What is the HEA Bill?
The HEA Bill is legislation that updates the HEA Act of 1971. It looks at the governance structures across colleges, universities and technological universities in the public sector, as well as the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
The Bill amends the current structure of the HEA to introduce a “competency based” board rather than a representative one. It also amends current governing authority structures in Higher Education Institutions to make them smaller in an effort to follow “good governance practice”.
Student Representation in the HEA Bill
The HEA Bill outlines that the governing authority of each HEI should include three student representatives. This was initially capped at two, but successful lobbying from students, students’ unions and USI saw the total representatives increase to three.
The Bill does not legislate for democratically elected student representation – this means that colleges can handpick which students sit on their governing body.
The Bill does not define students’ unions as democratically elected – instead stating that is “any student representative body recognised by a higher education provider or by the Minister”.
The Bill does not consider the unique role of students’ unions on a governing authority – as the primary advocates for the members.
The Bill does not guarantee student representation on a per campus basis for Technological Universities – meaning that all three student representatives could be chosen from the same campus.
The Bill does not guarantee trade union representation – meaning that academic staff and postgraduate workers do not have guaranteed union advocates on governing authorities.
Definition of a Students' Union
The definition of a Students’ Union provided by the HEA Bill is as follows;
“Student Union” means a student union or other student representative body recognised by a higher education provider or by the Minister.
The Minister clarified to USI that the weak definition came from the fact that the role of a Students’ Union within the HEA Bill is limited to a consultative role. Indeed, the only time that students’ unions are mentioned are in relation to consulting on HEIs’ strategic development plans, equality statements and other such guidelines, codes and policies.
However, this consultative role is not limited to being carried out by Students’ Unions – instead allowing for unelected students chosen by the colleges to play a role in the drafting of important policy documentation.
Students’ Unions are democratically chosen by their members (the students) to represent the views and opinions of the student body. This mandate is crucial to any definition of a Students’ Union.
The definition of a Students’ Union provided in the HEA Bill leaves much to be desired. Notwithstanding the typographical error (we are Students’ Unions, not Student Unions), the definition allows for the Minister and the college to decide which group of students constitutes a Students’ Union. This is hugely detrimental to the autonomy of our unions, and essentially forces the Students’ Union to conform to the wishes of the HEI and the Minister in order to be recognised.
The only recognition a students’ union should need is from our members – the students.
“By neglecting to include the democratic mandate that students’ unions receive from their student members, the definition included in the HEA Bill ignores the most vital aspect of our unions – democracy”