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DFHERIS Officials Admit HEA Bill 2022 Has No Guarantees for Trade Union, Academic Staff and Democratic Student Representation, FOI Reveals

Under the FOI Act 2014, 24 documents were released to Students4Change. They concern a webinar held by DFHERIS Officials with Senators, and emails sent to Senators by Minister Harris outlining why their amendments to the bill are rejected and finally one document which is an instruction from Minister Harris to the HEA to prepare guidelines for environmental sustainability.

The crucial point is that in the webinar held 11.07.2022 (July 11th 2022), DFHERIS Officials are minuted as admitting that the bill has no protections for trade union, academic staff, non-academic staff or democratically-elected student representatives on governing bodies of HEIs.

To the question “The SIG asked considering that the composition of the 5 internal members on the governing bodies of higher-education institutions as listed in the HEA Bill 2022 does not guarantee either trade union or academic staff representation explicitly, how will this bill guarantee that those with a democratic mandate will sit on governing bodies of our institutions?”, the answer given by DFHERIS Officials was “The legislation allows for a flexible mix of academic, non-academic in accordance with the procedures set out by individual HEIs as the individual HEI requires”. In other words, no trade union representation, and the keywords “flexible” and “allows for” implies there is no guarantee of any proper representation, and this is up to the HEI’s senior management to decide. It certainly allows for, but the way the bill is worded does not require institutions to have academic staff, non-academic staff or trade union representatives on governing bodies, since the 5 internal members are merely defined as “‘internal member’, in relation to a governing authority, means a member of the governing authority who is a member of the academic council of the university, an employee of the university or a person
who is remunerated under a contract with the university and, in the
case of Trinity College, including fellows of Trinity College;”
in case of a university as per section 73 and no subsections are set to further refine who the 5 internal members should be comprised of. In other words, the 5 internal members can comprise of only senior management staff, because it includes anyone who is remunerated under a contract with the university. In the case of TUs (section 90) and Regional Technical Colleges (section 109) this is better defined as elected academic staff and elected non-academic staff are required to sit on the governing bodies, but no trade union representation is explicitly guaranteed either.

To the question of “The SIG asked considering that the bill does not guarantee that student representatives are elected to governing bodies of higher-education institutions, how will this bill protect the autonomy of student unions and their democratic mandate to be on governing bodies?”, the answer given by DFHERIS Officials was that ” Procedures will be set out by each governing body regarding the election of students to its governing body.“. Since the governing bodies will be under the control of senior management, Ministerial appointees and external appointees who are biased to be corporate and not to upset the apple cart, we do not see how this offers any actual protection to students. Finally, there is no guarantee that procedures will be set out to elect student representatives rather than handpick or appoint, since this is not in the bill. In fact, the bill clearly says that on governing bodies there should be “3 student members appointed by the governing body” / “three student members appointed by the governing body” for all types of institutions.

There is also an interesting moment when the DFHERIS claims that when the bill says “students OR students’ union” must be consulted, it is not problematic that the union can be disregarded, since the student union officers are included under the definition of students.

It is further mentioned and agreed by DFHERIS Officials that the HEA Bill 2022 could seriously hamper the ability of the state to borrow in the future from the EU and other parties, if it is deemed that universities are under government control, due to the debt balance sheets of many institutions.

Please see in our FOI Database the other documents, including emails to Senators in which Minister Harris rejects all their amendments. It is under “HEA Bill 2022 Minister Harris” and then “Minister Harris and DFHERIS Briefing to Senators” folder in the Google Drive.

Number of Students in Fee and Rent Arrears Increased by 67% to 11,189 During the Pandemic

As the cost of education has increased, 11,189 students and their families have fallen in arrears during the Covid-19 pandemic across Ireland. This number was obtained following 33 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2014 requests to all third-level institutions in the Republic and the North of Ireland. The responses we received indicate a 67% increase in fee and university-owned rent arrears from 6,678 in 2018-2019 to 11,189 in 2020-2021. Students4Change is sharing these worrying figures and calls for immediate action to organise against this capitalist government and for socialist power. 

