Irish and Dutch education reforms ‘threaten university autonomy’

Institutions in the European countries face ‘contamination’ as governments group them with more regulated parts of the education system

July 19, 2022
Participants dressed as Spanish army infantry soldiers prepare for battle in the Netherlands to illustrate Irish and Dutch education reforms ‘threaten university autonomy’
Source: Getty

Moves in two separate European countries to give authorities power to intervene in the management of universities have raised fears about institutional autonomy.

In early July, the lower house of the Dutch parliament approved a draft bill that would give the education minister the power to fire the heads of educational institutions accused of maladministration without having to get court approval.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, a draft bill overhauling higher education regulation for the first time in 50 years would grant the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) the power to cut funding from universities seen to be straying from the rules.

Writing about the legislation in the Netherlands, Annelies van der Pauw, chair of the Supervisory Boards of Dutch Universities, and Martijn Nolen, head of legal affairs at Tilburg University, said their main concern was its potential for “frivolous use” by politicians.

Dr Nolen told Times Higher Education that while Dutch universities were not concerned about the motives of the incumbent minister, Robbert Dijkgraaf, there were fears that politicians in the future could be tempted to dismiss administrators over partisan matters or in response to public pressure. “It’s like always having a sword above your neck,” he said.

A requirement for judicial approval before ministers could sack university leaders would help allay some of the concerns, Dr Nolen added.

Mark Rogers, president of University College Dublin and chair of the Irish Universities Association, said the scope of the new powers in Ireland focused too heavily on compliance.

He argued that universities should be given a chance to justify why they might need to deviate from the rules, citing regulations on gender balance within universities as one example where it is “not necessarily in the gift of the institution to deliver tomorrow”.

Financial and other penalties that could do lasting damage to institutions’ international reputations should require approval from the entire board of the HEA, rather than being just handed down by the agency’s boss, Professor Rogers said.

He added that it was “slightly strange” that the three-person appeals panel the act proposes would include a legal expert but not necessarily someone who understands higher education.

The draft Dutch law was introduced after courts prevented ministers from intervening at an Islamic school in Amsterdam, but it would apply equally to universities. In Ireland, the law updates the entire regulatory framework for higher education after a wave of vocational education mergers created several new technological universities.

In both “highly problematic” cases, said Enora Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy at the European University Association, lawmakers had decided to group universities in with more closely regulated institutions, which “tends to bring down a little bit the autonomy of universities”.

She said: “It’s kind of contamination in terms of heavier regulation.”

In both countries, the legislation was introduced around the same time as significant extra funding was promised to higher education, Ms Pruvot noted. While the extra resources should be welcomed, the fact that the money appears to have been provided “in exchange for a little bit less autonomy” is a “bit of a worrying pattern”, she said.

After previously cutting short a parliamentary debate on the bill to get it passed before summer recess, the Irish higher education minister, Simon Harris, announced in mid-July that the legislation would be delayed until the autumn, when the Dutch bill is set to be debated by the country’s senate. Neither bill is expected to change significantly before being signed into law.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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