken without a broader discussion and consultation; although I hope that at least those more directly affected were consulted in detail and were aware in advance of the timing of this announcement.