Higher Education Minister Simon Harris says he wants to give universities more freedom over their affairs but that it must go hand in hand with greater accountability.
t was one of the themes in his first major policy speech since taking on the role of leading the first full government department with responsibility for higher education.
Mr Harris, who is Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science, said he would introduce legislation next year to overhaul governance of the higher education.
While the previous government had initiated reform plans in this area, Mr Harris said with the setting up of the new department, he was taking the opportunity to review the existing policy proposals.
He was speaking at an Irish Universities Association (IUA) webinar on the Pivotal Role of Universities for Future Skills and Innovation.
It was at a similar event last year that Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced his ambition for a dedicated higher education department.
Speaking about his reform plans, Mr Harris said it would be important to achieve clarity between roles between the Department and its agencies, particularly the Higher Education Authority and Quality and Qualifications Ireland.
“I also think it is opportune to review the legislative provisions relating to the governance of our higher education institutions.
The minister said he was aware that the sector has prioritised work on governance in recent years, including in enhancing the role and leadership of governing authorities.
He also said the agility and flexibility of universities were key strengths, which required an appropriate level of autonomy but “hand-in-hand with such autonomy must go strong governance and accountability mechanisms at the institutional level.”
Mr Harris also spoke about the need to deepen collaboration between the further and higher education sectors so that they work hand in glove with one another – but also with the industry and enterprise sectors.
While acknowledging that future skills and innovation were the key to economic success, he said success must never be measured solely in economic terms, and spoke of the importance of inclusion.
He said the role of universities in unlocking the full potential of those who faced challenges to progressing their education, whether because of a disability or socio-economic disadvantage, was to “ensure that no one is left behind.
“The Taoiseach warned last year of the need to avoid the social exclusion that can come with knowledge economies and I want that warning to always ring in our ears,” he said,
Mr Harris also called on universities take a leadership role on the tackling the societal ills of inequality and sexual harassment and violence.
He said he would do all that he could “to promote female leadership in academia and to provide policy direction on embedding consent principles, but I need to you to rise to this challenge and I know you will.”