Minister dilutes threat to freedom

January 3, 1997

IRISH minister Niamh Bhreathnach has tabled over 100 amendments to her heavily criticised universities' bill. The amendments take up 16 pages, more than half the length of the original bill.

They considerably reduce the regulatory powers over university staffing and budgetary matters that had been proposed for the Higher Education Authority in the bill circulated last July.

Non-mandatory guidelines can be issued by the authority but it will no longer have a power of penalty if these are breached by the universities. On rare occasions in the past the authority has fined universities for breaching national pay norms. But the amendments prevent it from imposing restrictions or conditions on the use of money if the universities depart from the new optional guidelines.

They also allow the institutions to pay staff above the odds in certain circumstances, something they are precluded from doing at present. The original severe restrictions on setting fees and on borrowings have been considerably modified and the amendments also provide for lifting the limit on governing body membership from 31 in the original bill to 38. The proposed power of the minister to suspend a governing body has also been modified.

Under the latest amendments the visitor will have to agree to such a decision and it will be up to the visitor, not the minister, to appoint a person or a body as a replacement.

Critics had suggested that under the earlier provision the government could have appointed its own supporters to run a university if it felt that the functions of a university were not being duly or effectively performed.

Under the amendments a governing authority could be suspended only where the functions of a university were being performed "in a manner which constitutes a breach of the laws, statutes or ordinances of or applicable to the university".

The minister has always insisted that the original bill as published did not seek to constrain or interfere with academic freedom. To further underpin this she said she was happy to introduce an amendment which explicitly confirmed that a university in performing its functions shall be entitled to regulate its affairs in accordance with its independent ethos and traditions and the traditional principles of academic freedom.

The Conference of Heads of Irish Universities said that while the minister's amendments had not conceded their demands and requests for revisions in full, they were a "reasonable response" to the universities' concerns about the bill. Accordingly, the conference was prepared to back the amendment.

At the end of a difficult and final year before the next general election it was the kind of Christmas present the minister badly needed.

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