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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 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).

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.

Sign the petition!

#StopHEABill22

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.

GSU-S4C Call To Action: Oppose the HEA Bill 2022

                19th of January 2022

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Dear undergraduates and postgraduates,

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#StopHEABill22

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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.

Sign the petition!.

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

FOI Reveals Minister Harris Discredited Student Voices during Exams

An FOI request put forward by László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change and Gisèle Scanlon, President of the Graduate Students’ Union, on behalf of the #NoInPersonExams national campaign to Minister Harris’ Office has now been granted. The reason for the FOI request was to ascertain a timeline in which Minister Harris engaged with the 5,000 student and staff signatures of the open letter so that he can make a balanced and fair decision relating to in-person examinations. The #NoInPersonExams open letter is spearheaded by two Trinity students, undergraduate László Molnárfi and postgraduate Giséle Scanlon, and has amassed over 5,000 signatures, which were delivered to Minister Harris in good faith on the 1st of December 2021.

Today we have received the results of this FOI. The correspondance which we received contains 6 records were granted to us after we asked for “Documents, communications regarding the decision of Minister Harris to not intervene in Universities holding in-person exams for Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Any communication between Minister Harris and Donnelly for this issue including the meeting minutes of the meetings that Minister Harris had with
management, staff and student representatives. E.g. the one on December 1st
2021 with the student unions” and “Documents, communications regarding Minister Harris’ and the Department of Further Education “s consideration of the #NoInPersonExams open letter, which was delivered to the Minister’s Office on 52 Stephens Green on the 1st of December 2021”.

As early as November 19th 2021 at a meeting of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group the issue of Semester 1 examinations across Universities and Technological Universities was discussed. Minister Harris said in his opening remarks that “Decisions in relation to examinations should be taken in accordance with the framework in place i.e. on the basis of risk assessment and consultation”, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) President Claire Austick raised the issue of having alternative options for students not able to attend in-person examinations, according to meeting minutes of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group.

Dr Joseph Ryan from THEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, brought concerns relating to increasing levels of anxiety surrounding examinations.

The IUA’s representative at the meeting stated the importance of alternative examination arrangements and also access to PCR tests. The IUA is short for the Irish Universities Association and they represent DCU, Maynooth Uni, NUI Galway, TCD, TU Dublin, UCC, UCD and the University of Limerick. The IUA is composed of the Presidents of each of these Colleges.

Just a month later, at the next meeting of the Steering Committee on the 10th of December 2021, in the middle of exams, Minister Harris in his opening remarks is seen to call the student voices, like NUIGSU, who called out instititutions not creating safe exam conditions to be lies. He called upon stakeholders to “debunk misinformation regarding the application of public health advice”. He also said that an agreement was reached that a “one size fits all approach is not appropriate” – this agreement must be referring to the government’s own decision, as meeting minute do not indicate any sort of direct discussion on the topic.

Dr Breda Smyth, is the director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, and also is one of the leaders of the Unicov project.

Claure Austick, USI President, after the opening remarks of Minister Harris, reiterated the importance of alternative options for assesment students in light of rising Covid-19 cases.

The IUA suddenly at this meeting agreed with Minister Harris, contradicting students’ and staff’s account on a number of issues, namely the amount of in-person exams, whether these exams are safe and whether there are proper alternative arrangements (e.g. deferral mechanisms) in place. They also claim that whenever an exam was postponed due to Storm Bara, it was moved to a different date “in agreement with local student unions”, but this was clearly not the case for NUI Galway’s Saturday exams.

Stella Griffin from FORSA, an Irish trade union, noted concern for invigilators (since they are older and more at-risk) in exam halls at the meeting.

It does not seem that at these meetings Minister Harris allowed much discussion, either at the November meeting, or at the December one, despite claiming to do so. His Office had already made up their minds before hearing any of the other stakeholders, and the government seems to not have listened to student and staff concerns. It seems that at the November meeting, promises and suggestions were made by a variety of stakeholders that were never implemented by the government. Proper deferral was not implemented across many universities – 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring according to a recent survey, and PCR testing at the time of the Christmas exams was very difficult to access. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos detail crowded scenes in examination halls. It seems that those in-charge have no clue what is going on on-the-ground.

Following the 10th of December meeting, a document which describes how to answer questions from TDs in the Dail relating to in-person exams was disseminated to government members. It said that the key messaging must be that all stakeholders were consulted. Furthermore, it crafted a reply to possible “opposition attack lines”.

Another meeting was held just between Minister Harris and the USI and different SUs on the 1st of December 2021. The briefing document prepared for Minister Harris for this meeting shows that Minister Harris’ Office essentially let Universities take the blame. This was re-iterated to the representatives at the meeting, who raised the issue of #NoInPersonExams.

Briefing document.

As far as whether the Minister’s Office considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter with 5,000 signatures, they did not. They put it in the government system, but there is no indication that Minister Harris or others in the government took the time to engage with the signatories. This shows a huge disrespect for the 5,000 students and staff who raised the mental and physical dangers of in-person examinations and is an affront to the democratic process.

