Thursday, 17 December 2015
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage
Deputies and adversaries. I wish all the Oireachtas staff, who make life bearable for us in here even if we possibly make it unbearable for them at times, a happy Christmas.
The idea of a technological university is one to which everyone would subscribe. Everyone would subscribe to the idea that it should be an option available to the institutes of technology to allow them to upgrade to being technological universities. This is a laudable objective but the people at the coalface - the teaching staff in the institutes of technology - are deeply concerned and suspicious about the real import of this Bill given what has been happening on the ground in the institute of technology sector for the past seven years under the impact of relentless cuts and austerity. They fear that this is just a process of rationalisation where rationalisation is a euphemism for more cuts and consolidation to cover up those cuts and enforce more cuts and more attacks on the quality and conditions in the institutes of technology as they affect the teaching staff and students. This will not enhance the experience or quality of the education or the situation for teaching staff, who are key in delivering the education to students.
As has already been rehearsed by other Deputies, the institutes of technology have been hammered since 2008. There has been a 35% cut worth €190 million between 2008 and 2015 resulting in critical low levels of staffing at a time when student numbers have jumped very significantly. We have seen a 32% rise in student numbers in that period. Incredibly, at a time when we have seen a major increase of effectively one third in the number of students, we have seen a 9.5% cut in the staffing levels. We have many more students but far fewer staff and cuts in funding across the board in the institute of technology sector. This is having a devastating impact on the staff who are suffering precarious employment. About one third of those working in the institutes of technology are in precarious positions, suffer income poverty and are severely stressed trying to do their jobs. It is also leading to a detrimental situation for students - larger class size and less access to laboratories, tutorials, student support and general quality of education.
This is the reality against which the noble objective now being set out must be measured. It seems to be a hallmark of this Government to engage in noble objectives, grand plans that sound wonderful in announcements and ambitions that are coming down the road. One then looks at the grim reality of services, infrastructure and so on that have been hacked to pieces. When I look at this plan for technological universities, I cannot help but think that it sounds a bit like centres of excellence in the health service, which is a beautiful idea championed by this Government. The Government will downgrade, reform, restructure or close the smaller local hospitals and merge them into groups and have centres of excellence. It sounds beautiful but then one looks at the reality, which is a euphemism for cuts and fewer services. I am just making the comparison with what has happened to the health service and saying that this sounds like it. If the Government does not provide the resources and staff, all the wonderful restructuring turns into a nightmare of cuts and a degrading of services. This is unquestionably what is happening in the health service.
Looking at this, it is difficult to see how it can be anything other than that. If the resources are not provided, if staffing levels are not dramatically improved and if the cuts are not reversed, what we will get is a repeat of the fiasco and disaster that the Government slogan "more for less" in the health area has produced. We got a lot less for less in the health service. How could it be otherwise in this process of mergers and rationalisation, notwithstanding the wonderful and noble aspirations for technological universities, if it is against a background of butchered resources, staffing and services?
I pay tribute to the teachers. I was informed about a lot of this coming from the picket line in Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, IADT, where teachers were on strike recently. It did not take them long to get across to me how stressed, overworked, desperate and despairing they were regarding the situation in which they were working. It is not just reading off the documents we got from the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, it is also about the teachers on the picket line. They do not want to be on strike. There would be industrial action in Dublin but for the agreement at the LRC in July. We have had industrial action more recently across the country and the TUI is saying with a huge mandate that it will go on strike if the Minister enforces mergers without addressing its concerns on all of these issues. It is the last thing it want to do but it is at its wits' end. Against a background of being battered with cuts for the past seven years, it strongly suspects that it will be more of the same and that none of the assurances it sought in its engagement with the Government, the Department and relevant Oireachtas committee in respect of the heads of Bill on a range of areas, with which the Minister is familiar, will materialise. These include collective agreements arising out of the Haddington Road agreement to safeguard conditions over the transfer of undertakings so that staff members carry over their conditions into any merged entity; the complete failure to have proper consultation and to guarantee that no mergers will go ahead until there is consensus and agreement and all the concerns of the teaching staff have been met; and the need for a proper case to be set out on any mergers towards technological universities that will guarantee the quality and standard of the education and the regional access that is required. This latter aspect is a hallmark of the institutes of technology, so that they provide access to third-level education for people who in many cases cannot afford to travel to study and who need third-level education near to where they live, as Deputy O'Brien mentioned.
Do we need to underline that point against the background of the housing crisis, which affects students among many others? They are desperately trying to find housing. Many assurances are required and most important, the resources, staffing and so on to ensure that this aspiration for technological universities, laudable as it might be, is not simply a recipe for more cuts, rationalisation and so on, that degrade the quality and experience of education in these technological universities.
How can there be academic freedom in the new institutions if people do not know they are going to have a job in a year’s time because they live in fear? That is not conducive to academic freedom and freedom of expression, which is the hallmark of third level education because staff are too terrified to say anything in case their contract is not renewed. Against a background where 33% of people employed in third level education are in precarious situations and that figure has been growing, the workers and the unions say it should be approximately 95% permanent tenured employment if there is to be security for the teachers and the necessary academic freedom so teachers feel confident to express their views and say what they think, which is what universities are all about. There should be adequate representation of workers, trades unions and students on the governing bodies of these institutions in proportion to the number of these institutions that may be merged so there is academic and student leadership of the universities. That is what is needed to make something more than a university in name.
As Deputy Paul Murphy said, when one considers all the references to enterprise and industry and so on in the Bill “slavish” is the right word. The Bill is saying the technological universities must serve the interests of business and enterprise. I would put it the other way around: business should support third level education, which it is not doing. Why should the universities, which educate our young people, providing a service to society and the public, be slaves to business, which does not reciprocate and where Government policy ensures it does not reciprocate? Why do the businesses not pay some taxes to fund third level education? They are its chief beneficiaries. The extraordinary profits the multinationals make per employee in this country are off the Richter scale. This is to a significant extent explained by transfer pricing, contract manufacturing and intricate tax avoidance schemes. These companies make unbelievable profits from the young people we paid to educate and who have, through their own endeavours, reached a point where they can make enormous profits for these companies, which do not feel any need to reciprocate and pay a bit of bleeding tax.