Dáil Contribution on Higher Education Authority Bill 2022

Dáil Contribution on Higher Education Authority Bill 2022

Dáil Contribution on Higher Education Authority Bill 2022

Like other colleagues in the House, I welcome this draft legislation, which fulfils a number of commitments from the programme for Government. There have been a number of references to the 1971 Act. We will all agree it is long overdue and in need of an overhaul. It demonstrates the value of having a senior ministry devoted to the area of higher education and research to bring that focus and energy to the issue.

It is comprehensive in its scope, modern in its approach to governance and inclusive with regard to the student voice.

It rightly emphasises access for all and diversity and it takes a broad view in its definition of education and its place in today’s world. This Bill has at its core the idea that education is a public good, that universities are primarily public institutions operating with major investment of public money. To that end, we have a duty as a Government and as an Oireachtas to oversee that expenditure in the public interest. I agree with some of the points raised by Deputy Gannon around marketisation and how that is not a road we want to travel. We have to ensure, however, that the co-governance model contained in the Bill does not mean that this oversight will come at the expense of the autonomy of individual institutions, as has been referred to by a number of Deputies. We need to make sure that it strikes the right balance between the relative roles of the Minister, the HEA and the institutions themselves. While aware of the contribution of education to national competitiveness and keeping pace with technological advantages, this Bill is clear that education is for individual discovery, for the good of wider society and not simply, as some would have it, as subservient to the needs of the market.

Cé go bhfáiltím go bhfuil an Ghaeilge luaite sa Bhille, ní leor é nach luaitear ach uair amháin í agus sna cuspóirí idir lúibíní in aice na tagartha do chultúr. Ba chóir go mbeadh an Ghaeilge san áireamh le gach tagairt do riachtanas agus nasc cultúrtha tríd an mBille ar fad. Ba chóir, freisin, go mbeadh feidhm shonraithe ag an údarás gníomhú ar chúrsaí Gaeilge. Níl aon fheidhm sa Bhille, mar a sheasann sé faoi láthair, maidir leis an nGaeilge. Ba chóir inniúlacht sa Ghaeilge a chinntiú ar bhord an údaráis, ar údaráis rialaithe na n-ollscoileanna agus na n-ollscoileanna teicneolaíochta agus ar chomhlachtaí rialaithe na gcoláistí, má tá siad chun freastal go cothrom agus go sásúil ar phobal na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta agus orthu siúd ar spéis leo an teanga, go háirithe leis na himpleachtaí a éiríonn as an bhforáil go mbeidh 20% de na daoine a earcófar amach anseo inniúil sa Ghaeilge. Is gá an soláthar seirbhísí agus chúrsaí Gaeilge a chinntiú, a mhéadú agus a thógáil san áireamh san ardoideachas. Tá mé ag súil go mbeidh an tAire Stáit sásta breathnú ar leasuithe i dtaobh na laigí sin ar Chéim an Choiste.

Refreshingly, the legislation places teaching, learning and research on an equal footing and it does not make the mistake of artificial distinctions in this regard. Teaching, learning and research intersect, overlap and enhance one another. There can be an artificial distinction between knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination, that is to say between research and teaching. We need to afford our higher education professionals the space to be able to do both of those things effectively. Our universities must be places where knowledge and ideas are generated and where knowledge and ideas are shared. That balance is important. If we go too far down the road of publish or perish, teaching will suffer. If the teaching workload is too high, research will suffer.

The importance of the voice of the student is represented in this legislation, but there is scope to strengthen that further. The ongoing review of an tÚdarás is explicit on the need for data around inclusion. That is a welcome provision. I note that the board of an tÚdarás will have at least one student or student representative and governing bodies are to have at least two student representatives. I would say that this the very minimum required in order for students to always have a seat at the table.

Part IV makes specific provision for engagement with students, including formal engagement and training. This, along with the student survey every two years, are positive developments. There are, however, some elements that might diminish the chance of the student voice being heard in a meaningful way at these governing board meetings. First there is the issue of tenure. Non-student board members can serve for up to eight years, while we can expect that students will serve for a year and no longer. There is a skills issue here. It can take time to learn not just the ropes of how a board operates, but also how to navigate the personalities on any given board. I acknowledge that there is an effort to provide for this upskilling, but I also have a nagging worry that a board could just wait a student out. They could frustrate and delay change until a student’s tenure lapses. I wonder if we can address this going forward. The Minister might say that this is taken care of in section 43(3), where each institution must report on the issues raised by students and how they were addressed, via the annual report or through another method. Again, here in reality, we have no guarantee that what is published in that report will have been agreed to by what will be a student minority on the board. Perhaps the Minister might consider stating that this annual report has to be explicitly and demonstrably approved by the student cohort on the board. That would help strengthen that student voice.

I warmly welcome the definition in section 108 of academic freedom. The European University Association ranked the autonomy of universities. Ireland´s highest placing in this research was third for academic autonomy. This is a prized position and we need to continue to value that and to try to improve it again. This recalls Edward Said’s definition of a public intellectual as someone who not just displays freedom of thought, but who is brave enough to say this loud and clear for all of us to hear. He states:

At bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.

We need our academics who are ready to criticise us when we put a foot wrong. We need our students to keep agitating and to keep us uncomfortable. We need academic staff to be both free and, in some sense, duty-bound to help steer us on the right path, as well as being wary of easy acceptance or false consensus. We have learned to value experts over the last two years in managing Covid-19. We should do that in other areas. Climate jumps out to me as an obvious example. We need our universities to feel that their institutions are of us and for all of us. This legislation goes a good distance towards achieving that goal.