Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: Second Stage


9:27 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to address the House on Second Stage of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022. Last year was the first full year of operation for the new Department and, before I speak to the House on the specifics of this legislation, I will take the opportunity to thank and commend the students and staff of our colleges, universities and institutes of higher and further education who returned to campuses and classes this academic year. It has been a year like no other. That is nearly a hackneyed phrase at this stage but staff and students have responded and adapted to Covid changes in a constructive and effective way. They have shown us how lucky we are to have our shared future in their hands. I am beyond thrilled that our colleges and campuses are alive with people again. When you walk on a college campus you again hear the buzz and noise of people mixing, socialising and being educated together. I hope that this will only increase further in a safe manner as the year progresses. We continue to keep our Covid steering committee in place and to act in a way that gives the utmost importance to safety and health.

It has been 50 years since the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 established the Higher Education Authority, HEA. A lot has happened in the Irish education system in 50 years. This Bill repeals the 1971 Act and marks a new dawn for our higher education system. It maintains a reformed HEA and brings in generational changes, all of which are key to the development and progress of our human talent and capability. This matters because our higher education institutions are important. In our colleges and universities, we develop the right skills for our future workforce, we nurture the societal benefits of education and we build our research capacity to drive forward innovation.

The reforms in this Bill will: improve oversight and regulation of higher education institutions including in respect of financial matters; focus more on the needs of the learner; and enable improved policy development and planning in the sector. The Bill provides a legal basis for the functions of the Higher Education Authority and the role of the Minister. Higher education institutions are independent corporate entities established under statute or as not-for-profit or private institutions. The HEA is the statutory body which acts as an intermediary between autonomous higher education institutions and the State. Crucially, the HEA is responsible for securing the achievement of Government objectives for the higher education system and for ensuring accountability and securing value for money in the use of public funds.

Before I outline the specifics in this Bill, I will reiterate the objectives of the higher education system. Higher education provides high-quality teaching which is innovative and adaptive to the needs of the learner. Higher education brings benefits to wider society by advancing equality, diversity and inclusion. Higher education creates knowledge and contributes significantly to social, economic and cultural development. The Bill I bring before the House today invests in and champions these objectives by providing a detailed and modernised framework with appropriate oversight and accountability.

I will now outline the specific parts and key sections of the Bill. Sections 1 to 6 are standard provisions relating to the Short Title and commencement, interpretation, regulations and orders, expenses, repeals and savers, and offences. Section 7 provides for the continuance of the Higher Education Authority. Section 8 lists a set of objects or key principles that apply to the HEA when undertaking its functions.

Section 9 lists the functions of the HEA. These include functions in respect of: student engagement; student success; equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education; planning, funding, performance monitoring and oversight of the higher education sector; research provisions; co-operation with other relevant agencies and higher education institutions, including in Northern Ireland; and the collection of statistical information in order to provide high-quality evidence-based policy advice.

Section 10 provides standard provisions for the appointment of consultants and advisers. Sections 11 to 14 provide that the Minister may give directions and may issue guidelines in writing to the HEA, that the HEA shall provide reports and information to the Minister on any matter related to the performance of the functions of the HEA, and that the HEA may provide advice to the Minister on any matter related to the performance of its functions.

Sections 15 and 16 provide that the HEA shall have a board established under this Act to perform the functions of the HEA and that the board will have 12 members comprising a chairperson and 11 ordinary members, including at least one student representative member. All appointments will be made by the Minister and will be competency-based, with the exception of the student representative member who will be a student or a full-time officer of a national student union, nominated by that national student union.

Sections 17 and 18 provide for administrative co-operation between the HEA and other bodies including the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, QQI, SOLAS, Science Foundation Ireland and other appropriate bodies prescribed by the Minister. There is also provision for the HEA to enter into an agreement with SOLAS in relation to the delivery of a system of apprenticeships, which is important, including the establishment, on an administrative basis, of our new national apprenticeship office, whose functions shall be to manage, oversee and develop a system of apprenticeships. I was delighted to meet the new director of our national apprenticeship office just this week to discuss the continuing progress under the apprenticeship action plan, which I predict will accelerate further in 2022 with the new office and the new apprenticeship alliance.

Sections 19 to 24 provide for: a grant to the HEA each year out of money provided by the Oireachtas; the preparation and adoption by the HEA of a corporate plan every three years; an annual plan to be prepared by the HEA; the keeping of accounts by the HEA, the audit of these accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the laying of the accounts and the report on the accounts before each House of the Oireachtas; the preparation of an annual report of the HEA by 30 June each year and the laying of that report before the Houses of the Oireachtas; and the acceptance of gifts of money, land or other property by the HEA.

Sections 25 to 28 provide for standard provisions in relation to the chief executive officer of the HEA including the continuation in office of the chief executive officer who is in place immediately before the commencement of section 7. Sections 29 to 32 provide for standard provisions for the staff of the HEA including superannuation and prohibition on unauthorised disclosure by members of staff of the HEA of confidential information.

Section 33 provides that the Minister will develop a strategy of not more than ten years' duration for the provision of tertiary education which shall identify the objectives and outputs for the further education and training and higher education and research system in the State. Section 34 provides that the HEA shall plan for higher education provision by maintaining a continuous review of the demand for higher education. The HEA shall recommend to the Minister the overall provision of student places to be made within the higher education system having regard to specified criteria.

Debate adjourned.