Posted tagged ‘Universities Act 1997’

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.

To be or not to be a university

December 12, 2008

Next year, in 2009, twenty years will have passed since DCU became a university. Before that, it was the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). Formally the change came through the Dublin City University Act 1989. However, that Act had only seven sections, and the main changes it introduced were a change of name and the conferring of degree awarding powers. In many other critical respects, the legislation governing DCU remained the National Institute for Higher Education Act 1980, under which the institution was subject to significant ministerial and government direction. Arguably DCU did not become a university in the full sense until the passing of the Universities Act 1997, from which point it was granted the same level of autonomy as the other (older) universities.

Ireland has throughout recent decades had what is generally described as a ‘binary’ higher education system: there are universities, with a teaching and research agenda and with higher levels of independent governance and autonomy; and there are the others, with various differences of nomenclature and status, generally with a teaching-only academic agenda, lower levels of independence, and more direct government control. Until recently one might have added also that these other institutions don’t generally have degree-awarding powers of their own – but that has been changing.

So between 1980 and 1989 – and arguably until 1997 – DCU/NIHE was on the non-university side of the binary divide. However, it refused to resemble the non-university stereotype, both through the development of a vigourous research programme, and also through its determination to drive higher education innovation at all levels. When therefore the government established an expert international panel to assess the case for university status, this panel indicated that NIHE was already operating at university level and was recognised accordingly, and that therefore it (and NIHE Limerick which was considered at the same time for university status) should become a university. So DCU (and the University of Limerick) slipped across the binary divide into the university sector.

Left on the other side were the Regional Technical Colleges (later to become Institutes of Technology), and various other private or special purpose colleges.

In the early 1990s in Britain, all of the polytechnics became universities; this in essence ended the binary divide in the UK at least informal terms; though it could be said that in practice it has remained, for nearly 20 years on in popular parlance and estimation the ex-polytechnics are still considered separate as ‘new universities’.

So apart from the looming anniversary, what is topical about all this? Well, the remaining binary divide in Ireland is coming under significant stress, and there is not a consensus as to how to deal with that. Influenced probably by the transformation of the polytechnics in Britain, a growing number of the Irish Institutes of Technology are putting forward arguments for a similar change here. One of them – Dublin Institute of Technology – made a bid for university status a few years ago and is doing so again now; as is Waterford Institute of Technology. Others again are looking at ways in which they might move quickly to a new status by various methods; and the institutes collectively are trying to persuade the government to explore the possibility if setting up a National Technological University in Ireland, whose constituent colleges would be the existing IoTs.

It would be difficult in some ways for DCU to resist these propositions, given our own history. But one way or another, if we are to make the case for or against another university (while some key commentators are actually calling for reduction in the number), we need to have marshalled our arguments very effectively. And many of these will have to focus on a question that we, as a country, have never tried to answer coherently before: what is a university? What characteristics must it have, what should its mission be? Can (or should) you have as a university an institution whose academic members are not research-active? What level of autonomy and sovereignty of governance should a university have? How should we measure the degree of external recognition that it has achieved?

It is difficult to say whether the binary divide should stay in place. Whatever the right answer is, higher education needs a general consensus about its mission and the institutional structures in which that mission will succeed. The menu of options being presented to us right now is extensive. But if we are to assess in a transparent and effective manner how the sector should develop, we must make a start. We need to ask, and to answer, the question as to what it is that constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide can or should be sustained.