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Students lash out at plans to change law on universities

Five students’ unions believe allowing the government to control pay rates will also mean controlled curricula.

Image: Trinity College photo via Shutterstock

THE STUDENTS’ UNIONS at five of the country’s seven universities have criticised plans to reform the laws surrounding Ireland’s universities, which would give the government the power to centrally control pay rates for staff.

Education minister Ruairí Quinn is drafting legislation to amend the Universities Act from 1997, which gives each university’s governing authority total autonomy in relation to the number of staff that a university can hire and the amount its staff can be paid.

The proposals, which have already been approved by the cabinet, would return direct control of these to the Department of Education – a move the unions say is unnecessary and could undermine the universities’ ability to decide what courses they teach.

In a statement this evening the presidents of the students’ unions in UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, DCU and of both unions in Trinity (undergraduate and postgraduate) said the changes were “a knee-jerk and populist reaction to recent expenditure and remuneration controversies”.

Universities were already fully accountable in their spending because of their responsibility to the State’s spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General, and to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee, they said.

“This Bill undermines the internal control mechanisms and the ability of the Universities to innovate and develop strategies for the future”, they said, arguing that “constructive engagement” with the colleges was required instead of direct intervention by central government.

“University Management, in consultation with members of the academic staff, must be able to design and implement curricula independent from fear or realised government intervention,” they said.

This amendment threatens principle of academic autonomy and will relinquish control of such decisions to the Minister and the Department of Education.

The students cited the recent problems regarding grant distributions at SUSI – the grant processing body set up by the Department of Education to process maintenance grants for new students – as an example of how the intervention of central government could be anti-constructive.

“Irish Universities are reliant on human capital and being able to secure Academic Staff who can facilitate the highest quality learning and research among students, which in turn produces the highly skilled graduates a smart economy requires,” they concluded.

By taking away control of the most important element for success from those managing the institution and passing it to the Minister and the Civil Service the government are putting the quality of teaching and learning in Ireland in grave risk.

Read: Ireland launches ‘radical’ new university rankings system

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Gavan Reilly

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