Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage


3:40 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I am sure the Minister is eager to get the Bill passed before the Dáil rises. We will have to wait and see how long Committee Stage takes.

As the Minister is aware, Sinn Féin has a long-standing position of support for the introduction of technological universities in this State. However, that is not to say this is a position of unqualified support. We are broadly supportive of the concept of having legislation to allow the development of technological universities to proceed. Indeed, Senator David Cullinane has a strong record of supporting the development and consultation process around a technological university for the south-east. The Oireachtas report on which he was rapporteur, entitled The South East Economic Development Strategy, looked at strategies to address decades of regional underdevelopment. It identified a technological university in the south east as a critical factor in attracting inward investment and fostering growth in that region.

In moving that project forward, it remains the case that it is incredibly important that every effort is made to work collaboratively. However, that is not just the case with this initiative or with the management of the two institutions in that particular case. For technological universities to be introduced, and for them to be worthwhile, it is imperative that the staff who are expected to deliver are involved in the processes or consulted. This year, we have seen industrial action from institute of technology staff because of the proposed mergers. Only this week, there was a ballot on industrial action by members of the Teachers Union of Ireland which was overwhelmingly supported. While we welcome the legislation and are broadly supportive of it, we also recognise the valid and well-founded fears of trade union members and those working in academia that the mergers and rationalisation will result in reduced course provision that will not be of benefit to students, staff or the wider community. If mergers are to go ahead, they must be adequately resourced. That aside, in the opinion of some people, the Minister has failed to set out any significant reason as to why a merger is an essential component of achieving technological university status. In that context, they find it very difficult to see this initiative as being more than a fig leaf for cost-cutting.

The institute of technology sector is suffering from chronic under-funding. It is for that reason there was a 92% vote in favour of industrial action by institute of technology members of the TUI in their recent ballot. The staff in these institutions have seen a cut of over one third of the funding and an increase of almost one third in the number of students, with a reduction of staff totalling almost 10%. They are expected to work miracles on a shoestring budget and are stretched to, and beyond, capacity in many cases. The answer to those extremely negative resourcing issues is not to push bodies into a process that results in more cuts while leaving them with a better sounding name. It is our view that this legislation in its current form does not have the full confidence of many of the essential stakeholders.

We are also concerned with the manner in which the legislation has been dealt with, specifically around the late publication and the fact that one of the programme for Government commitments was to consider bringing in a technological university in the south east. Now, in the final weeks of the Government, we are seeking legislation that, in my opinion, will be rushed through regardless of what I or any other Opposition Member has to say about it.

We have seen previous concerns raised by members of the Committee of Public Accounts who said the mergers of the Munster institutes of technology had not been publicly costed, with over €3 million going on pay and professional fees alone. I am not convinced the matter of high costs has been dealt with sufficiently. While it is okay for management, the staff on the ground who will be expected to deliver the front-line courses are not being factored in and have not been included in the discussions in any meaningful manner. At the same time, they shoulder the burden and the negative aspect of cost-cutting across the board, which displays a worrying lack of foresight at Government and departmental level.

The criteria for becoming a technological university were set out in 2012 by the Higher Education Authority and require two or more institutes of technology to merge before a final application can be made. Many critics of the model being presented have said that it is just a cover for cuts and more concerned with rationalisation. Given how the institute of technology sector has been managed recently, it is hard to disagree with that. It also appears there is still the core issue of institutes of technology having to merge with no guarantee of achieving technological university status. We could end up with a merged entity which is awaiting designation as a technological university and yet still fails to meet the very strict criteria laid down.

I note that TUI members in both CIT and IT Tralee, whom I have met personally on a number of occasions, are currently engaged in industrial action against the mergers. The TUI branches in the Cork colleges oppose the Bill and have asked us to vote against it on Second Stage today. Their particular concerns are the merger of institutes being a precondition of re-designation as a technological university, with no guarantee that re-designation of the merged entity will actually happen, even when the required criteria are met. They have noted their particular opposition to the Bill as they have no confidence in the Munster technological university, MTU, process, with particular reference to the following: the Higher Education Authority policy approach; the international panel report; the financial commitment of Government; the local engagement process; the strategic process and its educational merit; and the point that elimination of course duplication contradicts the current mission of regional provision for both institutes. Those are their concerns.