The data shows that students and their families across the country are struggling, and that supports during the Covid-19 pandemic were not adequate to prevent many from entering into the downward spiral of due arrears. An ILCU study in 2019 surveying students revealed that 24% say finance is their biggest worry, and 74% say they have to work during the academic term to cope with costs. 42% rely on their families to fund their studies [1]. This was only made worse with the pandemic and its financial aftershock, when many lost out on vital income. Such financial troubles risk taking a serious mental and physical toll on students and their families.

We further believe that the debt disproportionately affects medical- and nursing students and those in the arts and design courses where there are many hidden costs including the cost of equipment, materials and renting of studio spaces. The actual figures are also likely to be higher than disclosed, since 4 institutions refused to share university-owned accommodation rent due to the data residing in private subsidiaries which are not subjected to the 2014 FOI Act. 

The rent and fee arrears of today are carried onto the graduates’ lives as debt in the future, especially when considering skyrocketing accommodation, non-EU and postgraduate fees. In the North of Ireland, a 2022 report indicates that students are leaving university with close to six-figure debts [2], while a 2017 article revealed that in the Republic students owe thousands of euros [3].  A 2016 Union of Students Ireland (USI) survey found that 60% of parents get into debt funding third-level education [4]. 

László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change, said “The political consciousness of the student movement has been so far to cooperate with the neoliberal coalition. This has miserably failed the students of Ireland. Photo-shoots with Minister Harris or any other politician from the FF/FG/Greens has led to nothing but empty promises from the government. Such actions will not lead to change being made, since being ‘respectable’ or being in with them will not make them listen to us. While they are preoccupied with stunts, students on-the-ground are struggling as evidenced by the sharp increase in the number of those in fee and rent-related arrears. Instead, we must agitate against the enemies of students, workers and our communities. We are under attack and this must be met with the most severe fightback. Nothing should be off the table – strikes, marches and occupations to realise our demands. We demand free, public and democratic education for all!”.

Original data linked here, in the Students4Change FOI database, in the ‘Rent and Fee Arrears’ folder on Google Drive. Also present in that folder is two Excel analysis sheets and the FOI template we used.


[1] https://www.creditunion.ie/news/latest-news/ilcu-survey-on-college-costs/

[2] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/northern-ireland-students-burdened-with-debts-of-almost-100k-41540544.html

[3] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/universities-owed-thousands-in-unpaid-fees-and-charges-1.2932946

[4] https://usi.ie/education/60-of-parents-get-into-debt-funding-third-level-education/

FOI Reveals IUA called HEA Bill 2022 “unworkable”, multiple universities dissent at “command and control” structure

In response to an FOI request submitted by Students4Change alongside the Trinity Graduate Students’ Union 23 documents were provided. These are engagements of University Leaders, USI, IUA and others in relation to the HEA Bill 2022. Virtually the whole sector is discontent with this bill. The HEA Bill 2022 was discussed in the Daíl last week on the 22nd of June 2022, where Deputy Rose-Conway Walsh proposed an amendment to include trade union representation on the HEA Board but this was rejected by Minister Harris. The bill will be discussed in the Seanad tomorrow (28/06/2022).

The documents include UCC and Maynooth calling the bill a “command and control” over universities, the IUA saying that aspects of the bill relating to how funding can be widthrawn and conditions set anytime by the CEO of the HEA do not “accord with natural justice and will prove unworkable”, and universities raising concerns that state control will lead to reduced EU funding. Interestingly, the Provost of Trinity College Dublin Linda Doyle is seen to not be as oppositional to the bill, and in one instance, talks about a possibility to “impose change on the Fellows through the statutes” and about how Trinity have convinced the community that smaller, competency-based Boards are needed. Minister Harris insists that the HEA Bill 2022 is a “comply or explain” system in section 136, which allows the HEA to issue codes, policies and guidelines to institutions.

The HEA Bill 2022 has been critizied for the shrinking of governing bodies to favour corporate, state and university leaders, for the composition of the appeals Board that is picked by the Minister, the sway of the Minister and their cabinet over the equality policy and other aspects. Trade union, staff and student representation will be reducted in favour of those not keen to upset the apple cart.

