Thursday, 17 December 2015
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage
I thank the Minister for her opening remarks and for outlining the various sections and measures contained in the Bill. It is important to say that, overall, Fianna Fáil supports the concept of a technological university and the development of a new layer in our education system. We were very happy to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny process which took place in March 2014. This involved widespread consultation on the proposals with stakeholders within the institute of technology sector as well as the university sector.
It is exceptionally disappointing that it has taken this long for the Bill to come before the House. The pre-legislative scrutiny took place in March 2014. There has been significant development over the past four or five years, progressing towards this point. It is unfortunate, as we come to the last two or three weeks of the term of this Government, that the Bill has only been published in the past few days. It is now likely that it will only reach Second Stage. Undoubtedly, it will be left for the next Government to take it up and proceed further with it.
This is further evidence of the kicking to touch of a number of issues within the third-level sector over the past four or five years. There has been an issue with overall funding at university and institute of technology level. Decisions over the past three or four years on its future direction have been continuously delayed. As of yet, we do not have the publication of the Cassells report and, according to media reports, it is unlikely to come before the election. The Minister might give us an indication in that regard because a proper debate is needed and the report should have been published so that it could be discussed. However, it has been continually delayed and pushed down the road and this is unacceptable.
Neither have we seen serious consideration of how we will fund the mergers.
It is being done on a shoestring. The Minister and her predecessor have said that the merger of institutes of technology must be done within existing resources but the primary consideration should be academic. The aim should be to improve the quality of teaching within the sector and the range of academic courses available to students. In order to achieve that, those institutions who wish to merge will require additional funding so that staffing ratios can be improved and the options for students increased. However, that issue has not been considered as the process has developed. It is only now, at the end of this Dáil term, that we are getting the opportunity to discuss the legislation.
My party will be tabling amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage and we will tease out the issues in detail then. A number of issues have been raised by various stakeholders and these will have to be addressed as the Bill proceeds through the Houses. The Minister will be aware that staff in the institutes of technology have serious reservations about the development of technological universities and their role as the process unfolds. There has been industrial unrest at the institutes of technology in Waterford, Cork, Tralee and Blanchardstown. Much of the unrest centres on the need for additional consultation by the Department, the Higher Education Authority and the institutes of technology with staff as to how this will develop and what it will mean for them.
It must be noted that the institutes of technology have been under severe pressure in the last three or four years because of the funding crisis. We have seen an increase in casualisation and a significant disimprovement in the pupil-teacher ratio. We have gone from a situation where the institutes were at the better end of the scale with low pupil teacher ratios to one where they are now at the upper end of the scale, which has resulted in significant pressure being placed on staff. Alongside that, staff are now faced with the prospect of what they see as forced mergers and this is a cause for legitimate concern.
While the students unions are broadly supportive of the Bill, they have proposed a number of amendments to it. These cover the definition of students and student unions in section 2, the procedures for dealing with disputes between technological universities and student unions in section 22 and the extension and protection of academic freedom to students as well as staff. Their suggested amendments also seek to ensure that there are three student members on the governing bodies, a minimum number of students on the academic council and ensuring student input to the advisory panels adjudicating on applications for designation as technological universities. I am sure all parties in this House will be in a position to consult with the student bodies on their concerns and proposals for improving the Bill.
Consideration must also be given to the fact that mergers must be completed before a technological university bid can be given the sign off. The institutes of technology will have to come together and formally merge before being given a verdict on their application for technological university status. This means that, having gone through the merger process, there is no guarantee for the institutes that they will be awarded technological university status. They could be left in a situation where a merger has happened, and many of the constituent institutes will feel that they have lost some of their autonomy in that process, but they are not part of a technological university. Some of their autonomy and ability to serve those in their catchment area will be lost but the ultimate goal of becoming a technological university not achieved. This must be given further consideration during the debate on this legislation. We must provide clarity of process so that the institutes do not feel that they could be left in limbo.
It is crucial that the constituent institutes of any technological university which emerges will continue to have significant influence. They must be able to continue to serve their catchment areas, as they have done to date. The development of the regional technical colleges and their subsequent transition into institutes of technology in 2006 has brought about a transformation in educational outcomes and provision in the regions and this must preserved. They have contributed enormously to the increase in the number of students who progress to and graduate from third level education. The institutes of technology are genuinely concerned about their ability to retain the autonomy and influence that has enabled them to provide the wide range of options across different disciplines to students in their areas. While they certainly see the potential for technological university status to enhance their ability to improve their academic offering to students within their locality, they also have a number of genuine concerns. They are worried about mission creep, for example, and the possibility of further consolidation which will reduce their ability to serve their catchment area. They are fearful of being dominated by the larger entity. The health service provides a good example of this, with the development of hospital groups. This has resulted in a number of regional hospitals being put under pressure within the wider hospital group and has led to many services being centralised. The ability of the smaller local hospitals to continue to serve the local population is being diminished. There is a genuine concern within the institutes of technology that a similar dynamic could come into play in the context of mergers and the move to technological university status.
We must also discuss the financial pressure on the institutes of technology. While this is not directly related to the Bill before us today, it is an important issue in the context of their engagement and participation. I wish to refer to an example from my own county of Donegal. The funding structure that was put in place by the HEA, particularly in the context of multi-campus institutes, puts many of the more peripheral institutes under severe pressure in terms of continuing to provide the services they have provided to date.
This has been on the Minister's desk and will come across her desk again.
It is crucial that we examine how multi-campus institutions can be facilitated in terms of the funding model. There has been increasing pressure in the past three or four years with the result that a number of institutions have been working off their reserves. It is an unsustainable position and not one which can be isolated from the policy development in regard to mergers and working towards technological university status.
I will leave it at that. I look forward to the Bill being further taken through the various Stages, even if, unfortunately, it will be in a new Dáil term. Hopefully, this will work out in a way that sees our very successful institute of technology sector further developed and sees the facilities available to young people and learners of all ages enhanced and developed within their localities.