Thursday, 17 December 2015
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage
I will start by paying tribute to the institutes of technology and their staff. These institutes are drastically under funded, but they continue to provide access to higher education for many people who would traditionally be excluded. This is true for the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in my constituency and others.
One point that must be mentioned in the context of this Bill is the extent of the savage cuts implemented in this sector over the course of the crisis, first under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition and continued under the current Government. Funding for the sector has been cut by a massive 35% between 2008 and 2015 and as a result the number of lecturers in the ITs has fallen by almost 10%, more than 500 whole-time posts. At the same time, student numbers have risen by more than 30%. Therefore there has been a significant increase of approximately one third in the student-teacher staff ratio, above the OECD average of 16:1 to a high of 20:1.
In Tallaght, there have been cuts of 40% since 2008, student numbers have increased by an amount equivalent to the national rate and staff numbers have reduced by 10%. A consequence of this is that the resources of the ITs and the working conditions of the staff are being stretched to breaking point. One third of TUI members at second level and a similar number at third level are in temporary part-time employment. We have a massive extension of so-called "flexicurity", precarious employment in third level institutions of people who are preparing people for their future. It is no wonder therefore there was such a significant turnout of 56% and such a significant "Yes" vote to industrial action on Monday, with 92% voting for industrial action on the issues of the severe funding difficulties and the horrific cuts that have taken place.
That is a context to this Bill. We welcome the idea that ITs should be able to apply for and get technological university status, but the kind of change proposed in this Bill cannot take place in the context of cuts and rationalisation. The concern of many of those involved is that the Bill may just become another rationale for further cuts, using the amalgamation process to drive a cuts process. Simply put, amendments must be made to the Bill to ensure it cannot become a Trojan horse for rationalisation and the elimination of programme provision. Otherwise, we will not support the Bill on a later Stage.
Institutes of technology should not have to amalgamate before applying for technological university status. They should be able to apply as stand alone institutes. There has been a transformation and development in terms of ITs and the programmes they offer and they should be permitted to apply individually. It is a difficulty that ITs are expected to amalgamate and then apply for technological university status, with no guarantee they will get that. This would be the worst of all worlds for them, that they have amalgamated but have not the status. Therefore, the requirement for amalgamation should be withdrawn.
For this process to happen properly, additional resources need to be put into the sector. The estimated cost in Dublin for carrying out the amalgamation is almost €24 million over three years and there is clearly little or no money available from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to fund the process.
The suggestion that the cost be met from further efficiency cuts, or "efficiencies" is unacceptable in the current climate. That translates, in reality, to a process of cuts.
A second issue we would like to raise is the question of dissolution of institutes of technologies. The Bill effectively provides for the dissolution of the institutes at Tallaght, Blanchardstown, Cork and Tralee, with Tallaght and Blanchardstown to be amalgamated with Dublin Institute of Technology. There is no further process envisaged in the Bill other than the issuing of an order by the Minister setting a "dissolution day". It has been argued that given that an international panel has already assessed the case for the amalgamations in Dublin and Munster, no further process is necessary. Given that we now have the legislation setting out the terms and conditions for being a technological university, surely individual institutions should be allowed to look again at the issue. This is particularly important given the opposition of staff in many of the institutes of technology to forced amalgamations. The Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, is about to ballot members for industrial action on this specific issue, as there is significant disquiet about the lack of consultation and engagement with staff. In light of this, there should be provision in the Bill for the institutions to collectively trigger the process prior to the Minister issuing an order and only after agreement has been reached with staff on the terms of the amalgamation.
The third point I raise is that it is clear in reading the Bill that it is unnecessarily slavish to the needs of business and enterprise. This is in line with an approach that is generally happening across education but in clause after clause, the needs of enterprise and industry are acknowledged and privileged over what the Bill refers to as "other stakeholders". There is a stark contrast between the number of times the word "enterprise" appears relative to terms such as "community". The Bill would have us believe that business and community interests are the same thing. Technological universities are to serve the community and public interest by, in the first instance, "supporting the development of business and enterprise at local, regional and national levels".