Please find the documents in our S4C FOI Drive. Below you can also find quotes from S4C and GSU, and also a timeline which describes these documents.

The bill remains a disgrace. Within universities, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by bureaucracy over students and staff. On a national level, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by the HEA over universities.

Trade union, staff and student representation will be shrunk in favour of state, corporate and university leaders on the governing bodies of our universities. On top of this, the HEA Board will stand as an unaccountable, Minister-dominated command-and-control body over our institutions. The apparatchiks of the Minister will sit on this Board, with only 1 student representative who the Minister can reject if they so wish, and the legislation even lacks the basic safeguard of the HEA Bill 1971 where at least seven of those on this board would have to be academic representatives. The centralization of power in the hands of the state should be of extreme concern to anyone who respects democratic principles.

The HEA Bill 2022 is a move towards a U.K.-style environnment for academia. What is happening is that the government is coming in, underfunding academia, and then will impose an austerity regime with their now-expanded powers. It is the height of the corporate fever to think that the way our universities are run has to do with not enough oversight by government officials, when in fact the failure of our institutions to meet targets simply comes from the decades-long underfunding of academia by the state. This is the same underfunding that has corporatized our institutions into for-profit companies. With the government only committing to half of what the 2016 Cassels Report asked for the sector, the situation will not improve. Precarity will increase, welfare supports will continue to not be funded and the logical conclusion of underfunding is that student loans might be introduced in the future, despite government promises. The neoliberal university is the same everyhwere.

It is a joke that a Minister is asking a democratic parliament to reduce democratic representation on governing bodies. Bureaucrats wrote the bill, with their corporate reasoning of “efficiency” and “competency”, to reduce governing bodies and tip the balance towards those who are not keen to upset the apple cart. The real bliss of this bill for bureaucrats will be that no more awkward questions will be posed at governing body meetings. The bureaucracy that will be dealing with will transform our universities into businesses, and what we will see is that subjects which make no money will be stripped, and further on we go into the neoliberal spiral. There are some competencies you cannot measure.

I would refer you to President Michael D. Higgin’s speech on the 8th of June last year.  The academy is now a “winter”, as Max Weber, the great 19th-century social theorist, foretold. He spoke of the threat of a “spring that would not beckon with its promise of new life”, but would deliver instead “the threat of a winter of icy cold”. Weber prophesied “an iron cage of bureaucracy within which conformity would be demanded”.

Do not let us conform. This bill is an affront to our constitution and to our values.

László Molnárfi, students4change chairperson

Firstly as President of the GSU, I wish to express my total opposition to the HEA legislation and the unconvincing College counter to it. I have made it known at the Board of Trinity College meetings that I oppose it and I also wish for it to be noted that I have lodged my formal dissent to it. 

The Bill is short-sighted and reactionary. It undermines our capacity to support students in these most troubled economic times and to dilute student representation, which has a long history within Trinity of confronting the challenges that students face and will continue to face into the future is unacceptable.

We will fight this at the Graduate Students’ Union alongside the Students’ Union and insist that the four student seats which are currently on the Board remain safe. A student can never have enough representation and I will continue to fight against these cuts on my watch.

I have met with numerous advisors and public representatives to discuss the HEA Bill and the Supplemental Charter and after vast consultation, I am convinced that the legislation leaves not only Trinity College without autonomy but our country without an autonomous university system. This is a sad result for civil society and it is particularly disappointing for Trinity College (a place with talented academics who have educated me and whom I admire greatly). Both the HEA Bill and the Supplemental Charter decimates the collegiate structure of the governance of TCD by undermining the role of the academic staff including their trade union members, professional staff and their trade unions, the fellows – this not only collectively impacts the student experience negatively amongst the college population but is unacceptable and a viscous attack on student welfare and the student voice. We are therefore convinced that the College response is not in the best interest of students and we state our complete opposition to the proposed HEA legislation.  

