Provost Patrick Prendergast has warned that new government legislation on higher education could jeopardise the autonomy of universities – a move he said could “damage” the sector.
In an interview with the Irish Times during a recent trip to Africa, Prendergast said universities highly value their independence: “We realise that we have to be responsible for public money when we get it. Absolutely we are accountable for that. But we think independence of the university systems is very important.”
Prendergast said there was a “risk” that the sweeping new legislation – which will see the Higher Education Authority (HEA) rebranded as the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and could see funding withheld from universities that misuse grants – could impinge on universities’ independence.
“Take away autonomy, take away freedom for decision-making about how best to use our funds, then we could easily damage the university system. So we have to be very conscious not to do that”, he said.
Prendergast said he didn’t think the government is intent on compromising university autonomy, but said: “Since the economic crash, universities have continued to deliver high-quality, higher education and to compete globally in research.”
Prendergast was in Africa as part of a tour of the continent for Trinity’s Inspiring Generations philanthropy campaign, which aims to raise €400 million in donations.
During the tour, he urged alumni to “stay in touch”. In his address in Cape Town, Prendergast said that Trinity’s E3 (Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies) Institute – which College hopes to have ready by 2022 – will be a “game changer” in educating students to address these challenges.
Prendergast is not the only one warning about university autonomy today. Writing in the Irish Times, Graham Love, the former head of the HEA who resigned last year amid concerns over government interference, said the body’s advice on higher education was “often ignored” by the government.
In some cases, Love wrote, the HEA’s input “was unwelcome and sometimes the agency was actively discouraged from developing advice in the first place”.
He welcomed a set of proposals he said would give the HEA – now the HEC – “the tools to implement what is decided by Government”.
But he asked: “What is the point of having a specialist agency, conferring functions upon it and then ignoring or discouraging its advice?”