University Law

The main legislation governing Irish universities is the Universities Act, 1997. Here is a summary of its main provisions.

Recognition of universities. The Act recognises 7 universities, and sets out a procedure for the relevant government ministry to recognise more (ss 7-11). No other educational institutions are permitted to describe themselves as universities (s 52).

University objects and functions. These are set out in ss 12-13. The objects are stated in broad terms. They include “to advance knowledge through teaching, scholarly research and scientific investigation”, “to promote learning in its student body and in society generally” and “to promote the highest standards in, and quality of, teaching and research”.

Governance. The Act establishes the basic institutions for governing universities. Each university must have a Governing Authority (ss 15-18 and sch 3), a Chief Officer (s 24 and sch 4), and an Academic Council (ss 27-30). While the Act sets out some of the basic rules about these institutions and relations between them, most of the detail is left up to the individual universities. Other legal documents will be relevant to each university’s governance, such as its charter and its statutes (on which see ss 31-33).

University staff. The position of staff is set out in ss 25-26. In addition to the rights expressed there, there is the general principle of academic freedom, set out in s 14. “A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom” (s 14(2)).  

External supervision. Traditionally, universities are supervised by an external official known as a “visitor”, who could either look generally at how the university was performing, or could investigate specific incidents or allegations. This procedure is retained in the Act, but only as a one-off procedure for unusual cases. As a regular matter, each university must generate reports and other documents to identify problems or help with their identification, such as a strategic plan (s 34), quality assurance reports (s 35), an equality policy (s 36), and financial reports of various kinds (ss 37-42). Oversight is in the Higher Education Authority (referred to in the Act as “An tÚdarás”, that is “The Authority”). Some of the powers of the HEA are set out in the Act itself (especially ss 49-51), others in the Higher Education Authority Act 1971.

There is also specific legislation for particular universities. Here are the main examples of primary legislation currently in force:

University pension funds are currently being transferred to the state under the terms of the Financial Measures (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.

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