The Higher Education Authority (HEA) bill was passed in the Seanad with amendments guaranteeing student union representation on the governing authorities of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).
Independent senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane of the Civil Engagement Group had proposed amendments to the bill that would require student members of academic governing authorities to be student union representatives.
The amendments were backed by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in an open letter to Minister for Higher Education and Research Simon Harris.
The USI had called for the new HEA bill to clarify that student representatives must be members of students’ unions and to establish a clear definition of a students’ union.
“The lack of a strong definition of a students’ union in the bill means that even if this wording was amended to clarify that student representatives must be elected members of a students’ union, both colleges and the Minister for Higher Education are the ultimate decider on what constitutes a students’ union”, the letter said.
The USI urged Minister Harris “to ensure that student representation is cemented in this legislation in a manner that is not merely tokenistic”.
Minister Harris accepted Senator Higgin’s and Senator Ruane’s amendments yesterday, and the amended HEA bill was passed by the Seanad.
Prior to this, the bill did not specify that student members of colleges’ governing authorities must be student union representatives.
The Senators amendments will ensure that student union representatives will continue to have a legal right to sit on governing authorities.
The Senators have “welcomed” the amendments in a joint press statement today.
In the statement, Senator Ruane said she is “glad” that Minister Harris recognised and accepted their amendments.
“Equity in governance is fundamental to the proper functioning of our third-level sector”, she said.
“Education is a transformative force in our society, but we cannot have situations where key stakeholders are excluded from the co-creation of these transformative spaces.”
“It is really welcome that a legal guarantee has been put in place for student union representatives on governing authorities”, she added.
Additionally in the statement, Senator Higgins described student union representation as “fundamental to good governance in academia”.
“These amendments will make sure that student unions continue to provide the essential voice for students they represent on governing authorities.”
“What could have been a really regressive step back from the guarantees found in the Universities Act 1997 and the Technological Universities Act 2018 has now become both a firm legal provision for student union representation and an example of how the Seanad can work with Government to improve legislation”, she said.
The campaign group Students4Change which has campaigned against the HEA bill welcomed the amendments to the bill but said that “other issues still remain”.
In a press statement, Students4Change said: “The HEA Bill 2022 has passed the report stage of Seanad Éireann. Through the power of the collective, two crucial wins for students were won.”
“These were an increase in the number of students on governing bodies from 2 to 3 and a guarantee that student union representatives will sit on them. Both of these are victories.”
“The government saw the threat that the student vote poses to their rule and acted to save themselves.”
However, the group criticised there being “no guarantee for trade union and local authority representation”.