Fears are mounting that student representation will be cut on Trinity’s top decision-making body, as College struggles with potential major changes to its governance structures, The University Times can reveal.
New government legislation has raised concerns over a radically stripped-back Board, leading to concerns that students could have fewer representatives on the body, which is seen as a vital platform for them to raise issues and challenge College on its decisions.
Now, this newspaper has learned that Provost Linda Doyle is facing increasing pressure from senior College officers to fend off the state as it attempts to increase its influence on third-level governance.
Many Board representatives have spoken privately about their fears that cutting student numbers could negatively affect the running of the College, members of Board confirmed to The University Times. At a meeting of the committee last week, several spoke out on the issue.
Over recent years, student representatives on College committees have often fought off unpopular decisions – including proposed increases to campus rent and, more recently, the continued requirement of students to book the library to access campus.
Trinity is concurrently navigating the implementation of recommendations from its own Board Review Working Group, and the prospect of government-imposed changes under the Higher Education Authority Bill.
The group’s final recommendation outlined a proposal for Board makeup that could be included in a Private Members’ Bill to be taken to the Oireachtas to enable Trinity to be exempt from the Higher Education Authority Bill.
If implemented, there would be more external members on Board – there are currently two – but internal members would still make up the majority.
Currently, the Board comprises 27 people representing various groups in College. The president, education officer and welfare officer of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and the president of the Graduate Students’ Union sit on Board.
In an email statement to The University Times, TCDSU President Leah Keogh said: “TCDSU have in the past, and will continue to oppose any cut to student representation on College Board. We are currently working on an early action plan to counter the forecasted cuts suggested by the government’s national College governance review.”
Trinity’s Director of Communications Tom Molloy, writing on behalf of the Provost, told this newspaper in an email that “discussions are ongoing and the issue has not been resolved. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time”.
Under the proposed legislation, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) would be renamed the Higher Education Commission and would have a stronger regulatory and oversight role in the running of universities, including with regards to statutory codes of governance and statutory performance frameworks for state-funded higher education institutions.
As part of the bill, the government will also be able to impose financial and non-financial penalties on universities.
In the heads of bill, Trinity is the only university specifically mentioned as being excluded from some of the proposed reforms to college governance. How this will affect potential changes to College Board down the line is yet to be seen.
In March, Trinity officially requested to be exempted from the reforms, and the heads of bill clearly indicate that the government is willing to compromise on Trinity’s governance structures – a stance it has not afforded other Irish universities.
This likely means that the government will take Trinity’s unique governance structures into account – as was the case in 2000, when a private bill was passed exempting College from some substantial reforms made by the 1997 Universities Act.
The Board Review Working Group recommended earlier this year that the roles of provost and Chair – something Linda Doyle herself committed to doing if elected.
Doyle told The University Times in an interview earlier this year that the group’s final report was intentionally vague on student numbers.
She said that the decision of how many students will be on the reformed Board will not be made until the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill is finalised.
“What I have to honestly say to that is I don’t know”, she said when asked whether the number of students would be cut from the current four. “The bit about the numbers is purposely left vague. The reason for that is because the legislation that’s currently being drafted is going to be the legislation that imposes on us things to do with the shape and size of the board.”
“I think it’s really important that the students have a proper voice on Board”, the Provost said. “But I don’t think the number four means anything in the absence of knowing the overall number of the Board.”
“I think we benefit hugely by having really good student voices, and they really know what they’re talking about and [are] very dedicated to it.”
She added that Trinity is working with the government to “emphasise the kind of democratic nature of how we do business in Trinity and that democratic ethos”.
Doyle said during her election campaign that the proposed reforms would be “very bad” for College.
“Of course accountability is crucial, but I feel that the document as it’s written [sic] in a way suggests we do not already function under a huge level of accountability”, she said.
“The democratic ethos of Trinity must be defended.”
Earlier this year, 59 of Trinity’s Fellows, Fellows emeriti, non-Fellow academic staff and support staff – alongside the Scholars’ Committee – launched a blistering attack on the proposed changes.
In an open letter, published in this newspaper, the signatories said that the proposal is “detrimental to academic values, threaten the removal of independent voices from the Board and undermine the principle of autonomy enshrined in the Universities Act”.
The Department’s proposals are detrimental to academic values, threaten the removal of independent voices from the Board and undermine the principle of autonomy enshrined in the Universities Act. It is also the managerialist and corporate culture within third-level education which must change, not the Board.
“The current Board of Trinity”, they noted, “is composed of elected representatives of a broad range of constituencies from across the College as well as of external members”.
“Such a composition is a great strength as it allows decisions to be taken which are sensitive to the needs of the whole community: currently students, academic staff, support staff and administrative staff all have a voice in the central governance structure.”
“Whilst managerialism has eroded the traditional liberal ethos of the third-level sector over the last two decades, establishing a culture inimical to academic excellence and freedom, the Board has upheld its democratic functions primarily through the free and open election of its membership.”
“It should not be the latest casualty of a shift towards an increasingly top-down undemocratic governance structure.”
The final recommendations from the Board Review Working Group said that “while there are both advantages and disadvantages to the combined role of Board Chair and an organisation’s Chief Officer (Provost in Trinity’s case), it recommends separating the role of the Provost and the Chair of the Board (but only in the context of maintaining a majority of internal members on the Board)”.
“If Trinity were to implement the separation of the roles of Provost and Chairperson of the Board then it would need to be understood that management and governance would need to be enshrined in the Statutes and, perhaps more importantly, in Trinity’s culture”, it added.
The report also proposes changing the Board appointment process from an election process to a “formal selection process” based on a “competency framework”.
The report gave suggested criteria for appointing Board members, which include “appreciation for and commitment to the collegiate nature of governance in Trinity”, “commitment to the values and principles underlying Trinity’s governance” and “commitment to the principle of collective responsibility for Board’s decisions and to a University-wide vision, rising above disciplinary concerns or the agendas of interest groups”.
“The composition of the internal staff membership should be informed by the competency framework”, the report added. “It should continue to include the Provost, Officer Fellows, and elected members of the Fellows, and the wider community of academic, professional, administrative and support staff.”
“It is proposed that the Provost, Fellows and staff would make up the majority, with specific categories for elected Fellows, academic staff and professional, administrative and support staff.”
“In the view of the Working Group this would maintain autonomy and reflect Trinity’s distinct collegiate approach to governance and its unique legal structure”, the report said.
Reducing the number of Board members “would lead to a more effective Board overall, supporting more focused and interactive discussion”, it added, which in turn would allow for “more robust and detailed discussions on strategic matters, and facilitating the ‘agency’ of the Board”.
It was also recommended that the senior lecturer no longer serves on Board. Kevin Mitchell, Trinity’s current senior lecturer, declined to comment on this.
The working group has also proposed halving the number of Board meetings per year, from 12 to six, “with an agenda more focused on strategic issues”.
Trinity declined to comment on the report due to the confidential nature of Board discussion.
The government has left the door open to more flexibility in how Trinity is governed in the future with regard to the Higher Education Authority Bill: in the heads of bill published earlier this year, Trinity was the only university specifically mentioned as being excluded from some of the proposed reforms to college governance.
The legislation proposes that Trinity’s governing authority – College Board – will accord with the principles of the proposed legislation “but there may be some differences reflecting the distinct legislative framework”.
Minutes from a Board meeting on May 26th said that Provost Patrick Prendergast “plans to engage again with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (FHERIS) and his officials in the coming months to establish what might be achievable for Trinity in respect of the Government’s proposals”.