Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage


4:40 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

As Deputy John Paul Phelan said, this legislation requires detailed and critical scrutiny. I disagree with his remarks on what the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, did in the context of supporting the regional technological colleges and the institutes of technology. During the period he held the office that the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, holds now, there was huge investment and growth in that sector. If two colleges had the same status it would not be appropriate to have one designated as an institution of technology and the other as a regional technological college. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s when the regional technological colleges were established, they all had the same status and description. It would cause problems from the point of view of interacting with partners in education on the international scene to have different titles for colleges providing the same level of education.

I broadly welcome the Bill, as my party spokesperson, Deputy McConalogue, did. However, he flagged a number of issues he would like to see amended on Committee Stage. We need to reconsider the requirement for existing institutes to merge if they wish to be considered for designation as technological universities. Deputy McConalogue made a practical and useful suggestion in that regard.

I do not believe we should have a university or an institute of technology in every county. We know that is not feasible and we would demean our whole third level education sector if we took that route. The institutes of technology have been very successful and great credit is due to a succession of Ministers, who ensured they got substantial funding to allow them grow and develop, and also to the leaders within the institutes.

That goes back to the principals or directors of the regional technical colleges, as well as the many public representatives who served on the boards of those colleges through the vocational education committees, VECs. They often do not get credit for the contribution they made to education at local and regional level.

Deputy Costello referred to the possibility of the merger of the different institutes in the Dublin area, as well as the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. I want to refer to the other part of Ulster which would be regarded as the north east. For my county, Cavan, part of it is in the north west, while other parts are regarded as being in the north east. Monaghan is very much designated as being in the north east. I cannot see Dundalk Institute of Technology readily accommodated in a particular cluster, either regionally or geographically. While I admit I quickly went through this legislation, I did not see provision made for co-operation with similar educational institutes north of the Border. We all talk about growing the all-Ireland economy with greater co-operation between North and South. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Wall, and I participate in the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We meet different groups who all support growing the all-Ireland economy, as well as growing synergies between North and South, be it in improving infrastructure and in the provision of health and education services. There is a wonderful opportunity to ensure greater co-operation between third level colleges and universities in the North of Ireland and in the South. However, from the last figures available, proportionally there are fewer students from the North of Ireland in universities and institutes of technology in the South than would have been in the past. I know more people on the island are thankfully participating in further and third level education than in the past. Proportionately, however, the number of students going from North to South or South to North has actually declined. That is a deficit we need to address. If Dundalk Institute of Technology provides particular courses not readily available north of the Border, there is no point in some university or institute of technology north of the Border trying to provide the same course and competing for students. Resources will always be scarce both North and South to deal with demands on the provision of health and education services, as well as infrastructure. There is great scope for us to provide education services much more on a North-South and on an all-Ireland basis. I hope on Committee Stage the Minister will make some provision to ensure such co-operation is effected. I am sure the Minister will be told by the Department, universities and institutes of technology that this is not practical as the third level sector in the North is funded differently. Every Department, statutory agency, university or institute of technology lives in their own world, in a silo. We need to get this out of society for the better of everybody, as well as a better return for the taxpayer and for the student who will benefit with being provided with education as near to home as possible. If a Cavan student needs to access a particular course which is only available in Enniskillen rather than in Navan, then there is no reason the student cannot go North or vice versa.

We still have too much of a partitionist mentality when it comes to the delivery of services. We have had the opportunity since May 1998, when we overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement to put new administrative political structures in place in this island, to start to look at the delivery of services on an all-Ireland basis. We have not been doing enough in this regard. When the Minister is bringing forward legislation, which will put a new type of higher level education facility in place, this is the time to look at the provision of services on an all-Ireland basis. I hope the Minister will take that opportunity.

