Thursday, 17 December 2015
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage
I commend the Minister on introducing this legislation. It is a pity we are discussing it on a Thursday evening before Christmas because this is one of the most significant proposed changes to the way in which our education system has operated for many years. It is very much to be welcomed. Effectively, it is about introducing a new type or category of third-level institution for the future.
I must declare a number of vested interests in this legislation. As a representative for Carlow-Kilkenny, I have an existing institute of technology in my constituency. As somebody who studied in an institute of technology in Waterford, I also have a keen interest in that institution. From the start, this new categorisation was included in the programme for Government and it is welcome that we are now discussing the terms of the legislation that will allow these new institutions to come into play.
I do not want to rehash everything that has been said by previous speakers. However, the Minister referred to the ongoing, arduous efforts in the south-east region, including the current facilitation process which is hopefully coming to a conclusion. I hope the Minister will get an opportunity in January to tell the House about the outcome of that process.
For the south-east region more than for any other region, this is a particularly critical matter. The region has just shy of 500,000 people and it is pretty much the only region without an existing university, which has been a constant bone of contention. It is also the region with the highest average rates of unemployment even at the height of the boom, the lowest disposable household income even at the height of the boom and the lowest third level education attendance rates of any region of the country even at the height of the boom. The argument for establishing a technological university in the south-east region is strong.
Section 38 outlines the criteria for such a designation. I started in Waterford Regional Technical College in September 1997. I am not sure if it was a regional technical college or an IT at the time because, in a rather typical display of fudging by the now Leader of the Opposition and then Minister for Education and Science, Waterford Regional Technical College was to be upgraded to IT status. However, there was a clamour from other regional technical colleges around the country and the names of all institutions were changed at the drop of a hat by Deputy Martin regardless of any meeting of criteria as far as I can remember - I was only 18 at the time and was not particularly involved in political decisions, although I would have been interested. I know it caused much disquiet in the institute in Waterford that when it had reached the standard, the Minister took a decision that all regional technical colleges would simply have their names changed. That is why section 38 is so important. It sets out in detail the teaching and educational criteria for a designation as a technological university in future. The process needs to be transformative in terms of education and not just about changing the name on the door, which is what Deputy Martin did in 1997.
Deputy O'Brien correctly made this point. In my region across Wexford, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and into Tipperary many families are not in a position to send their children to universities in Dublin or outside the region because they cannot afford to do so. Having a university in their own region where the costs of sending their children to it would be greatly reduced, is a significant factor. The institutes of technology and the regional technological colleges before them have been a great success because they gave an opportunity for a third level education to thousands of people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity. The technological university status can have a similar impact into the future for many thousands of people in regions of the country who would not be in a financial position to move away from home to go to a university.
Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about the academic councils of the new technological universities. He expressed alarm and concern over the prospect of non-academics on academic councils. I say, "Alleluia" to the prospect of having some non-academics on academic councils. Deputy Murphy also happened to single out for special mention that there is no direct provision for trade unionists to be appointed to academic councils while at the same time saying that they should not contain representatives of business. I believe the legislation is correct in not singling out any specific groups for inclusion or exclusion. If we are talking about a new structure for education, there should be an alignment with the needs of industry into the future. That is a fact of life and it is something I would welcome.
Deputy Murphy expressed alarm that this legislation might be a Trojan horse for rationalisation, whatever that phrase means. I do not suspect it is anything of the sort. However, there is obviously a need, whether it is in this city or in other regions in the country where there are existing institutes of technology and where some duplication takes place, for an overall body responsible for development of third level education in a technological sense under this new technological university heading. It makes absolute sense and I fully support it.
Following the process the Minister mentioned in her earlier contribution, Professor Donnelly, the president of Waterford Institute of Technology and, Dr. Mulcahy, the president of Carlow Institute of Technology, are endeavouring to ensure that a bid can happen for the south east region. It is much overdue and is something the region badly needs. It has the potential to be a major economic driver for the future of the five counties that make up the region, which for far too long have lagged behind academically and in terms of household incomes despite the perception that exists in other parts of the country that everything is always much better on the east coast than in other parts of the country. Even at the height of the Celtic tiger, the south-eastern economic indicators were much lower than in most other parts of the country. The possibility of a technological university has the potential to provide a huge economic stimulus and to attract much-needed foreign direct investment as well as local investment to ensure we have a thriving region economically as well as socially into the future.
That is why I fully support the legislation. I commend the Minister on her work and her endeavours so far. I commend the Bill to the House.