Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: From the Seanad


6:12 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, as Members will know, was published in January of this year. I genuinely want to thank all the Deputies involved for very intensively engaging on this Bill. We have had a lot of engagement and I believe we have made a lot of improvements together. The Bill completed its Final Stage in the Dáil in June with a total of 179 amendments made. We then took the legislation to the Seanad and I accepted, and we made, a further three amendments there. Today, we are back, if not to reopen the Dáil debate, then to seek the approval of Dáil Éireann for those three amendments.

I consider that the 179 amendments made in the Dáil and the three amendments made in the Seanad have strengthened the Bill. They have addressed a lot of issues that were raised in the Oireachtas and, equally important, that were raised by stakeholders more widely as we went through the consultation process. As I said, I welcome the positive engagement of colleagues on this legislation. While we all debated the minutiae of the legislation, as we should, I note that this legislation passed Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann without a division, which I think was a general welcome for the broad thrust of the reforms we are all trying to progress.

The three amendments made in the Seanad amend the provision regarding the student membership of the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology. For the avoidance of doubt, the amendments simply replace the reference to "three student members" on the governing body, which is what is stated in the legislation as drafted, with the reference to "three student union representatives". I acknowledge that these were amendments in the names of Senators Ruane, Higgins and Flynn and their group in the Seanad, but I know they were very much speaking, as Deputies would have been on all sides of this House, on behalf of the student unions which sought this amendment.

These are amendments that we are putting in place for the avoidance of doubt. The provisions in the Higher Education Authority Bill in regard to the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology include provisions that a governing authority, with the approval of the Minister, will make appropriate regulations regarding the selection, election, nomination or appointment of members to the governing body. It was expected that these procedures would provide for student members to be elected to the governing body in accordance with current practice. It is certainly not the policy or legal intention to appoint students to the governing body who have not been elected by the student body. As Minister, I certainly would not approve any procedure which did not provide for an election for student members to the governing body. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I did accept these amendments proposed in the Seanad to ensure that it is three student union representatives who are appointed to governing bodies. These appointments will still be governed by the regulations made by the governing body. There will be 19 members on the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology.

In addition, we made a lot of amendments in this House around the Irish language, which was important. We had a good bipartisan approach and Deputy Ó Snodaigh did a lot of work on that, which I acknowledge. We had good engagement between myself and Deputy Ó Cathasaigh around the whole issue of climate, environmental sustainability and transparency in regard to how this legislation will relate. In the Seanad, it made sense to further strengthen the student union voice. When this Bill was published, we were talking about having two student union representatives and we have increased that to three. We are now clarifying that they are absolutely student union representatives and I will formally move the three amendments in that regard.

I commend the Bill to the House in its entirety. It will have a real, lasting and positive impact on some of our most important educational institutions. I want to have a final word on the legislation in the context of academic autonomy. Our researchers, academics and intellectuals are key drivers of sustainable progress, equality and our country's future prosperity. It is important to put on the record of this House that academic freedom of higher education institutions and staff continues to be explicitly enshrined in Irish law and legislation. This is a co-regulation model. It is only correct that the taxpayer has confidence that public funds which go into our institutions are managed appropriately. Anything less would be falling short of our responsibilities. The overall aim of this legislation is to provide a high-quality, student focused system with appropriate oversight and accountability to underpin public confidence.

As a last word, I thank the officials who have worked so hard on the legislation. I thank Tanya Kenny, Ide Mulcahy and Stuart Morris, who join me here today, and Keith Moynes in the Department. They have worked on this legislation for a very long period of time. I thank everyone who engaged with this legislation, in particular the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, the student unions, including the Union of Students in Ireland, all of the various universities, the chairs of governing authorities, the presidents and the Government and Opposition Deputies, in particular Deputy Conway-Walsh. We have a fine piece of legislation that will modernise the structure. I thank everyone for engaging on it.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.