Minister Mitchell O’Connor publishes and invites views on reform of regulation of higher education

The Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor T.D. today (24 July 2019), published, inviting views on:
• the detailed legislative proposals for the reform of the HEA Act, 1971;
• the consultation report on the proposed reform, together with the response of the Department of Education and Skills (DES).

A major element of the legislative reform is to reconstitute the HEA through the proposed establishment of a Higher Education Commission with statutory responsibility for the regulation and oversight of the performance of HEIs.

Minister Mitchell O’Connor said: “Higher education is central to the realisation of our ambition for Irish society and the economy. The current HEA legislation is almost fifty years old, and reflects a different era. The proposed new legislation will address the need for best practice regulatory models for higher education, the transformation of the higher education landscape and the requirement to prioritise the interests of students and secure public accountability.

“It is essential that we put in place modern legislation that underpins excellence in governance in higher education institutions, creating an environment in which the higher education sector can flourish and fully realise its potential.”

Key principles of the proposed legislation
The Minister highlighted the key roles and responsibilities identified in the legislative proposals for the proposed Higher Education Commission, including:
• Promoting and safeguarding the interests of students;
• Maintaining and enhancing the reputation of the higher education sector, including its international reputation;
• Promoting and supporting HEIs in achieving excellence in teaching, learning and research in higher education;
• Promoting equality of access and opportunity in higher education; and
• Providing a comprehensive governance framework to safeguard State investment in the higher education sector and ensure transparency and accountability by HEIs for public funds.

The Commission will play a pivotal role, alongside the Department of Education and Skills, in developing national strategy for higher education and higher education research.

Regulatory powers and protection of academic freedom
A central objective of the proposed legislative approach is to ensure that the Higher Education Commission has a strong and clear statutory basis in terms of its regulatory responsibilities in overseeing the governance and performance of the higher education system and in ensuring public accountability.

The Minister’s proposals have no implications for the vital principle of academic freedom which is fully protected by the existing legislative framework for higher education.

New higher education regulatory model
The consultation report published alongside the legislative proposals detail the issues raised by stakeholders in the course of the extensive consultative process carried out in developing the proposed reforms. It also incorporates the Department of Education and Skills assessment of, and response to, the many issues raised in the course of the consultation process.

This response highlights the benefits and value of a balanced new regulatory model comprising:
– strong and effective internal governance in HEIs;
– ensuring that the Higher Education Commission has the necessary legal powers to underpin the performance of its key regulatory roles and responsibilities; and
– securing transparency and public accountability of HEIs.

Regulatory oversight of private and not-for-profit HE providers

A significant reform envisaged in the Minister’s legislative proposals is assigning responsibility to the Higher Education Commission to oversee, in close co-operation with Quality and Qualifications Ireland, the governance and performance of private and not-for-profit providers of higher education, in addition to publicly-funded HEIs.

Further consultation

The Minister is initiating a further consultation on her legislative proposals and the proposed regulatory model set out in the consultation report (see further below).
In parallel to this, the Department of Education and Skills is commencing the preparation of the General Scheme of a Higher Education Commission Bill for approval by the Government for the drafting of the Bill later this year.

The Minister stated: “The Department of Education and Skills’ Statement of Strategy 2019-2021 states the aim of achieving excellent standards in governance, accountability, performance and quality of tertiary education in Ireland. We need to ensure that our key agencies are equipped and empowered to secure these goals.

“Since its establishment under the 1971 Act, the HEA has played a crucial role in the development of the higher education sector. The proposed legislation will deliver the essential statutory framework for the HEA – which will be reconstituted as the Higher Education Commission – to support the delivery of a top-class higher education sector in Ireland, with excellent internationally recognised higher education institutions, which are accessible to all and where the learner is valued.”

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