Niamh Bhreathnach, the Irish education minister, has promised consultations before she issues a position paper on the likely shape of legislation for the university sector.
A White Paper on education published last month foreshadowed various legislative changes. The first move will be to amend a 1908 Universities Act to allow colleges in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Maynooth to become constituent universities of the National University of Ireland.
The constituent universities will have much greater freedom in matters such as staff appointments, establishment of programmes, marking standards and examinations. The National University itself will continue to appoint external examiners and award qualifications.
Legislation has also been promised to broaden the composition of the governing bodies of the universities to include greater representation from society and the economy. In addition, academic staff, non-academic staff and students will have statutory representation on all governing bodies.
There will be provision to ensure gender balance and statutory provision for ministerial nominees on all governing bodies.
The reaction of the university sector has been muted but the legislation will have its biggest impact on the oldest university institution, Trinity College Dublin, which has no outside representation on its main governing structures.
The White Paper also indicated that there would be more comprehensive legislation for the university sector as a whole to underpin a number of principles.
* regard for proper institutional autonomy coupled with approp-riate public accountability * affirmation of the ethos and tradition of universities, together with changes, to reflect the role of universities in modern society * preservation of the diversity of universities * the enhancement of the developmental role of universities.
The numbers in third-level colleges grew from 18,500 in 1965 to almost 91,000 last year and 45 per cent of the relevant age cohort is now transferring to third level. However, there is concern that the numbers from lower socio-economic groups going to college, particularly to universities, have not increased rapidly enough, and there is much reference in the White Paper to the need to address this.
Colleges will be expected to link up with designated disadvantaged secondary schools to promote an awareness and understanding among pupils and their parents of the opportunities and benefits from third-level education.
The short-term objective will be that all designated disadvantaged secondary schools will have formal links with a third-level college for the purpose of operating school programmes on these lines.
Higher education institutions will be encouraged to hold special "awareness seminars" and open days for students from these schools. They will also be encouraged to develop appropriate arrangements to help such students make the transition to full-time third-level education.
The White Paper suggests the use of programmes on study skills, essay writing, project work, library research, examination systems and the appointment of mentors who can advise and support such students during their first college year.
Special training will be provided for staff participating in such programmes. Joint training programmes involving staff from secondary schools and third-level colleges will be developed to promote mutually supportive approaches.
What the White Paper says
* legislation for university governing bodies will be introduced this year with more comprehensive legislation to follow
* each college will develop links with designated secondary schools to encourage more disadvantaged young people to consider the option of higher education
* there will be a target of an annual increase of 500 students from lower socio-economic groups enrolling in third-level colleges over the next five years
* a comprehensive programme for the development of teaching skills for third-level staff will be a priority. Each college will develop and publish an explicit policy on its approach to research
* the remit of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) will be extended on a phased basis to all publicly funded third-level colleges
* the HEA and Education Ministry will co-operate in seeking to develop the Irish languages in third level colleges generally
* quality audit systems will continue to be developed by the institutions under the overall direction of the HEA
* private colleges which receive state certification will be subject to new control regulations and legislation
*a Further Education Authority will be established for the rapidly growing further education sector