By Pádraic Toomey
President, NUI Galway Students’ Union
What is institutional autonomy?
This is how universities, institutes of technology & universities of technology are governed. For the sake of this article, we will be focusing on NUI Galway. Their governing body is called Úduras na hOllscoile. It is made up of 40 governors from university management, staff, students, external bodies and local councillors.
That sounds great, what’s the problem?
In theory it can be, but there is one issue that arises all too often. Who do they answer to? You may be thinking surely the Department of Higher Education & Skills, with it’s own minister Simon Harris should be over this with some help from the Higher Education Authority. Well sadly, that’s not the case.
Has there been a problem or are we making something out of nothing?
The pandemic for all its detriment to society and life did expose a lot of parts of society and how they don’t actually work. Here are just some of the issues that came to light:
Repeat fees dominated the talk of NUI Galway press for some time. Students who had to repeat were to pay €295 to complete a repeat exam. For the pandemic, the likes of UCC, Trinity, Maynooth University & DCU to name a few waived the fee recognising that students could be repeating because the conditions were not ideal. Students were thrown into an online world of learning, with many not having desks, reliable Wi-Fi or even a quiet space. Students were literally doing exams on their beds. A unified approach would have been welcomed by the government here, and when asked on multiple occasions, the government said they had no power because of institutional autonomy.
Closure of campus
For level 5, we were promised by the government that they would protect the vulnerable, who don’t have anywhere to go. Simon Harris knows that “access to libraries and other onsite study space for those students who do not otherwise have suitable facilities” is very important.
With the cases of Covid soaring, it made sense for public bodies to further close to protect everyone. What didn’t make sense was how each institution could do it however they liked. Some kept their libraries and other study spaces open, while others closed it all. NUI Galway being the first to close it all.
I am not on NPHET but the president of Maynooth University is and they kept open study spaces. It just seems bizarre that a minister dedicated to higher education would be powerless and can’t get public bodies to do the same thing as each other.
The latest part of this madness would be how students in Trinity & UCC will be able re-sit any exams passed or failed for free. While NUI Galway will give you the honour of paying them €295 to do a repeat exam if you fail, if you pass, you’re out of luck. How will the graduates of NUI Galway compete with a student from UCC or Trinity who could do the exam twice even if they passed and just get the higher result?
We aren’t saying that Trinity & UCC shouldn’t have done this, it’s great! It recognises the issues with online learning and how situations can arise.
This should have been done unilaterally across 3rd level but it wasn’t, thus creating an unfair playing field.
What do we need to do?
We need to reform third level and how it is governed. We don’t have to get rid of governance committees of institutions, but they shouldn’t have more power than the department or the minister on certain issues. We need oversight and the elected representatives of this country to have a say in education because it no longer finishes at 2nd level.
I hope it can be resolved soon because it’s the only way that the game of hot potato that the department, the HEA & institutions play where they blame each other and nothing gets done finishes for once and for all.