Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage


3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is an enormous honour to bring the Technological Universities Bill 2015 before the House. This Bill will allow us to expand university-level opportunities to students across Ireland. Those institutions will be linked to industry and will have an enormous impact on our capacity to create and retain jobs in regions such as the south east and north west. The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to one of the key planks of the Government’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 - the modernisation of the institute of technology sector through the establishment of technological universities.

In addition, the Bill provides for a number of important reforms to the governance and operation of the existing institutes of technology. I thank the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and its Chair, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, for undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme of the Bill in April 2014. Many of the committee’s recommendations have been taken into account during the drafting of the Bill before the House today.

The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, published in 2011, provides a framework for the development of the higher education sector to 2030.

The Government has made considerable progress in implementing the recommendations set out in the strategy. In doing so, it has significantly advanced the goal of achieving a modernised, more flexible and responsive higher education system, one that is accountable for high quality performance across the full range of higher education activities. The strategy recommended significant reforms so as to position the institute of technology sector to better meet national objectives. In particular, it recommended consolidation within the sector and a pathway to technological university status for those consolidated institutes of technology. In other words, it made clear that we should allow them to demonstrate a high level of performance that would allow them to become technological universities.

The Higher Education Authority published a four-stage process and criteria for applicant groups of institutes of technology wishing to apply to become technological universities. Initially, three consortiums of institutes of technology expressed an interest in merging and applying to become technological universities. This happened as part of the landscape process undertaken by the Higher Education Authority in 2012 and approved by then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. Two of these consortiums have successfully passed stage three of the four-stage process. These are TU for Dublin, comprising DIT, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown, and the Munster technological university, comprising Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. Both consortiums are working towards full merger in 2016.

There has been a great deal of comment in this House and elsewhere on the technological university for the south east, comprising IT Carlow and WIT. As previously discussed in this House, a preliminary facilitation process has been under way since September this year and there has been strong engagement in that process by both parties. This process is building on the earlier work carried out by Mr. Michael Kelly who concluded that technological university status was an achievable goal in the south east. I take the opportunity to record my thanks to Mr. Kelly for the part he has played in bringing us closer to delivering university level education to the south east.

The current facilitation process involves a series of meetings and is an important building block in building trust between the parties. The facilitator has not yet scheduled all of her meetings because she wants to allow all of the participants the space to reflect on their discussions and complete the work they have committed to carrying out. I am satisfied that this process is likely to finish in January and will happily provide a further update to the House at that time.

Earlier this year the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, made up of GMIT, Sligo IT and Letterkenny IT, also expressed an interest in merging and applying to become a technological university. I recently approved this application to proceed to the next stage. In line with the process for designation as a technological university, stage two of the process involves the preparation of a plan by the Connacht-Ulster Alliance to meet the criteria for designation as a technological university. I look forward to seeing further progress being made for that region also.

The mergers outlined cannot proceed until the Technological Universities Bill has been enacted and the relevant provisions commenced. Therefore, this Bill, in providing the legislative underpinning for those institutes of technology which have established partnerships and wish to merge, represents an essential milestone in the modernisation and reform agenda for higher education institutions. Institutes of technology which do not choose to follow the evolutionary path set out in the national strategy for higher education and the Bill will continue to make an important contribution to higher education within regional clusters. I note that we have some excellent institutes of technology, including that in my home city, which have decided not to pursue technological university status. It is important that we acknowledge that they will remain strong and important institutions within the overall landscape of higher education in Ireland.

The national strategy recommended that the governance structures of all higher education institutions be reformed to ensure they would be fit for purpose and have the expertise relevant to the governance of a modern higher education institution. The Bill, therefore, provides for new and modernised governance structures in the institutes of technology, as well as for other reforms to allow them to become more flexible and responsive to their environment. The institutes of technology have played a very significant role in the development and expansion of higher education in Ireland in the last half century and will continue to do so. DIT has an even longer history. The Bill marks a new era in their development and will bring huge benefits for their students, communities and Irish society.

Having set out the policy context underpinning the development of the Bill, I now turn to its contents. The Bill comprises 117 sections divided into seven Parts, together with two Schedules.

