On this signal day for all along the Shannon, I appreciate this opportunity to contribute to what has been an inclusive process to date.
A key characteristic of the consultative documentation is the adoption of a collaborative approach as seen in the internal shared governance model, marked by co-regulation between the HEA and the institution. This recognises the maturity and the critical responsibility that must lie with an institution, while affording the HEA the wherewithal to manage its oversight role. The recent establishment of a governance forum by the HEA, and including IUA and THEA, is regarded as a positive manifestation of this shared approach. This raises an interesting question as to whether a regulatory agency can also be a fostering body. THEA’s view is that we live on a small island. We work to a common goal - facilitating the realisation of personal potential and contributing toward social cohesion and to the growth and sustenance of our economy. In a mature construct, it is advisable to work collegiately while retaining respect for the statutory functions appropriate to all actors. The co-regulation advocated in the document is warmly welcomed, as is the risk-based regulatory approach.
The HEA also has a role in defending diversity. Moves that lead to the homogenising of the system, consciously or otherwise, should proactively be resisted, as they will ultimately undermine the clear policy direction set out in recent legislation.
The paper sets out a concept of a shared governance model that separates the corporate, executive and academic strands. While the architecture and distinct roles are generally understood, there can be questions on the margins of what lies within the competence of each. For example, the role of the governing authority in the academic oversight of an institution, and thus the nature of its relationship with the academic council, deserves particular attention. The role of the chief officer is also understated in the draft to date.
There has been a drive for some time to effect a reduction in the size of governing bodies. The desire to achieve this in the Technological Universities Act was not fully realised and it pointed again to the cultural challenge of moving from a representative to a competency-based structure. THEA is in favour of the proposal which states that governing authorities are more effective when the number of members is reduced. However, this comes with the following caveats. First, there a risk in constructing governing bodies that are too small. Given the increasing complexity and responsibilities of these organisations, a cap of members results in practical housekeeping difficulties. It can be hard to achieve a quorum, to comprehend the range of skill sets that are essential and to lead and populate the principal committees. Second, section 12 of the Technological Universities Act sets out the membership of a governing body. There would be a logic in the technological sector in settling on a figure that is within the lower end of that frame for consistency. Third, essential to this is a shared willingness to embrace a competency-based model of governance. This is not to deprive anyone or any group of a voice, but a shared governance model as is proposed here would be advised to move to a conception of governance, and especially at the apex, that is grounded in a diverse and informed view of what is best for the institution and those it serves. Given the connected nature of the technological sector, there is undoubted merit in having a stronger external voice.
Legislators will also note the geographical extent of the regions covered by these new universities. The question of ensuring that all in a given region can identify, and feel an affinity, with the university is itself an argument for a slightly larger governing authority than proposed in the paper. The terms of office and the staggered appointment to boards are considered good practice.
There is the danger of perceiving the HEA as an extension of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It would be advisable to have that relationship carefully documented within the scheme. One of the central considerations in the initial discussion about this renewed legislation centred on the independence of the HEA. It is the view of THEA that the system is best served by a strong and independent authority.
Reference was made to the research role of the HEA, which is expressed through the funding through the core grant and dedicated funding to support capacity building in technological universities, in accordance with the Technological Universities Research Network, TURN, report. The role of the HEA in research also needs to be aligned with the role of the Department in research policy. It would also be beneficial for the Irish Research Council to have increased autonomy. This would allow better alignment with its mandate, putting arts, humanities and social sciences research on an equal statutory footing.
Concerning equity, diversity and inclusion, the work commenced by the HEA centre of excellence for gender equality might be reflected in the legislation. As regards the borrowing framework, our institutions have been seeking this for some time. THEA trusts that the new legislation will reflect this ambition. On data sharing, as a system we have access to a significant volume of data and there would be merit in the alignment of data sets between defined entities under appropriate controls.
In conclusion, I thank the committee for the opportunity to make these points. The muscle in this general scheme lies in chapter 3 of part 7 dealing with oversight of designated institutions. Achieving balance between respect for institutional autonomy and a requirement for accountability instruments will be the test of the legislation.