Some third level legislation mentioned in the Government’s new legislative programme

Wishing HandLast week, under the title Some third level legislation envisaged in the Brief to the incoming Minister for Education, I wrote about the legislative priorities of the Department of Education and Skills, as set out in the Brief (pdf) to that department’s incoming Minister. This post is by way of a short update. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the Government’s newly-published Legislation Programme (pdf) sets out the legislation that the Government will seek to publish over the next few months. There are eleven priority Bills for publication this session; there are four Bills expected to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny this session; and there are 17 Bills currently on the Dáil and Seanad Order Papers (including the Technological Universities Bill, as discussed by Steve Hedley on Ninth Level Ireland). This will keep the government and both Houses of the Oireachtas busy in the short term.

Of more long term interest are the 97 other Bills at various stages of preparation mentioned in the Programme. Two of them relate to matters covered in my post on proposed third level legislation. First, a Higher Education (Reform) Bill is proposed, to modernise the legislative framework underpinning the governance and functions of the Higher Education Authority [HEA] and the governance structures of the universities (see p11). We are told that “Heads are currently being drafted”. Second, a Universities (Amendment) Bill is proposed, to ensure compliance with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector (see p12). We are told that “Heads [were] approved in October 2012” and that drafting is “underway”.

The Department’s legislative timetable is now a little clearer than it was in the Brief to the Minister. It is important to get the drafting right. I think that there are three relevant principles here. The first is Oireachtas oversight over universities’ accounts via the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General [C&AG] and the Public Accounts Committee [PAC]. The second is Oireachtas control over funding provided by the Oireachtas to the universities via the HEA. The third is the principle of institutional autonomy (expressed in section 14 of the Universities Act, 1997). The first two principles, Oireachtas oversight and Oireachtas control, are related, but separate. Public oversight of the accounts of public bodies is good practice, whatever the source of those bodies’ funding. And control by the Oireachtas, of funding provided by the Oireachtas, is good practice, whatever oversight arrangements are in place. These distinctions are important when it is realised that many public bodies receive funding from sources other than the Oireachtas. Whilst oversight by Oireachtas of the raising and expenditure of such funding (via the C&AG and the PAC) is entirely appropriate, there is far less justification for control by the Oireachtas over the raising and expenditure of funding received from sources other than the Oireachtas. The case for such control has to be established, not merely asserted. And the case for such control is not established merely by virtue of oversight.

Universities are increasingly raising funding from sources other than the Oireachtas, such as research funding from Irish, European and international funding bodies and research foundations, and infrastructure funding from philanthropists. The principle of institutional autonomy should extend to the raising and expenditure of funding received from sources other than the Oireachtas. Whilst the Oireachtas should continue to have oversight of all university funding, and whilst it should be able to control the funding it provides, it should afford autonomy to the universities over funding from other sources. If the proposed legislation does not do so, it will be very flawed. Whatever benefits are given by one hand, this flaw will take them away with the other.