Third-level colleges will be more accountable for the State funding they receive under new legislation, due soon.
It is part of a major overhaul of the relationship between Government and higher education, which has been under discussion since 2018.
It will also involve a standard 17 members on college governing authorities. At the moment, some have 40.
Many of the reforms will be linked to a new Exchequer funding model for higher education on which a Cabinet committee is currently working.
The approach will involve a trade-off between greater oversight of and increased State investment in the sector, which is widely acknowledged to be under-resourced.
The proposed new measures are set out in the Higher Education Authority Bill which was recently approved by Government and will be published shortly.
Further and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris described it as “a really important piece of legislation, which reflects the significance of our higher education system and the need to modernise and improve the governance”.
Mr Harris said it would seek to provide a comprehensive governance, performance and accountability framework to safeguard Exchequer investment and ensure accountability in the system.
It would reform the oversight and regulation of higher education institutions and modernise the regulatory role of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), he said.
The HEA was established on foot of 1971 legislation.
Many of its powers have been added on piecemeal, and are not specifically provided for in legislation.
The Minister said the new legislation would introduce a “co-governance” model, where institutions would remain autonomous while also ensuring State investment was safeguarded and that there was accountability for that funding.
Each higher education institution will have primary responsibility for governance but there will be a clear accountability and reporting requirement to the HEA.
Mr Harris said where performance or other failures were not adequately and transparently dealt with at institutional level there would be remedies available to the HEA in order to protect students, public funds and the reputation of the sector.
The legislation also provides specific legal powers to the HEA to attach mandatory conditions to funding.
It includes provisions for strategic planning for tertiary education, engagement with students, equity of access and participation in the higher education sector, lifelong learning and the collection of data for advice, planning and research.
It will also aim to promote and safeguard the interests of students and advance equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education. Both the size and composition of governing bodies will be amended under the legislation.
Governing bodies in universities, institutes of technology and technological universities will have 17 members.
These will be composed of the chairperson, eight other external members, two students, the chief officer and five other internal members.
Three of the external members will be nominated by the Minister and five will be appointed by the governing body.
All appointments will be based on the competencies required on the governing body.