Part 1, sections 1 to 6, inclusive, are standard provisions on citation and commencement, interpretation, orders, expenses, offences and consequential amendments.

Part 2, sections 7 to 19, inclusive, provides for the merging of consortiums of institutes of technology. Chapter 1 provides for the merging of Dublin Institute of Technology with the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown and the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, while Chapter 2 provides for the merging of Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. As I have noted, each of these consortiums has already been assessed by an international expert panel and found to be on a clear trajectory to meet the very robust performance and quality criteria that have been set down for merging institutes which wish to apply for the new technological university status.

Chapter 3 of Part 2 provides a mechanism for the merging of other consortiums of institutes of technology which may apply to the Minister to be merged and the applications of which will be assessed by an expert panel before a final decision is made by the Minister. It is through this mechanism that prospective mergers in the south east and Connacht-Ulster will take place.

Part 3, sections 20 to 54, inclusive, provides for the functions and governance of technological universities, the making of applications by merged institutes to become technological universities, the establishment of technological universities and the incorporation of institutes of technology into technological universities.

Section 22 sets out the general functions of a technological university which reflect the distinct mission of a technological university described in the national strategy for higher education to 2030. These functions include awarding degrees, providing programmes of education and training, engaging in research, collaborating with other higher education institutions and regional stakeholders in business, enterprise and the professions and serving the community and the public interest.

Sections 24 and 25 provide for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing body of a technological university. A governing body will have between 11 and 20 members, including the president of the technological university, a chairperson, staff and student representatives, nominees of the Minister for Education and Skills and relevant education and training boards and between three and eight other external members. The external members will be appointed in accordance with a competency framework agreed with An tÚdarás, the Higher Education Authority. These provisions will ensure technological universities will have fit for purpose governing bodies in line with the recommendations of the national strategy for higher education.

Sections 26 and 27 provide for the appointment of the president and other staff of a technological university, while sections 28 and 29 provide that each technological university shall have an academic council. The functions and membership of these academic councils reflect the enterprise focus of technological universities, including promoting the involvement of business, enterprise, the professions and related stakeholders in the design and delivery of programmes of education and training and research.

Chapters 6 and 7 of Part 3, sections 30 to 37, inclusive, relate to a range of governance issues, including the preparation of strategic development plans, equality statements, budgets, accounts and annual reports, as well as matters relating to borrowing, the setting of fees and the establishment of companies.

Chapters 8 and 9 of Part 3, sections 38 to 47, inclusive, describe how the merged institutes established under Part 2 can become technological universities.

Section 38 sets out the specific eligibility criteria with which a merged institute established under Part 2 must comply before it can become a technological university by order of the Minister under section 40. The criteria set out a robust performance threshold for institutions wishing to become technological universities, are based on those published by the HEA as part of the landscape process and include criteria relating to the composition of the student body of the merged institute, the composition of the academic staff of the merged institute, the doctoral level education and research activities of the merged institute and the ability of the merged institute to perform the functions of a technological university, with particular reference to its governance structures, links with regional stakeholders, quality assurance and enhancement, mobility of staff and students and collaboration with other higher education institutions.

Sections 39 to 43 set out the process for the making of an application to become a technological university and the information which must be included in such an application. They also provide for the appointment of an independent, expert advisory panel to examine the application and the provision by that panel of a report and recommendation to the HEA and the subsequent provision by the HEA of the report, its views on the report and any other relevant information to the Minister.

Section 44 provides for the making of a proposed decision by the Minister while section 45 provides that the Minister may impose conditions on a merged institute where the merged institute does not comply with all of the criteria set out in section 38.

Chapter 10 of Part 3, sections 48 to 54, provides a mechanism for the incorporation of an institute of technology into a technological university.

Part 4, sections 55 and 56, provides for the hearing of appeals against certain decisions of the Minister under the Bill by an independent appeals board.

Part 5, sections 57 to 86, sets out a range of transitional provisions consequent upon the making of orders under Parts 2 and 3, which will ensure that functions, assets, liabilities, staff and so forth of dissolving bodies are appropriately transferred. Of particular note are sections 63 and 79, which provide for the transfer of the staff to the relevant merged institute or technological university. Those sections preserve the conditions of remuneration of transferring staff, while sections 64 and 80 also provide that staff remain members of the relevant superannuation schemes.