I have met with democratic representatives of our national parliament and have found genuine support for our opposition. I have discussed the idea of democracy and its deliberate reduction through the proposed HEA Bill legislation and the distinct lack of opposition by College to the Minister. The Union agrees with some Fellows who are also of the opinion that this hurried decision to support the Minister in facilitating the reduction of representation at the Board by Trinity College is in direct conflict with our pre-independence charter which is binding on both parties in perpetuity. This is indicated in the US Supreme Court in the Dartmouth College case in 1819. The “surrender” charter of 2022 paves the way for the HEA Act and should also be rejected. The push comes from officers who have failed since at least 2018 to defend our historic charters which are binding in perpetuity. None of the items in either piece of legislation has been properly evaluated.

The attack on students in the HEA bill is defended by the Minister and has to be challenged. Apart from a small group involved with the Minister, I have not met anyone who supports reducing student representation. Students are the majority population in College. The Officers and the Minister promoting the legislation have a dim view of us. Those in our community who provide teaching labour as part of a research agreement are talented, able, and valued members of the governance (through representation) and education system. We have been utterly betrayed.

In consultation with representatives and various College fellows we have gleaned that that the Bill’s attack on Ireland’s only autonomous university and its royal charter is an action we promised at the Belfast/GFA not to do. After referendums in both jurisdictions we incorporated into Article 3 of the Constitution a commitment to  respect the diversity of the traditions and identities on the island of Ireland. We take this o good stead to be the case. Trinity College Dublin has always been an all-island body serving both traditions and identities with a distinct legal identity. I doubt if the proposals of the Minister and the College would have made it through the east-west or north-south provisions of Belfast GFA or meet the legal standards of our partners to the Belfast GFA, namely the United Kingdom and the United States. We have discussed this at length and have taken advise form Sean Barrett amongst many others.

I have been asked to put forward my opinion, I believe that this is harmful legislation which will affect the Irish higher education landscape, Ireland’s reputation as a liberal tolerant modern democracy and, in particular, the reputation of Trinity College and our student experience and the value of our degrees as a result. I have already communicated my deep concern at numerous meetings and shall continue to do so: in a time of rising inflation, rising student fees (which we oppose as unacceptable) and a rising cost of living for our student population, losing any voice from College Board is unacceptable and we will continue to challenge this to the end.  

Gisèle scanlon, president OF TRINITY GRADUATE STUDENTS’ union

Here is a timeline below which we have reconstructed with the documents provided from Minister Harris’ office.

5th of March 2021 (#1) – UCD writes to Minister Harris to fix the imbalance between funding opportunities for fundamental and applied research. 

5th of March 2021 (#2) – IADT writes in a submission to Minister Harris that the HEA Bill is not pandemic-proof, and does not include learned experience from Covid-19. They furthermore say that there is no macro-view, no defined roadmap or vision to the bill. It is a bill lacking a national vision, which, if the bill were to be delayed, could be worked on with a proper consultation.  The submission further states that the consultation process seems to have excluded direct feedback from key stakeholders. They furthermore mention that accountability and autonomy should be managed on an institutional basis and not on a sectoral basis, and criticises the use of penalties as a primary enforcement mechanism.

5th of March 2021 (#3) – Trinity Fellows write to Minister Harris say that the proposals in the bill would dismantle the democratic, diversity and competency of the bodies of College, most specifically Board. They argue against an external majority. The need to respect Trinity’s autonomy, a well-performing institution, must be protected, they say. 

15th of April 2021 (#4) – Representatives of Trinity College Dublin met with the DHFERIS, where both parties expressed a wish to reach an agreement. DFHERIS said that they have been “intentionally silent” on Trinity in order to give them space to discuss issues specific to the College. Trinity said at this meeting that “TCD wish to arrive at a situation where the changes in TCD are framed in a private Act which is approved by the Fellows and linked to the legislation. The alternative is to impose change on the Fellows through the statutes” and “They have persuaded the TCD community that a smaller, competency based board is needed in Trinity”, despite this not being the case according to a University Times article from 2020 in relation to a similar proposal. 

1st of December 2021 (#5) – USI raises the issue of student union autonomy as part of the HEA legislation in a meeting with Minister Harris. 

16th of December 2021 (#6) – Minister Harris follows-up on earlier meeting with Trinity and agrees to an exemption. 

