Universities (Development and Innovation) (Amendment) Bill 2015 – I – Introduction

Pomodoro, Sfera con Sfera, in TCDSenator Seán Barrett, in conjunction with Senator Feargal Quinn and Senator David Norris, introduced the Universities (Development and Innovation) (Amendment) Bill 2015 as a Private Members’ Bill in the Seanad, and it was debated last week. It is an interesting and important Bill (full disclosure: I advised Seán in some of the drafting). It is relatively short, consisting of 10 sections and one Schedule, largely presented as a series of amendments to the Universities Act, 1997 (also here). But it is ambitious (see the full text here (pdf)). And had it prospered, it would have enacted some very important ideas and policies which would have put the development of Irish universities on a sound footing for quite some time to come. In this post, and the next three, I want to look at some of the issues raised by the Bill.

This Bill is Senator Barrett’s second run at university structures. His first, the Higher Education and Research (Consolidation and Improvement) Bill 2014, was introduced in the Seanad and had its Second Reading on 2 April last. It was discussed in detail at the time by Prof Steve Hedley (UCC) (here, here, here, here, and here), and Senator Barrett responded to those posts here. Unfortunately, this innovative Bill did not get very far down the legislative track. Even more unfortunately, his more recent and even more innovative Universities (Development and Innovation) (Amendment) Bill 2015 also got no further. Both seem to have foundered at Second Stage.

He introduced his 2015 Bill at First Stage on 22 January 2015, and the Second Stage debate was held the following week, on 28 January 2015. In welcoming the Bill during the Second Stage debate, the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan commented:

One of the great advantages of having a debate in this House on universities is the fact that we have a considerable amount of expertise among the Senators who are elected specifically from the universities and expertise right across the Seanad.

The Government recently published its Legislative Programme for Spring/Summer 2015 (pdf); and in Section C of that programme (which relates to Bills in respect of which heads have yet to be approved by Government) there is a reference to a Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill – to implement the 1979 amendment to the Constitution on the Seanad university franchise (see Article 18.2 of the Constitution). There is, at present, a (yet another in a long line of) working group on Seanad reform, looking at very issue. It is due to report next month. It is to be hoped that its recommendations do not dilute this advantage. In this regard, an earlier Private Members’ Bill introduced by Senator Barrett provides an appropriate way forward.

However, having begun with an appropriate pleasantry, the Minister did not accept the Bill. Instead, she told the Seanad that the government was considerably advanced “in setting in train the legislative underpinning for the modernisation of our” higher education system, which would include legislation to “support the new funding, performance and accountability framework for the system that is being put in place” and to “strengthen and reform the governance structures and accountability of higher education institutions”. In particular, she said that “a broader higher education reform Bill, the general scheme of which is currently being drafted, will … contain the amendments to the Universities Act necessary to implement governance and accountability reforms”. However, she did concede that “some of the proposals in Senator Barrett’s Bill can be incorporated in the legislation I will be bringing forward later this year.”

Introducing the Bill at that debate, Senator Barrett said:

We are dealing with the role of the university and the contribution it will make in the future to the development of Ireland as we try to renew the country in the post-bailout environment. There is a superb tradition of stimulating debate, valuing experience and making a valued contribution to Irish society which the Bill attempts to reinforce …

Section 1 is boilerplate, consisting of the short title, collective citation and commencement. Section 2 is the standard “definitions” section. Speaking during the Second Stage debate, Senator David Norris complimented Senator Barrett on the “clarity and precision” of these definitions. The long title of the Act provides that it is an Act “to encourage education, innovation, research and scholarship in the universities”; and, importantly, section 2(2) provides definitions of each of these terms, which are repeated at various junctures throughout the Bill. Indeed, section 3, relating to the objects of the university, would amend section 12 of the 1997 Act to include that phrase five times; and section 4, relating to the functions of the university, would amend section 13 of the 1997 Act to include that phrase twice.

In particular, section 3(f) of the Bill would have added a new section 12(l) to the 1997 Act, by which it would be among the objects of a university to

develop, promote and facilitate the distinctive intellectual atmosphere of an academic and scholarly community dedicated to education, innovation, research and scholarship in all of their forms and across the full range of academic endeavour.

Similarly, section 4 of the Bill would amend section 13(2)(a), so that it would be among the functions of a university to

provide education, and … [to] promote and facilitate education, innovation, research and scholarship in all of their forms and across the full range of academic endeavour, …

This is a broader set of amendments than those contemplated in his earlier Bill (discussed here). During the Second Stage debate, the Minister acknowledged that there is merit in these proposals at least in so far as they relate to “innovation”, and she said that she would be “happy to consider the inclusion of similar amendments” in her forthcoming legislation. Senator Ivana Bacik also found “strong merit to those proposals” and she was “delighted to hear the Minister say she will support them”.

However, the Minister did not comment on the the references to university activities in “all of their forms and across the full range of academic endeavour” – this comprehensive commitment to universality is at the heart of any institution worthy of the name university, and underpins the commitment in the Explanatory Memorandum (pdf) (repeated by Senator Barrett during the Second Stage debate) to “the ongoing support of the humanities”:

A university must have a wide range of disciplines and not be constrained to an exclusive faculty or grouping of faculties. The objective of this statement is to protect the role of the disciplines traditionally described as the humanities (i.e. arts and letters, liberal arts), which have been under great strain when evaluated by a purely utilitarian approach to education.

Finally, the next three posts in the series are on: