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22 April 2021  


Post Event: Webinar on Governance in Irish Higher Education


23.11.2020

Please click to zoom image

2021 will see significant governance changes
in the higher education sector

The National University of Ireland (NUI) and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) jointly hosted a webinar ‘On Good Authority: Perspectives on Institutional Governance in Irish Higher Education’ on Friday, 20 November. The event featured the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD, Professor Peter Maassen (University of Oslo) and a range of eminent speakers with experience of university governance in Ireland. There was strong attendance at the online seminar, with a number of university and college presidents, senior officers from institutions across the further and higher education sector, governors, students union officers, officials from European and international university associations and a number of colleagues from universities and colleges in Ireland, the UK, Europe and North America.

 

The online event was opened by Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Dr Maurice Manning and chaired by Colin Scott Scott (Vice President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Principal, UCD College of Social Sciences and Law and Professor of EU Regulation & Governance, University College Dublin).

In his opening remarks, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD, set out the following national priorities for higher education:

  1. the development of a very highly skilled cohort of undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers

    widening participation and increasing access to education

    the development of lifelong learning systems that will meet the diverse student population needs and

    facilitating the upskilling of those already in employment and those seeking employment.


"respect the autonomy of the higher
education institutions but it will also give the
restructured HEA the power to support and assist institutions if there are governance issues".


Simon Harris, TD
Minister for Further and Higher Education,
Research, Innovation and Science

 

Referring to his plans to bring forward legislation early in 2021 to replace the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971 and amend the Universities Act 1997, the Minister remarked that "the current legislation is not fit for purpose and does not reflect the world in which we live". He indicated that the new legislation would "respect the autonomy of the higher education institutions but it will also give the restructured HEA the power to support and assist institutions if there are governance issues". The legislation would "provide for smaller governing authorities of universities which are more skills focused and have an increased external membership to reflect a more modern approach to governing boards". The aim of the legislation was "not to impose sanctions on higher education institutions" but to enable intervention should issues of poor governance emerge.


"wide-ranging external and internal
demands force European universities to
adapt their governance structure and practices.
In this situation, they face the existential challenge
of finding an appropriate balance between being responsible and responsive institutions, and between being economically and academically oriented".


Prof. Dr. Peter Maassen
Professor of Higher Education Studies,
University of Oslo

In his keynote address, Peter Maassen (Professor of Higher Education Studies, University of Oslo) gave a comparative perspective on differing approaches to university governance, stating that "wide-ranging external and internal demands force European universities to adapt their governance structure and practices. In this situation, they face the existential challenge of finding an appropriate balance between being responsible and responsive institutions, and between being economically and academically oriented". Noting the tensions faced by university leaders in responding to competing demands, he pointed out the following paradox in university governance "the more universities take on and operate in line with the global governance reform agenda’s ideologies, the less effective they appear to be in realising some of the reform agendas, especially with respect to their academic production processes".

Responding to Professor Maassen, Pat Clancy (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University College Dublin) set out the specifically Irish context. He expressed the view that the autonomy of the HEA had been eroded over time with "more directional intervention and expanded state control". The boundaries of the relationship between the HEA and its governing department were problematic and there was a need to redefine these.

Speaking in her role as Chair of the Governing Authority, University College Cork, Dr Catherine Day set out the challenges facing governing authorities which, in an increasingly complex environment, "were required to serve many masters". Noting that university governing authorities had more members than the EU Commission and that it was sometimes unclear who the governors were representing, she expressed support for the proposed reduction in the size of the bodies and advocated greater focus on their skills matrix. Governing authorities needed to avoid micromanaging and focus on strategic issues and performance.

From a qualitative study she had completed, Pat O’Connor (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Limerick; Visiting Professor at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin) gave views from university staff, both academic and administrative. Noting that the respondents universally rejected the "new public management", she identified four different coping strategies adopted by staff: pragmatic acceptance, self-interested career-focussed alternative vision; emphasising a better work-life balance and individual amelioration through undertaking valued activities. Mentioning the competitive pressures facing academics, she noted that "a PhD doesn’t open the door", that research and publication were the most valued activities and that maternity leave could jeopardise fragile positions.

Cameron Keighron (former member of Údarás na hOllscoile/Governing Authority, National University of Ireland, Galway; European Students’ Union Quality Assurance Expert Pool) spoke of the difficulties facing student members of governing authorities, who initially were completely unfamiliar with processes, terminology and documentation used. There was an unequal power dynamic at play and far more training and induction were required if student representatives were to be empowered to play their full role.

Originally planned as a day-long symposium, this event was reconfigured for online delivery in the light of COVID-19 restrictions. This changed the nature of the event – it was much more compressed – but also enabled more people to join us from further afield. Of course, the changing landscape of higher education governance in Ireland is influenced by global trends and events. From the richness of contributions, it was clear that this is the beginning of an important conversation about the changing landscape of higher education governance. We look forward to continuing that conversation.

Please see Prof. Dr. Peter Maassen's slides below.





 

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