12th of January 2022 (#7) – Provost replies to Minister Harris saying that after discussions with Board and Fellows, “while some opposition and reservations were expressed with aspects of the proposals”, there is a “sense that the proposals relating to Trinity may be generally acceptable on a consensus basis”, provided that the change is made via private legislation, and that this right is retained by Trinity. 

18th of January 2022 (#8) – Minister Harris follows-up on USI’s queries regarding student union autonomy, asking them to forward any views, including “how student unions are currently established and governed and their relationship with USI and any interaction that USI has had to date with representative bodies such as IUA and THEA on how such matters might be advanced collaboratively”. He also promised a follow-up meeting. Furthermore, the Minister lays out in this email other student partnerships, such as QQI, StudentSurvey.ie and also Section 136 (to issue guidelines, codes and policies to universities) to help autonomy. Furthermore, he refuses to change the composition of governing bodies. 

10th February 2022 (#9) – IUA requests a meeting with the Minister saying that certain aspects of the bill “such as those relating to the unilateral powers of the HEA CEO and the appeals process for actions or measures taken by the HEA require specific attention as we, we believe, they do not accord with natural justice and will prove unworkable” and they attach a list of amendments. 

21st of February 2022 (#11) – IUA follows up on meeting request. 

7th of March 2022 (#12) – UCC writes to Minister Harris to express “serious concerns” about the bill, and that “We are concerned that the draft legislation, if enacted, may interfere with the responsibility of the University to take the necessary decisions in teaching, learning and research. This is both an issue of academic freedom and of the autonomy of decision making which enables UCC to carry out its particular mission”. UCC says that the powers of the CEO of the HEA are not accountable, and that the compliance with guidelines, codes and policies will result in a ”command and control” system over universities. They also mention that the right of appeal is limited, and not independent. Furthermore, they mention that the HEA Bill 2022 under EU rules might reduce the overall capacity of the state to borrow, if Eurostat assess the proposed restrictions amounts to government control.

8th March 2021 (#23) – NCI requests to be included as HEI under the legislation. 

9th March 2022 (#13) – IUA confirms a meeting with Minister Harris for the 14th of March. 

25th of March 2022 (#14) –  IUA follows-up and says that there are a number of issues that have not been addressed, such as the CEO’s power to apply any funding conditions, the lack of checks and balances before applying remedial measures, the independence of the appeals Board and others. 

16th of May 2022 (#15) – UCC follows-up and stresses once again to Minister Harris’ that there is the threat of a “command and control” system over universities which mean that the doctrines of the HEA will become legally enforceable without being enacted in the form of legislation, and also stresses the issue of a need for a broader right of appeal.

16th of May 2022 (#16) – IUA sends Minister Harris UCC’s correspondence.

 17th of May 2022 (#17) – Maynooth University sends Minister Harris email, saying that the HEA Bill will “erode the autonomy of institutions”, and that accountability and autonomy is insufficiently balanced. They also say that the current approach is a “command and control” system. 

9th of June 2022 (#18) – Minister Harris replies to IUA and says that he believes that the bill has struck the correct balance between autonomy of HEIs and oversight. He rejects the IUA’s amendments in relation to “comply or explain” as opposed to “command and control”, saying that legal advice has been sought and it would not be appropriate to make the changes as requested. He also rejects an amendment by the IUA with regards to Board approval in respect of certain decisions, and approves a few and rejects a few others. Out of 7 proposed IUA amendments, he rejects 3 outright, rejects 1 because previous amendments were made,  accepts 2, and adds 1 alternative amendment. 

13th of June 2022 (#19) – Minister Harris replies to Maynooth University where he informs them that he is not making any further amendments to the “comply or explain principle”, saying that there are appropriate safeguards in place. 

13th of June 2022 (#20) – UCD meeting with Minister Harris.

17th of June 2022 (#21) – Trinity Provost sends Minister Harris supplemental charter as agreed at Board on the 15th of June. There were 2 dissents at that Board meeting. Provost asks Minister Harris to check if there is anything that will conflict with the bill in this, to verify. 