While we are in favour of a legislative framework that will allow technological universities to be established, and we will vote to allow this Bill to go forward on Second Stage, I put the Minister on notice that we will withdraw our support for the Bill if our concerns and those of the staff of the institutes of technology are not addressed in a meaningful way on Committee Stage and Report Stage. In the absence of proper resourcing, unfortunately, it looks as if this is just something that Government Members can use in certain constituencies to say they are providing people with a technological university without actually looking at how that is going to happen in practice, what shape it has or what kind of working conditions or education will go with it.

The prospective merger between Carlow and Waterford ITs has been plagued by difficulties and in no way looks ready to happen in the short term given the funding issues the Government has consistently failed to address. One has only to look at the academic requirements for staff, the percentage requirements for research students at postgraduate level and mature student targets to know that much of this will be unrealisable in the absence of funding being put in place.

A range of other issues also need to be addressed in this Bill, from the unavoidable resourcing issue to matters such as definitions, academic freedom and the level of representation on the governing body and academic councils of the technological universities for both staff and students, not to mention the matter of the function of the academic councils. We have serious concerns that the academic councils will be exploited by business interests and that the framing of the Bill is complicit in allowing this to happen. Academic freedom needs to be protected and supported by means of secure tenured employment and by maintaining ministerial inquiry in cases of dismissal. The idea that can have true academic freedom without a secure system of employment is incredibly naive.

This is even more important when we look at the increased casualisation of third level employment alongside the increasing neo-liberalisation of the sector. It used to be the case that people complained about being on one-year contracts, but now nine-month contracts are being given to people and people are being put on hourly pay. It would be interesting to know how many PhD graduates have to sign on during the summer. Some in third level faculties, who should know better, are employing PhD graduates on the JobBridge scheme. This is an outrage. The Government has failed to support those students in their studies most of the time and has failed to support them in their graduate life. There is nothing in this Bill that will address the systemic precarious issues in the third level sector. We do not believe there should be any forced mergers. If mergers are forced where they are not wanted, this undermines the Government view they have academic benefits. This should not be just a simple exercise in cost cutting. It also would be useful to have a more detailed debate on Committee Stage regarding the fate that awaits institutes of technology that do not want to merge, one of which is in the Minister's constituency. The trade unions have raised many concerns that technological universities will be able to set their own employee pay and conditions, leading to unhealthy competition and an end to collective bargaining.

There are also big question marks over the protection of the pay and pensions of teaching staff in the technological universities. The Government has not proven itself particularly willing to protect teaching pay in the past, no matter the part of the education sector. People are right, therefore, to raise this matter. We also have broader concerns around the inclusion of the term “staff association” alongside trade unions, as bodies to be recognised in the terms of employment. Staff associations have a long history of being used by companies and businesses that have no interest in dialogue with their workers. They are used as an excuse to disengage from trade union negotiations. This is something that must be addressed on Committee Stage if the Bill is to have our support.

We also have a serious concern regarding the ability of the technological university to set its own fees for students, subject to the HEA review process, particularly in light of what may come down the road with a long-awaited report due on funding in third level. If third level education is not funded appropriately from the Exchequer, we could face a situation where students enter institutes of technology that are not fit to perform their functions, with teaching being at breaking point and students coming out and in debt to the tune of €20,000 or more. There is also an idea being put about that all courses need to be streamlined and merged so they are not duplicated. While there is merit to the idea that courses should not be overly duplicated, it must be acknowledged that the Government has cut funding to the bone and that not every student can afford to go to another town to attend a third level institute. Many students simply do not have that option.

As stated previously, Sinn Féin gives qualified support to this Bill. We agree with the idea of technological universities, but the legislation in its current form has problems. We will bring forward a range of amendments to address these matters on Committee Stage and will withdraw our support for the Bill if these are not addressed adequately.


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