TCD secures exemptions from sweeping Government reforms on accountability

Trinity College Dublin has secured key exemptions from sweeping Government reforms aimed at strengthening the accountability of higher education institutions due to its “distinct legal basis”.

The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 – the biggest shake-up of third-level governance in 50 years – aims to cut the size of university governing bodies, empower the Minister to appoint a majority of external members and provide a legal footing for reviews of individual colleges.

TCD, however, will be the only university permitted to retain a majority of internal board members due to the “distinct role played by Fellows within the Trinity community”, according to the Department of Further and Higher Education.

To accommodate this, Trinity may have up to 22 members on its governing body while other universities will have a maximum of 17.

Trinity will also be permitted to retain its system of “visitors” – an internal judicial body which currently includes Trinity chancellor Dr Mary McAleese and Mr Justice George Birmingham.

The new legislation provides that if there are concerns over governance or other matters at Trinity, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) may request the visitors to conduct a “general visitation”.

They shall report in writing to the HEA and furnish a copy of the report to the university’s governing authority.

Planned reforms

The exemptions provided to Trinity in the draft legislation follow criticism from within university over the implications of planned reforms.

Last year the university warned the Government that they threatened to undermine its autonomy, damage its academic standing and end its tradition of “collegiate governance” which had served the college well for over 400 years.

At a lengthy meeting of the university’s board last year, one senior source warned that the reform plans could spell “the end of Trinity as we know it”.

In a subsequent submission to Government, the university said while it agreed with plans to strengthen governance and accountability, significant elements of the proposals presented “fundamental difficulties”.

It requested that the legislation would exclude it from key aspects of the Government reform plans in order to preserve its “unique character and principles”.

It said there was precedent for this given the university was excluded from reforming legislation in 1997 and said it would be sensible for a similar measure which is “sympathetic to Trinity’s unique legal character when undertaking reforms”.

‘Accountability framework’

Overall, the new Bill aims to reform oversight and regulation of the third-level sector and includes a “performance and accountability framework” aimed at safeguarding public investment.

The plans have sparked concern among some senior university staff who fear greater State “control” of the sector and limits on their autonomy.

However, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has insisted that university autonomy will be protected.

He said recently that the legislation will introduce a “co-governance model” which will allow institutions remain autonomous, but which will ensure “investment the Government is making in the sector is safeguarded and there is accountability for that funding”.

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