22nd of June 2022 (#22) – Minister Harris writes to USI that after legal advice, he is not in a position to agree to amendments relating to students’ union autonomy. He says student engagement is already guaranteed in the bill, and that section 136 (to issue guidelines, codes and policies) will be used to guarantee student union autonomy. 

Powers of the Minister HEA Bill 2022

  • The Minister will be able to appoint the 12-member HEA Board, including approve or reject the national student union’s representative (16) (a). This board fulfills the aims of the HEA, including its committment to equality, inclusivity and diversity (section 8 and 9).
  • The Minister will handpick 3 people on governing bodies of universities, and a further 6 will be selected by the governing body in accordance with a policy set by the governing body that he “approves” (73) (4).
  • The Minister and his Board can set the funding conditions for universities, including “use the funding in a cost effective and beneficial manner”, “operate according to standards of good governance,” and comply with the “guidelines, codes and policies” that they issue (Chapter 2, (37) and (38)) under section 143. If an instiution fails to abide, the conditions of funding may be revised, funding may be withheld, or the institution may be told to repay funding. Section 38 (b) also allows the CEO – appointed by Board with Minister’s consent ((25) (2)) – of the HEA to set any other conditions for funding, with the Board’s consent.
  • The Minister can ask the HEA to prepare “guidelines, codes and policies” for “the implementation of any policy or objective of the Minister or the Government” that will be applied to HEIs under section 143.
  • The Minister appoints the appeals board for the decision to witdhraw funding, as per (69), so it is not an independent body.
  • The Minister and his Board can use Section 143 which gives power to issue “guidelines, codes and policies” to HEIs, on which the HEI must report progress to the HEA on.
  • The Minister and his Board can use Section 35 and 36, to dictate the development and focus of universities with “performance agreements”.
  • The Minister (and his cabinet if the Minister so wishes) will hold sway over universities’ equality policies due to needing to be consulted about equality statements (62) (4).
  • S. 107, s. 108, s. 118, s. 9 (s) combined with the powers to set additional funding conditions as set out  in (S38(2)(h)) poses concerns that the Minister will now be able to control land acquisition and disposal of universities.

Within universities, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by bureaucracy over students and staff.

Within the national scene, the HEA Bill 2022 is a power grab by the HEA over universities.

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QS Rankings are Bullshit

University league rankings are infused with a corporate ethos that push the neoliberalization of our institutions and seek to pit them against each other in cookie-cutter, numerical categories that reflect nothing about real conditions on-the-ground.

They consider research output as the most important factor.

We might as well be article-producing robots for all it cares.

Such rankings will never consider mental health supports, which lack at our College so severely that it has 40+ days waiting times, the cost of education, which was just increased by 10% for many over a 4-year period, or staff working conditions and casualization.

Neither will they ever consider that during the pandemic, the number of students in fee arrears shot up from around 20 to 250.

We have to call these surveys for what they are.

The QS ranking system can find its place alongside other forms of fake tools.

QQI, the so-called Quality and Qualifications Ireland, cares about quality of education insofar as the bottom line, how financially viable the way institutions run their courses is. They would not recognize that staff working conditions are student learning conditions and would never recommend making them better to improve our education.

StudentSurvey.ie is a corporate survey that pushes the same cookie-cutter logic as QS, and its equivalent the National Student Survey (NSS) is boycotted in the U.K. for corporatizing universities and raising tuition fees.

National Student Engagement Programme (NsTEP), a joint initiative of the QQI, Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Union of Students Ireland (USI) and other so-called partnerships are fake. While they are taking away student representation on governing bodies of 60% of universities with the HEA Bill 2022, they pretend to “strengthen student engagement in decision-making across Irish higher education”. It is disgraceful.

Such initatives are empty promises on paper, like the Student Partnership Agreement (SPA) at Trinity, which seeks to reduce student representation into mere professionalized inputs into the bureaucratic machine rather than strengthen in so it can challenge the sociopolitical order of the world. It is great PR for those in charge but useless for students and staff.

Unfortunately, the USI and other stakeholders swear by these tools. This is unfortunate. We must have the political vision to imagine otherwise, a world in which it is truly the community voices that matter and not the fake initatives of the corporate world.

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