Oct 15, 2019

Trinity Bypassed Board on Last-Day Response to Higher Education Reforms

Trinity sent a last-ditch submission to the government on a set of higher education reforms that could radically alter governance in the College.

Emer MoreauNews Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Members of the College Board were not consulted on Trinity’s last-ditch submission to the government regarding proposed reforms that could see the governance structures of the College reshaped radically, The University Times has learned.

Amid new government proposals for higher education that could drastically reduce the size of the Board and replace current Board members with external appointments, the Department of Education sought responses from universities, with the closing date listed as September 30th.

Trinity did not send an official response to the department until this date – September 30th – despite the process for gathering submissions beginning in July.


The College did not consult the Board before the submission was sent by the College Secretary, John Coman, four separate members of Board confirmed to The University Times.

In an email statement to The University Times on October 1st, O’Farrelly said that “these proposed changes have enormous implications for Trinity and how we might run ourselves (or be run!) in the future”.

“It is important that TCD demonstrates leadership and contributes to the decision making”, she said. “The Secretary made a submission on behalf of College yesterday as did some individual Fellows and Senator Sean Barrett.”

“Fellows are now engaging in more detailed consultation with a view to preparing a strategy document on ‘Governance Reform at TCD’.”

The Department of Education’s website listed September 30th as the closing date for submissions.

In an email statement to The University Times, Trinity media relations officer Thomas Deane wrote that at a Board meeting on September 11th, members of Board discussed “proposals published by the Minister of State for Higher Education on 24 July 2019 to significantly amend the Higher Education Act, 1971, and Universities Act, 1997. The College Board decided to ask the Board Review Working Group to consider the legislative proposals as the first element of their work and to make recommendations to the College Board as appropriate”.

Deane added: “Based on the discussion at the College Board meeting, a submission was made to the consultation process set out in those proposals in addition to a submission made by the Irish Universities Association. It is understood that other universities have also made submissions and that the consultation process will provide further opportunities for all parties to make their views known on the proposals.”

Last year, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor asked for an earlier round of submissions on the legislative reform of the Higher Education Act 1971. Trinity sent its submission through the Irish Universities Association.

In a press statement released at the time, Mitchell O’Connor said: “In the almost 50 years since the enactment of the HEA Act we have been remarkably successful in promoting participation in higher education. There are currently some 235,000 students in the higher education sector compared to approximately 20,000 in 1971.”

“However”, Mitchell O’Connor said, “it is acknowledged that the legislative framework governing the HEA has not kept pace with these developments”.

In July, the government released a report containing proposed changes to the 48-year-old legislation, which would oversee the creation for a new statutory body, the Higher Education Commission, to replace the HEA.

The new organisation, the report said, will “prioritise the interests of students and secure public accountability”.

Mitchell O’Connor asked for submissions on “the detailed legislative proposals for the reform of the Higher Education Act, 1971 [and] the consultation report on the proposed reform”.

In a press statement released in July, she said: “The current HEA legislation is almost fifty years old, and reflects a different era. The proposed new legislation will address the need for best practice regulatory models for higher education, the transformation of the higher education landscape and the requirement to prioritise the interests of students and secure public accountability.”

“It is essential”, she said, “that we put in place modern legislation that underpins excellence in governance in higher education institutions, creating an environment in which the higher education sector can flourish and fully realise its potential”.

Trinity’s Fellows were not shown the submission made on behalf of College before it was sent.

Speaking to The University Times, Prof Sarah Alyn-Stacey, a Trinity Fellow who lectures in French Renaissance literature, said that Board should have been consulted in relation to the submission.

“The position of the college should be defined really by the Board”, she said. “We have a head of the College who is part of the governing body – he is not supposed to have absolute powers.”

Given that the changes have the potential to directly alter the make-up of Board, she said, “clearly, Board should have been consulted on the submission”.

Alyn-Stacey’s own individual submission to the Department of Education, seen by The University Times, said that the proposed changes “go to the heart of academic freedom”.

“I write as a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin to oppose the Government proposals which will severely damage the academic autonomy of the Irish universities”, Alyn-Stacey said.

“The proposed changes to the Universities Act of 1997 are particularly to be deplored, notably those which will impact upon the composition of the governing authorities of each university”, she wrote.

Prof Eunan O’Halpin, a professor of contemporary Irish history who sits on the College Board, also sent an individual submission, seen by The University Times, to the Department of Education.

O’Halpin wrote: “I know of no empirical basis for the argument that smaller governing authorities with more external members for HEIs [higher education institutions] will produce better governance. That heads of HEIs may well be in favour is not a convincing argument; rather the reverse.”

“I am certain of one thing”, he said. “Reducing staff representation on boards is a recipe not for enhanced strategic thinking and for improved management, but for weakening discourse about the future, for facilitating an authoritarian culture, and for lessening staff engagement with and commitment to the institution.”

Before taking his seat on the Board at Trinity, O’Halpin sat on the Board at Dublin City University (DCU).

He wrote: “From my very different experiences in two terms of governance at DCU from 1992 to 1997, where there were only a handful of staff representatives, and from 1997 to 2000 (when I left), when there was a large minority, I am convinced that having substantial staff representation increases overall collegiality and staff buy-in to innovation. DCU’s impressive record particularly in this century indicates precisely that.”

“Trinity”, he said, “has a centuries-old tradition of a kind of collegiate governance which on balance has served it well. A radical reconstitution or reduction in size of the Board would be a retrograde step, and it would result in a less consensual and more authoritarian form of university management”.

“This would be to the benefit of nobody save central administration, a body which, as in all other HEIs, requires informed scrutiny as well as general support.”

Correction: 23.38, October 9th, 2019
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a call for submissions to the government regarding proposed legislative reforms to the Higher Education Act 1971 began around a year ago. In fact, a previous call for submissions on the act began a year ago. The current call opened on July 24th, 2019, giving Trinity over two months to prepare a submission.

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