The Minister for Education and Skills has secured government agreement for the drafting of an amendment to the Universities Act 1997. This amendment will give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector. It will further address issues which have arisen in relation to the non-adherence to elements of the Croke Park Agreement. …
… The focus is on compliance with a “policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far it relates to the remuneration or numbers of public servants employed in that university, or a collective agreement entered into by the Government or the Minister”. The powers now given to the minister are: (1) To make a direction requiring compliance; (2) To send in an investigator to check on compliance and make a report; (3) On receipt of such a report, to make a specific direction to the institution reported on; and (4) If the minister considers that there is non-compliance or “serious deficiencies” in the area, to transfer university functions in that area to someone of the minster’s choosing. This transfer can be for up to 2 years.
… the result is a dog’s breakfast of provisions, which makes it entirely unclear where responsibility for hiring policy lies. A university may appoint “such and so many persons to be its employees as it thinks appropriate, having regard to” a number of matters (Universities Act, 1997, s.25(1) [the Act is linked and summarized here]). One of the things it must “have regard to” is guidelines from the HEA, but that does not mean it must do what the HEA says – the guidelines are explicitly stated to be non-binding, and the government cannot make compliance a condition of the receipt of public money (s.50(2)). Yet under the new legislation, the university must comply with a “policy decision” in respect of numbers (new s.20A(2)), and any ministerial “direction” on the matter (new s.20C(2)). (Presumably the Employment Control Framework is one such policy, even though it did not emanate from the DES, and presumably the minister’s expressed opinion about what it requires are “directions”, even if others have different opinions.) There is no mention of the HEA in that part of the new legislation – the minister need not even tell the HEA what he is up to, let alone consult them in a meaningful way. If this legislation is in place, it is entirely unclear who has responsibility for the size or shape of the universities. Perhaps that is the idea.
… a great deal more thought will have to go into … [the Bill] if the result is not to be chaos.