The Presidents of five of Ireland’s universities’ students’ unions have released a statement opposing the amendments proposed to the Universities Act from 1997.The amendments in question, proposed by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, would see the government take control of staff levels and pay. Currently, these matters are dealt with by each university’s own Governing Authority, and they are all accountable to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee for Expenditure.
In the statement, the Presidents of UCD, TCD, DCU, UCC and NUI Galway said that they believed that this is “a knee-jerk and populist reaction to recent expenditure and remuneration controversies” and that while university management teams are all concerned by the proposed amendments which have already been approved by the cabinet, they believe students would also suffer should this bill come into effect.
UCD Students’ Union President Rachel Breslin outlined her main concerns for students, should this Bill pass, commenting: “We have to remember that in a university, it’s not like other businesses or organisations, because your main asset walks out the door every evening. The main asset of a university is the staff so this isn’t intervening in some minor part of the organisation. If university staff felt that their pay or their very employment is under threat then they will feel pressured to design curricula around what the government may want to see. The government could use this Bill to try and follow their strategic objectives which mightn’t be in the interest of overall academic freedom and in the education of the country of their own.”
The Presidents also fear that without the Universities maintaining its control over their staff pay and staff levels, it will become very difficult for Irish universities to compete for top academics in a “very competitive sector”. They believe that by introducing this bill as law, “the government are putting the quality of teaching and learning in Ireland at grave risk.”
In the statement, they said that the recent intervention by Minister Quinn into the third level sector with the SUSI grant system is just one example of a lack of appreciation by the government of third level operations, stating that “SUSI has failed students and their families and placed a further burden on the sector as a whole.”
They plan to continue to oppose this bill as it progresses, and are currently meeting with TDs and highlighting the issues they have with the reforms. Breslin believes it is important for students’ unions to emphasise to these TDs that this isn’t just something Universities feel strongly about, but that “students also feel strongly and that it would harm our education and the value of our degrees and the academic experience that we participate in in college.”
The management teams of the universities have been meeting with Minister Quinn and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) to express their own issues with the amendments. A spokesperson for UCD commented that “A university requires a level of autonomy that enables it to successfully compete in the global education sector. It is worth noting that almost 50% of UCD’s funding derives from non-exchequer sources.”