This is an excerpt from our new research paper, available here.
The HEA Bill 2022 changes the way that institutions acquire property, handle their finances and get loans.
When it comes to the HEA itself, there is a transfer of power when it comes to the ability of the body corporate to acquire, hold and dispose of land, an interest in land or any other property. It needs the consent of the Minister and of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (S7(2)), whereas the 1971 HEA Act did not explicitly state either (Schedule (1)). The functions of the HEA are further extended to include giving recommendations to the Minister in relation to proposed acquisition or disposal of land by an institution, where the consent of the Minister is required for such a transaction (S9(1)(s)).
A series of amendments to make it necessary to have the consent of the Minister to acquire, hold and dispose of land or any other property when it comes to Regional Technical Colleges (S107) (S108) and NCAD (S118). There is also an amendment to the Housing Finance Agency Act (1981), which specifies that when higher-education institutions acquire land to build student housing, they need the consent of the Minister. From the latter, universities under (S53(1)(a)(i)) and (S53(1)(a)(ii)) are exempt.
This combined with the powers to set additional funding conditions as set out in (S38(2)(h)) or the ability to issue guidelines, codes and policies (S143) poses concerns that the HEA will now be able to direct property-related matters in these institutions. This would be beneficial to the HEA, because of the profit motive.
According to a webinar held July 11th 2022 by DFHERIS officials to Senators, the department agreed that the bill could seriously hamper the ability of the state to borrow in the future from the European Union (EU) and other parties, if it is deemed that universities are under government control, due to the debt balance sheets of many institutions. 7 institutions have debt of close to a billion euro that could be affected in this way. Eurostat, an EU agency, would decide on the classification. This is possibly the same reason that when NCAD proposed the ability to loan on their own terms as a response to the bill, such a provision was rejected by the DFHERIS alongside the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (D/PER) according to a request under the Freedom of Information Act (2014). There has also been intense back-and-forth between the department and NCAD, including meetings of which the contents are not public according to the same request, possibly because of the proposed large-scale € 90 million redevelopment of the campus.
What might end up happening is a further push towards commercialization, as the state subsumes academia, then proceeds to impose austerity measures to keep its own finances balanced. In this sense, land- and real-estate is profitable, for example through sale, speculation and the building of expensive student accommodation. Such a command-and-control structure runs the risk of bypassing local authorities and their sustainability or other development strategies.