This was the only communication and document relating to the FOI about whether the government considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter. Branding the Graduate Students’ Union of Trinity a “protest group” just shows how out-of-touch Minister Harris’ Office is with student representation on-the-ground.

Find all the original FOI documents here. Note that for the briefing document mentioned just a moment ago, there were supposed to be “redacted” parts, but the government failed to redact it properly – you can simply copy-paste from the PDF, so we made an unredacted version which describes different issues relating to third-level education at the moment.

We would hope that the Minister has learnt lessons from this, namely that the next time we call to deliver a petition with several thousands signatures and hundreds of thousands of social media interactions, that the Minister will have the good grace to engage with not only the content of the petition, but should extend appropriate respect to the many thousand voters who took the time and consideration to be a part of the campaign.

#NoInPersonExams Survey Results

We are publishing the worrying results of our #NoInPersonExams survey, in which students from across the country participated. 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring. 57% said that they were financially affected, and 65% had to travel with public transport for their exams. 75% lived with someone at-risk, and 85%/98% said that there was no adequate social distancing in the exam hall / in the outside line. 71% of students have heard of others going into the exam hall despite being positive, and 57% of students have heard of others becoming positive following an exam. Find the general and per-University results in full at this link, including comments from students.

In Solidarity with the JCR

All JCR events have been banned by College until further notice due to an event going awry out of no fault of the JCR.  Trinity Halls residents will be left without support during the holidays. 

Here is our statement of support.

The week of the 20th is Christmas week at Halls. Christmas week is not a week to be discussing events – vendors, organize gazeebos, catering, etc. and for College to be giving permission. If the JCR are interested in planning Christmas event, a plan would have to be tabled this week on Tuesday at the Covid-19 Management Team meeting. The time for the JCR to bring events for approval is next week, but if this review takes place next week within the next couple of days (and presented on Thursday at the Trinity Living with Covid meeting) then the JCR will not be able to hold events because they will not have time to discuss and propose events. With respect, the JCR needs time to prepare events and not get distracted by such reviews. What it is is a perfectly timed review to halt the operations of the JCR, to act as an impediment for their operations, which will ultimately end up punishing students who stay over for Christmas.

In addition, the exam season might impede the review, and who knows when it will be complete because of that.

In past years, the JCR has organized multiple events per month. However, as demonstrated, this year’s JCR is being pressured and banned by College from organizing events. This is unacceptable.

From a University To A Business – A History of Fees in Ireland

Students4Change supports USI’s F*ck the Fees Protest.

USI’s protest takes place Molesworth Street in Dublin at 2pm on the 23rd. Other regions have protests too, check out USI’s social media.

Tuition fees for third-level were abolished in the mid-1990s, however, this has resulted in the Government being tempted to slowly cut funding.

While student numbers increased, so did taxpayer’s investments into Universities, but the overall money available per-student has been decreasing. For example, spending per student at third-level decreased from €10,806 in 2007 to €7,089 in 2016, a drop of 34.4%.

This is despite the fact that between 2007 and 2016, public spending on education increased by 5.1%. It is simply not enough, and this has resulted in the corporatization of Universities, where they have to make up for the loss of state funding by operating like for-profit businesses, cutting courses and downsizing services like counselling.

The process of corporatization has also seen the loss of democracy within Universities, with once-lively student and academic committees making decisions being replaced by closed, managerial and elite decision-making bodies.

The so-called “Free Fees Initative” that was put in place in the mid-90s soon came to be a myth. Already in 2009/2010, students had to pay a “Registration Fee” of €1,500 to access education. By 2020-2021, this fee, now called the “Student Contribution” stands at €3,000.

On the picture, the 2010 student protests are shown, at which participants were brutally beaten by the Gardaí.

Austerity post-2008 was when bankers got away with gambling away people’s lives and the universities were essentially privatised. In Ireland, banks got a €64 billion bailout, funded by taxpayer money.

Today, only 5% of students are from a disadvantaged background in Trinity College Dublin as per the HEA report of 2020. Socioeconomic diversity is at an all time low accross all Universities, as students must pay up to 14,000 € per year for tuition and overpriced student accommodation.

At the same time, student nurses midwifes and dental practicioners are being exploited. “Before their final year internship, most student nurses and midwives get either nothing or an allowance of just €50.79 per week,” says INMO, their union.

Students are emigrating under this immense financial pressure. However, if we combine our forces, we can still change our situation.

In the UK, grassroots groups organized in 2020-2021, engaging in rent strikes and eventually winning refunds of up to 30% for the academic year.

In the Netherlands, tuition fees were halved following the 2020-2021 academic year for 2021-2022, due to the loss of student experience during Covid-19.

All this shows that another system is possible. We need to organize ourselves in radical, mass organizations and keep pushing for change at every corner.

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