The institutes of technology have never been given credit for the great contribution they made to ensure children from more disadvantaged backgrounds got access to third level education. From the statistics for first-year entrants in Dundalk Institute of Technology, quite a number of them were the first members of their families to have the opportunity to go to third level education. There has been a distinct policy by the institutes of technology to ensure extra assistance and access programmes to ensure children from a background where education may not have been a priority in the past due to financial circumstances, or where parents did not get the opportunity to go on to further or third level education, get to third level. Thankfully, today we have much better third level participation of young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. That is extremely important.

Today, the Minister’s office would have received correspondence from Deputy Kirk. Last night in Leinster House, several Oireachtas Members from the north east met with members of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, branch from Dundalk Institute of Technology. The delegation put forward a compelling case for additional financial assistance needed by the institute. They outlined how there is a deficit in the provision of technology for some particular courses. There are some courses which it will be difficult for them to deliver if there is not some investment in technology available to them. Deputy Kirk's request has been made to the Minister on behalf of the Oireachtas Members from the north east, Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath, of all parties and none. We are seeking a meeting with the Minister to support the case made by the TUI branch in Dundalk Institute of Technology. Its members outlined the significant growth in its student population, which is welcome, and the projected increase in enrolments. It must also be factored in that the population in Louth and Meath has grown considerably over the past 15 years. Quite a number of students from north County Dublin also attend Dundalk Institute of Technology, along with a large student population from Cavan and Monaghan. I hope the Minister will be able to give some assistance early in the new year to Dundalk. The members of staff who we met last night are extremely impressive and committed to their work. They stressed to us that it is not a trade union pitching for better conditions for themselves but advocating for better conditions and better delivery of education services for the students under their care.

Deputy Costello spoke about the Connacht-Ulster Alliance which makes sense with Letterkenny, Galway-Mayo and Sligo Institutes of Technology. However, for the north east and Dundalk, one is dealing with the Border. That is why I am anxious that the whole area of North-South co-operation is advanced. We can all talk about co-operation but we need to be adventurous, ambitious and deliver services to students. Whatever part of Ulster a student comes from, he or she should not be a stranger south or north of the Border. My party's education spokesperson, Deputy McConalogue, will put forward several amendments in this regard on Committee Stage and I hope some of his proposals will be implemented.

It is important legislation and the whole area of technological universities is a welcome development. Again, I do not believe we should have a technological university in every county. The area of further education does not get enough credit for the contribution it makes and has made over the past several years.

I know that Cavan Institute, a college of further education in my county, has given many students the opportunity to go on to institutes of technology or universities and complete their primary degree courses and, in many instances, many of those students have gone on to complete a master's degree. That progression from further education through to third level is vitally important. The further education sector is also one that needs to be adequately funded. The further education sector and the colleges of further education were put in place to meet the emerging needs of the economy in those local areas. I agree with Deputy John Paul Phelan's point that the institutes of technology or the colleges of further education should have a good working relationship and close collaboration with industry in their area. When I chaired the board of management of the then Cavan College of Further Studies we were cognisant of ensuring that courses that tapered in with some local industries were provided, where we had some particular strengths, and young people were equipped with skills to meet the job opportunities that might arise in their own areas.

An area that is worth considering is the agricultural colleges. While I have not given this any detailed thought, it should be noted that they are also a great resource. I was involved in Ballyhaise Agricultural College in my own county some years ago. It linked up with Dundalk Institute of Technology and provided a degree course in food and farming. The young students could do their first year in Ballyhaise Agricultural College, and some of them may not have had the points to go directly into an agricultural science course, but they were able, on successful completion of the relevant certificate in agriculture at the agricultural college, to go on to Dundalk Institute of Technology and complete a degree course in food science or food and farming. Many of those people are now gainfully employed in our agrifood industry, which has experienced substantial growth during the past decade. The agricultural colleges are an important resource and they should not be left out of the further and higher education sector, nor should they be left to stand alone. There may be an opportunity to develop a greater synergy between the agricultural colleges and the institutes of technology.


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