A strong illustration of the slavishness to business relates to the provisions for the academic councils, which are traditionally composed of academic staff and are forums for debate and the making of decisions on all matters related to academic programmes and research activity. Their main focus is on upholding academic standards. The Bill as it stands indicates "the majority of members of the academic council shall be members of the academic staff of the technological university,". That clearly raises the prospect of non-academics from outside the institutes being members of the academic council and the prospect that those with unduly narrow views of education will come to have influence over the structure and content of our higher education programmes. All those committed to a broad view of education should oppose such moves.
The Bill also proposes with regard to membership of academic councils that they would be "a member of the academic staff with sufficient experience, in the view of the technological university, of business, enterprise or a profession"; and "members of the academic staff with sufficient experience, in the view of the technological university, of collaboration with business, enterprise, the professions and related stakeholders in the region in which the campuses of the technical university are located for a purpose as referred to". This is a concrete example of the privileging of the needs of business and the placing of business at the centre of these technological universities. Our education system is not a tool of the business community. Education is a public good and it should be retained as such. It should not be limited to preparing students to adapt to the demands of employment and remaining competitive in the labour market. The immediate needs of employers are not a good basis for designing a curriculum. What concerns industry is what is relevant to industry and the interests and concerns of employers and big business in particular. It is not necessarily the same for society or students. We must remain committed to a view of education as a vehicle to enhance the capacity of citizens to learn, develop critical thinking and contribute to a society that provides a good life for all. This will involve being critical of the practices of business and students should be prepared in their education to do so.
A fourth point to be raised relates to governing bodies. The proposal as currently outlined in sections 25, 65, 66, 81 and 104 is unsatisfactory, as these sections see a diminished role for the Minister and the establishment of a system of self-regulation, which may diminish public accountability. Following the first appointment of governing bodies, the Minister's role will be reduced to the appointment of two external members. Levels of staff representation on any new bodies arising from this legislation should be no less than current levels, at least, at two academics and one non-academic person. Given that the technological universities will be formed from amalgamated institutes of technologies, staff and student representation should be expanded to provide for representation from all relevant institutes that have been amalgamated. It is also the case that as currently written, there is no provision for trade union representation on governing bodies.
The last point I want to raise relates to collective bargaining and the threat that is potentially contained in the legislation as currently written. As the Minister knows, all staff currently working in institutes of technology are covered by national collective agreements covering the whole sector. The Bill in section 27(2) provides with respect to trade unions that the staff of a technological university shall be employed on such terms and conditions as may be determined by the technological university, subject to the approval of An tÚdarás, given with the consent of the Minister etc. The implication of this is that staff working in different technological universities could have different terms and conditions. It is clearly implied. This is different from the heads of the Bill as published, which contained head 55, that: "The Minister may, in relation to the performance by a technological university of its functions, give a direction in writing to that technological university requiring it to comply with a (a) policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far it relates to the remuneration or numbers of public servants employed in that technological university, or (b) collective agreement entered into by the Government or the Minister." It also indicates that "a technological university shall comply with a direction under this section". That provision in the heads of Bill does not appear in the Bill as published. It is legitimate for people to have a concern that collective bargaining is being undermined and there can be a fragmentation with respect to terms and conditions of those currently working in the institutes of technology. There could potentially be a race to the bottom and competition between institutes that forces wages and conditions down across the sector. This would weaken the position of a union representing academic staff across the different technological universities, which is completely unacceptable.
The Minister must retain at least a similar role to now in ensuring similar pay and conditions apply across all new institutions created by this legislation. Otherwise there is the prospect of differential pay and conditions, making it less attractive to work in some technological universities, undermining their ability to attract the high calibre staff they need to provide a high quality education. Finally we note that staff who transfer to new amalgamated institutions are only guaranteed their current levels of remuneration and not their current conditions of employment. We support the demand of the TUI that transfer of undertakings regulations should be applied to ensure people are transferred in total with respect to pay and conditions.
I generally welcome the idea of technological universities and institutes of technology being able to apply to be technological universities. It cannot be a Trojan Horse for further cuts or the undermining of worker rights and conditions. It cannot be a Trojan Horse for the undermining of collective bargaining.