Sections 65, 66 and 81 provide for the appointment by the Minister of the first governing bodies of the institutes established under Parts 2 and 3. In each case, it is provided that the Minister will appoint a chairperson, two external members nominated by the Minister and a nominee of the relevant education and training boards as members of the first governing body of the institutes concerned. The president of the institute concerned shall also be a member. Within six months, the first governing body of each merged institute is required to agree a competency framework with the HEA for the appointment of external members, establish procedures for the election of staff representatives and the appointment of external members and conduct elections and make appointments to the governing body.

Sections 69, 70, 71, 72, 84, 85 and 86 provide for the continuation of arrangements relating to awarding the international education mark, quality assurance and enhancement and access, transfer and progression where an institute is being dissolved and its functions and so forth are being transferred to another body.

Part 6, sections 87 to 114, provides for a number of amendments to the governance arrangements of Dublin Institute of Technology and the institutes of technology under the Dublin Institute of Technology Act 1992 and the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, respectively. Of particular note are sections 90 and 103, which replace section 6 of each of those Acts with new sections setting out revised arrangements for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing bodies of DIT and the institute of technology. These revised arrangements will be along the same lines as those which will apply to technological universities under section 25. Section 104 sets out procedures for the appointment of the first new governing body of each institution under the revised arrangements.

In addition, Part 6 amends those Acts to revise the arrangements relating to the appointment and membership of the academic councils of those institutions; revise and clarify the procedures for the recruitment and selection of staff; repeal provisions which provide that certain members of staff may not be removed from office without the consent of the Minister; revise and clarify arrangements relating to the determination of budgets and the borrowing of money; revise the manner in which an inspector can be appointed to report into matters relating to the operation of DIT or an institute of technology and amend certain provisions relating to the appointment of a commission by the Minister to carry out such functions of the governing body of DIT or an institute of technology as the Minister determines; and insert revised Second Schedules relating to the operation of the governing bodies of the relevant institutions into each Act.

Part 7, section 115 to 117, provides for consequential amendment to other Acts to take account of the establishment of technological universities.

Schedules 1 and 2 provide for a range of matters relating to the governing bodies and presidents of technological universities, respectively.

I would also like to bring to the attention of Members my intention to address a number of additional issues through the introduction of amendments to the Bill during Committee Stage. I propose to introduce amendments on Committee Stage to provide for the granting of degree-awarding powers, with the exception of doctoral degree level awards, to all the institutes of technology. At present, institutes of technology have been delegated authority from Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to make awards. This delegation extends to master's degree level or doctoral degree level, depending on the institution and field of study involved. In contrast, the universities, as well as Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, are awarding bodies in their own right and, therefore, have the authority to make their own awards at all levels of the national framework of qualifications. The granting of degree-awarding authority to all the institutes of technology would put them on an equal footing with the universities, DIT and the RCSI. It would, therefore, create a single, coherent quality assurance and qualifications space among public higher education institutions and it will support the future growth of institutes of technology as equal partners in the higher education landscape.

It is also my intention to introduce amendments related to the Universities (Amendment) Bill, which is currently at an advanced stage of drafting. That Bill will provide for the amendment of the Universities Act 1997 to provide the Minister for Education and Skills with powers to give directions to universities in respect of the remuneration of public servants and the number of public servants employed and to appoint authorised officers to investigate the contravention of such directions.

It is intended, once that Bill is settled, to insert similar provisions into this Bill to ensure the Minister has similar powers in respect of the technological universities.

This Bill currently sets out a range of transitional arrangements that apply where a body is dissolved under the Act and its functions, staff and so forth are transferred to another institution. It is currently being examined whether additional transitional arrangements are required and, if so, they will be introduced as amendments during the passage of the Bill.

This Bill is another important step in advancing the national strategy for higher education but it will mean much more to the regions of Ireland than just another step in a national strategy. The establishment of multi-campus technological universities will be of great benefit to their regions and to Ireland. Technological universities will have a distinct mission to provide high-quality, enterprise-focused higher education and research. I hope Members will agree that this is an important Bill. I look forward to listening to their views today and further debate as the Bill progresses through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I commend this Bill to the House.


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