Statutes are the traditional method of internal regulation for universities. The original (mediaeval) concept treated the university almost as a distinct legal system, with the statutes as its own private law, and enforcement being primarily by appeal to the Visitor. Such splendid isolation is no longer possible – modern research needs money, and those who supply the money will always insist on a measure of control over how it is spent – but statutes retain their legal status.
How important are statutes? This depends largely on the history of the university concerned. In Trinity and the NUI universities, the statutes remain a major presence, providing a framework (however imperfect) for most of their activities. In the newer universities, statutes have only been passed as strictly necessary, and so have a smaller though still significant role. One of the ways in which the Universities Act 1997 forces universities to be open and accountable is by requiring certain matters to be stated in statutes (see ss 18, 24, 25, 26 and 28), so that universities are publicly committed to particular procedures and rules. Absent a major change in legislative policy, then, university statutes are here to stay.
There is no obligation on universities to publish their statutes to the world, though most do. The following have their statutes on open access:
Universities constantly evolve. Statutes can only remain relevant if they are kept under constant review. One Irish university has completely restated its statutes in this century, and two more are in the course of doing so. A key question is always: How much detail should be included? Too much, and the statutes become a strait-jacket, with the result that the university will become impossibly contrained or (more likely) will simply decline to obey them at all; too little, and the object of providing a clear framework for decision-making is lost.