Seanad debates

Thursday, 15 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Further and Higher Education

9:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, to the House.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. What is the purpose of a university? Is it to explore, research and engage in debate and the open exchange of ideas, as most people would expect and have always believed, or is it to ensure that everyone thinks the same, believes the same things, adopts the same ideological approach to topical issues, discounts the latest evidence-based research, and stifles academic freedom?

It is a real question that we have to ask because when I proposed amendments relating to freedom of expression to the universities Bill, the Minister assured us on that occasion that we should have no fear about limitations on freedom of speech for staff or students in third level colleges. Some months ago a staff member at the South East Technological University highlighted her concerns relating to freedom of expression in Irish universities. She has received no clarification from the Minister or his Department as to whether it was, in fact, "unlawful discrimination or harassment" for staff or students to refuse to use students' or staff members' preferred pronouns, as was claimed by the university. I want to stress that the lecturer in question is herself happy to use preferred pronouns, but not as a matter of obligation. She does not believe that staff or students should be compelled to say something that they might believe to be untrue.

In its gender identity and expression policy, that university describes as "unlawful discrimination or harassment" the refusal to use students' or staff members' preferred pronouns. Similar claims are made in the gender identity and expression policies of UCD, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Trinity College; that is, that unwelcome pronoun behaviour is an "indicative example" of unlawful discrimination.

These gender identity and expression policies are at odds with Irish legislation. Irish equality legislation focuses on gender-sex and not on gender identity and rightly there is no compulsion in law on gender identity matters. The issue around gender identity arises in part because all Irish higher education institutions, HEIs, must participate in the Athena SWAN charter and eligibility for research funding is contingent on engagement with the charter. The Higher Education Authority, HEA, has explicitly stated that "HEIs stand to lose access to research funding if they do not achieve Athena SWAN awards within a set timeframe" and that HEIs would be ineligible for Environmental Protection Agency, Health Research Board, Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland funding from January 2020 if they had not achieved specified Athena SWAN award status.

Essentially this compulsion to participate in the Athena SWAN charter means that certain ideas and philosophical beliefs are now compelled within Irish HEIs. The Athena SWAN charter requires that HEIs sign up to commit to the charter principles. Unfortunately, those principles, which most people thought were about equal opportunities for men and women in third level institutions, have chosen to reject the male-female binary, despite having no evidence base to do so. Thus the Athena SWAN charter impinges on academic freedom in Ireland by imposing a set ideological approach to certain contested beliefs, including the issue highlighted by the lecturer in SETU. Universities and higher education quangos, egged on by the Irish Government and international NGOs or bodies, are pushing norms and standards that are not evidence-based and are not required by law.

Ironically, participation in the Athena SWAN charter, which came from the UK, is not compulsory for UK HEIs and is not required there in order to be eligible for funding from the major research funding bodies. The National Institution for Health Research in the UK did require, for a time, HEIs to engage with the Athena SWAN charter to get research funding but this was dropped in 2020. Research funding in the UK is not now dependent on participation in Athena SWAN. There is the additional irony that the two most offensive principles which form part of the Athena SWAN UK charter were revised following a public critique of them and their potential impact on academic freedom. Crucially, however, those two principles remain in the Athena SWAN Ireland charter. It is madness.

Principle 5 of the charter requires a commitment to: "fostering collective understanding that intersectional inequalities must be accounted for in the development of effective equality analysis and actions" and principle 8 requires a commitment to:

... fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine and affirm their gender, and to implementing inclusive and effective policies and practices that are cognisant of the lived experiences and needs of trans and non-binary people.

This is essentially the policing of thought on a highly controversial subject. Surely the job of a university is to facilitate open debate – not to "foster collective understanding" on such controversial matters.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Deputy O'Donnell. He is welcome. He is nearly a permanent fixture here at the moment. He has four minutes to reply to Senator Mullen.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris.

The employees of higher education institutions are protected by the provisions of employment law. This includes, but is not limited to, the provisions contained in the Employment Equality Acts and Equal Status Acts. As employers, relevant HEIs are also bound by the same provisions in their capacity as employers of academic staff. In the case of any staff member believing that they are discriminated against, they should use the internal mechanisms available in HEIs. They should refer to their internal policies and human resources department, as appropriate.

Academic freedom, including in relation to research funding, is strongly protected in Ireland through the relevant legislation, including the Technological Universities Act 2018 and the Universities Act 1997. As the body with oversight of the higher education sector, the HEA has an obligation to protect academic freedom. The Higher Education Authority Act 2022 includes the following provisions: to advance equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion in higher education; and to respect the academic freedom of higher education providers and academic staff in those providers.The HEA is committed to meeting these objectives.

Every HEI has a responsibility and a statutory duty under relevant sectoral legislation to act in a way that promotes academic freedom. The sectoral legislation also includes a statement that the academic staff of the relevant HEI shall not be disadvantaged if they question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas or state controversial or unpopular opinions in their teaching research and any other activities, either inside or outside the HEI.

The HEA Act also outlines a statutory duty of HEIs to promote equality. The Athena SWAN Ireland charter is a policy initiative that sits under the legislation and the charter is cognisant of national policy in this area. As such, the objective of the Athena SWAN Ireland 2021 charter framework is to support higher education institutions, academic departments and professional units in impactful and sustainable gender equality work. The charter supports HEIs to build capacity for evidence-based equality work across the equality grounds enshrined in Irish legislation.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of his State for his reply. As I would not have him down as one of the most woke members of the Government, I regret that he has been shackled with the job of responding to this matter. I would like to face the Minister, Deputy Harris, directly on this point and I would like him to face me. What we have here is an explanation that it is all right, the law is fine and the Athena charter comes in under the law. That is not the way it is working out in practice in terms of what the universities are requiring. How can there be academic freedom when universities are telling their staff that they are breaking the law if they state what they believe to be true?

It is an irony in our society at the moment that the Government, which is constantly talking about the dangers of misinformation and disinformation, is one of the greatest proponents of the post-truth society when it comes to fostering collective understanding around what are, in effect, gender fantasies. Requiring academics to use language that they may not believe to be true is an unacceptable situation. We have highlighted the problem but the Government has not answered it effectively here today. Athena SWAN has to be revised or it has to go.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. I will take these matters back to the Minister. I note the point being raised by the Senator. Higher education institutions participating in the charter sign up to the Athena SWAN Ireland principles. In signing up to the principles, participants recognise that each institution, department and professional unit has different equality challenges and development priorities, and that these priorities should be developed based on an understanding of the local evidence base and the national and global equality challenges in higher education.

Athena SWAN Ireland is managed by dedicated staff who are based in Ireland. Award recommendations are made by panels of peer reviewers who work in the higher education sector. In 2021, the Athena SWAN Ireland charter was redeveloped in line with the findings of a national consultation and offers a framework for progressing equality in higher education and research that is unique to Ireland.