19th of January 2022

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Dear undergraduates and postgraduates,

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#TransformHigherEducationInIreland

#RaiseYourVoice

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The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has published a new bill detailing amendments to the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971 in January 2021[1]. The GSU and Students4Change are extremely concerned with the contents of this bill and what it entails for the future of third-level education in Ireland. The HEA Bill 2022 aims to alter the relationship between the state and third-level educational institutions. It amounts essentially to a government takeover of academia, and will result in a loss of student representation during a time when the country is in a difficult financial situation and in the midst of a mental health crisis.

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One of the more prominent tenets of the bill is more state control over third level education. One of the specific proposals would result in a reduction in the number of TCDSU representatives on Trinity College Board, both in actual numbers and proportional to the size of the board. Currently both Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Union presidents and the SU Education Officer and SU Welfare Officer sit on the Trinity College Dublin Board. The bill would lead to a reduction to 2 student representatives down from 4, with the loss of the Education Officer and Welfare Officer of the SU on the Board. This is a change both the SU and the GSU are set to oppose[2].

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Additionally, the proposals in the bill constitute a significant overreach of the Government in the administration of third-level education. Changes will enable the government to intervene in our institutions and further push their neoliberal agenda, resulting in even-more corporatization. The bill essentially amounts to state ownership of academia.

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If the bill becomes law, colleges will have to adhere to designated “frameworks” in order to secure their funding, and the composition of their decision-making bodies will have more state-appointed members.[3]

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The punishment for Universities not following the instructions of the government is dire. Some of them involve withholding of funding, some of them involve giving instructions to the higher education institution which if they do not follow they will lose funding. It is very hard to see how any real realistic autonomy will be maintained if the bill passes. Already dependent on the state for scant funding, universities will further be tied to the government.

There is an appeals Board but it is not independent, as the minister appoints it. There is as such no sign that an appeals Board would act independently of the minister.

Furthermore, the powers of Universities to appeal certain measures which are taken against them is relatively limited as to what can be appealed. Furthermore, it seems that the fact that an appeal has been taken does not operate as a stay on what it has been instructed to do. A university may have to proceed to do what it is being told to do even when it is appealing the decision which was the basis for it being told to do it.

In addition, the HEA Bill will give extended powers to the Chief Executive Officers of the HEA as opposed to the Board of Colleges. Specifically, they and not the Board may co-decide the conditions that go along with funding and may seek information from the government in relation to compliance with those conditions. They may also order a review from the Board or appoint an external review to make sure those conditions are being followed. 

At the Board meeting of Trinity College Dublin held on the 19th of January 2022 it was discussed what is to be expected from the government’s new HEA bill relating to changes in College governance. The student representation in attendance are extremely concerned of the loss of autonomy and the loss of the student voice proposed in the bill.

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The College’s Statues and Schedule Working Group will have to rewrite the the College Statutes[4], which is an affront to the autonomy of third-level educational institutions, so as to make it match with the bill’s requirements. Most Colleges will have to have a 17-member governing body, as follows.

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Chairperson (external)
8 other external members
2 students
Chief Officer
5 other internal members[5]

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3 of the 8 external members will be appointed by Minister Harris’ Office and the other 5 by the governing body itself.

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Our College, however, will be the only university permitted to retain a majority of internal board members due to the “distinct role played by Fellows within the Trinity community”, according to the Department of Further and Higher Education. To accommodate this, Trinity may have up to 22 members on its governing body while other universities will have a maximum of 17[6]. This is, however, not enough to stop the loss of student representation, both absolute (2 less) and proportional (2/22 is 9% which is less than 4/27 which is 15%).

The College has proposed that in order to mitigate the diluting effects of student representation, the Welfare and Education Officers would be retained as observers. The College has further said it will want to put former student union sabbatical officers as 2 external representatives of the 5 governing-body-appointed representatives.

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All of these proposals are unacceptable. It will dilute the student voice during a pandemic and its aftershock and a financially turbulent time for many of us , not to mention will dilute one of the most important student representatives, the Welfare Officer. The Welfare Officer is on-the-ground dealing with casework and needs to be represented on Board. A student can never have enough representation. Furthermore, hand-picked former student union sabbatical officers are no substitute for student representatives who are actually there and know the issues of the student body, not to mention that hand-picking by College’s senior management will lead to those getting appointed to Board who are not keen on upsetting the apple cart.

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Furthermore, government funding of our College amounts to 39% and students contribute around 42%[7] of the College’s annual budget. Even from a consumerist perspective, it is not justified that more external members will come on the Board when we have student representatives who can ensure “value for money” in financial terms. No matter which way one looks at it, this Bill must be resisted by everyone in our community.

“It is the failure of successive Irish governments to fund adequately the third-level sector (and to eschew its own accountability for this) which has led, quite logically, to the imposition of the Bill. In this regard the passivity of university presidents and their failure to challenge the move robustly is nothing short of breath-taking. The argument that we must “tow the line” as more funding will otherwise be cut is naive, lacking in courage and strategy, and a grave dereliction of duty.”

– Professor Sarah Alyn-Stacey, Trinity College Dublin.

“The proposed legislation on university governance will shrink, not only the size of governing authorities, but will also serve to muzzle the voices of academic and administrative staff. As outlined, membership will be weighted in favour of external (including ministerially appointed) members. Far from guaranteeing more robust governance, the more likely outcome will be a further constraining of critical voices.”

– Professor Eoin Devereux, University of Limerick.

The state is asserting itself and Colleges are agreeing with its par to decide on university matters, such as the composition of the Board.

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Students4Change and the GSU calls on Trinity College Dublin to immediately and publicly voice its opposition to the new HEA Bill. If the College does not call upon the government to prevent the passing of this bill, with its full strength thrown behind its opposition, then the GSU will refuse to sign the upcoming Student Partnership Agreement (SPA). The SPA is essentially a document describing College’s commitment and respect of the student voice through cooperation. We call upon the TCDSU to follow in our footsteps and refuse to sign the Student Partnership Agreement (SPA) until College comes out in complete opposition to the new bill. In addition, we will also be challenging the bill in the Oireachtas by making a submission to the relevant committee, and would welcome your contributions.

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Colleges’ governance disregards students and staff, and has for a long time, not to mention how increasingly corporatized it has become. However, the answer isn’t government intervention, it is massive student-staff pressure from below. We need to resist the encroachment of academia with our full might. There comes a time when strongly-worded letters are not enough; when circumstances call us to action, and when nothing must be off the table – strikes, marches and occupations to make our will known.

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We call upon the College, the Board, students, Visitors, Fellows and Scholars; staff and workers; trade- and student unions; societies; political groups on-campus and outside to oppose the government takeover of academia and the weakening of democracy with the utmost urgency.

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Gisèle Scanlon, President, Graduate Students’ Union +353864120444

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László Molnárfi, Chairperson, Students4Change +32 470583174

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  1. https://universitytimes.ie/2022/01/governance-bill-details-new-conditions-attached-to-state-funding/

  2. https://universitytimes.ie/2022/01/tcdsu-gsu-to-lobby-to-retain-four-student-representatives-on-board/

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  3. https://universitytimes.ie/2022/01/tcdsu-gsu-to-lobby-to-retain-four-student-representatives-on-board/

  4. https://www.tcd.ie/registrar/statutes/

  5. https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/0da13-higher-education-authority-bill-your-questions-answered/

  6. https://universitytimes.ie/2022/01/governance-bill-details-new-conditions-attached-to-state-funding/

  7. https://www.tcd.ie/financial-services/external-assets/pdfs/Consol_Financial_Statements_1920.pdf