Irish protests force climbdown

November 8, 1996

Irish education minister Niamh Bhreathnach has promised to amend her controversial universities bill following protests from academics and politicians that it compromised autonomy.

The bill, about to receive its second reading, aims to restructure the National University of Ireland, change the composition of the governing bodies of all seven university colleges and provide greater accountability and transparency.

It was circulated at the end of July and is facing a tough passage through parliament. Last November the government narrowly escaped defeat in the upper house of parliament on the issue of university autonomy, even before legislation was published.

The main opposition has come from the 400-year-old Trinity College Dublin, which would be obliged for the first time to open its governing body to outside representation, including ministerial nominees if the bill is passed.

Former prime minister Garret Fitzgerald also objects to the bill, saying that it contains eight sections which together propose to hand over regulation of university management decisions to the government-appointed Higher Education Authority. Writing in The Irish Times, he asked: "How has our Oireachtas (parliament) come to be presented with such an extraordinary authoritarian, indeed Thatcherite, bill: a measure profoundly contrary to, and openly dismissive of, our highly successful university system?" The criticism prompted the Higher Education Authority to take out a newspaper advertisement saying that public debate had been marked "by a series of fundamentally erroneous conceptions, even bordering on the bizarre, about the role of the HEA".

But Michael Mortell, president of University College Cork, said the bill was unsafe without substantial amendment. It was not in the public interest.

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