Irish reforms face dilution

November 15, 1996

IRISH minister for education Niamh Bhreathnach has run into new political difficulties over her controversial universities' bill.

The Government-appointed Higher Education Authority has advised her to make substantial changes to the draft legislation.

The HEA already has general regulatory functions but the bill would give it specific controls over universities' staffing levels, pay, quality assurance, borrowings, determination of fees, financial affairs and reporting procedures.

The HEA has proposed 56 amendments which, if implemented, would substantially alter the bill. Many of them are technical but some are very significant and make it clear that the HEA does not want the defined powers that the minister has proposed.

The leaking of the amendments has prompted calls from the main opposition party Fianna Fail to the minister to "seriously consider her position". Michael Martin, its education spokesperson, said that she would have to engage in a humiliating climbdown and dramatically alter the bill if it was to get through the Oireachtas (Parliament).

He was supported by Shane Ross, a member of the government Fine Gael party. Mr Ross is one of the six senators elected by university graduates to the Upper House and represents graduates of Trinity College Dublin, which is particularly concerned at the perceived threat to its autonomy.

So too are the constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland. But the bill has been generally welcomed by the new institutions - Dublin City University and the University of Limerick and by St Patrick's College, Maynooth, which would gain university status if it is carried.

In the amendments, the HEA suggests the deletion of a whole section dealing with guidelines relating to the proportion of a university budget to be spent on different activities of the institution. It also proposes the deletion of five further sections that would give the HEA the power to appoint inspectors if universities depart from guidelines on any matter relating to the number or grades of employees. It says that even the issuing of the guidelines should be dropped and the five sections replaced by a power of penalty where there are "material" departures from acceptable staffing structures.

It describes as "unwarranted and too restrictive" proposed limitations on the right of the universities to borrow money from the banks or elsewhere. It wants the deletion of sections forcing the universities to give reports evaluating their performance to the HEA - these reports would be laid by the minister before the Oireachtas.

The colleges would also be obliged to give such information about the performance and functions of a university but the HEA wants this deleted as well.

On quality control, the bill proposes the evaluation of each department and faculty at least once every ten years by outside experts whose reports would be published. But the HEA wants this replaced by a more general statement about evaluating academic standards in accordance with agreed procedures.

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