Thursday, 17 December 2015
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage
I thank everybody who contributed to the debate and, in particular, for a broadly supportive response from the various shades of the Opposition. We are all committed to the notion that there should be an opportunity to develop technological universities and it should be supported. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Murphy suggested this is all about cuts. I reassure them it is about opportunity and not about cuts. It is about giving regions an opportunity to bring IoTs together to ensure they achieve the status of a technological university. There have been cuts in the higher education sector, as there have been across all sectors, not only in education but in other Departments. As Deputy Maloney said, that was because of the economic crash and the fact that we simply did not have money. I managed to increase the education budget this year, a little more than last year’s slight increase. Should I be lucky to return to this position, I would want that to continue in the next budget given the importance of education. That has been stressed by many speakers.
I assure Members this legislation is anything but a plot on the Government’s part to introduce cutbacks. It has been talked about for a long time, particularly in the south east, where, as Deputy John Paul Phelan said, there has been a sense that a higher education institution with the status of a university was needed, as this would, therefore, increase employment levels and address issues of concern in the region. I am delighted we are making progress there and I expect a report in January from the person working with the two institutions in the region to address issues. Considering where we were even a year and a half ago, we have come a long way regarding the south east.
The provision of a technological university is of great concern in that region but opportunities also present in other regions in this regard and we have received representations on these. The reason mergers are being provided for is we want universities, ultimately, with a critical mass. We would like larger institutions that will have the appropriate number of students, researchers and PhD students and that will meet all the criteria that need to be reached before technological university status can be achieved. The IoTs knew from the beginning that mergers were part of this process.
I would like to make Deputy Boyd Barrett aware that this process is voluntary. We are not forcing people to come together. Some regions have decided to do this while others have decided against it. As Deputy Smith said, Dundalk IT is not participating while Athlone IT and Limerick IT, near where I live, are not either. They are working on clusters in regions but I take the Deputy’s point about the North-South discussions. I have had meetings with the Northern Minister for Education, John O’Dowd and, in particular, the Minister for Employment and Learning, Mr. Stephen Farry about cross-Border co-operation on higher education. Mr. Farry was particularly interested in the Letterkenny-Derry axis but, obviously, the Deputy is interested in the axis in his own area. I do not know whether anything relating to that could be inserted in this legislation but it is part of the discussions in education meetings in the context of North-South dialogue. We are trying to facilitate cross-Border movement in education where appropriate.
A number of members were concerned about staff and ensuring pay, pension and other conditions are protected. I referred to the relevant sections in that regard in my opening contribution but I am sure we will tease all those issues out on Committee Stage. I also agree consultation is needed. We have impressed on the IoTs that they need to constantly talk to their staff and students to make sure they are in the loop about what is happening and that they are genuinely consulted and listened to. I want that process to continue. Those issues have been raised. With regard to security of tenure in the IoT sector, I expect the Cush report shortly. He is looking into making jobs more secure in the higher education sector. The Peter Ward report on this issue in the primary and, particularly, the post-primary sector was published last year and we are implementing that. The Cush report is about job security in the higher education sector and I am told I am likely to get the report in January. We need to implement that as well. We have made a small move giving hourly paid lecturers the status of assistant lecturer but, clearly, there are issues, particularly for the unions that represent workers. We will have an opportunity to address them.
A number of Members raised the issue of engaging with business. Engaging with the local economic community makes a great deal of sense. It does not preclude engaging with other elements of the community. Many IoTs have courses related to the caring professions, hospitality sector and the arts, and, therefore, it is not only about business. Those who have had job opportunities in their regions because IoTs specifically engaged with business regarding their needs have witnessed high quality jobs coming in and, therefore, I do not make apologies to the two Deputies who referred to this issue. It is right that there should be engagement with enterprise in the region because that is how a region ensures it creates the maximum opportunity for those who live in it. Technological universities will have a strong role in that regard. Engagement with local enterprise is a way to address that. It is not only about multinationals. Many indigenous companies are in the food sector, for example, and they engage with higher and further education institutions. That is important in ensuring we have cross-sectoral and intergovernmental engagement to ensure opportunities to access education and a satisfying and well paid career are created and skills gaps are prevented.
I do not make any apologies for that.
Deputies Costello, Maloney and Smith spoke about the issue of opportunity for sectors of the population that traditionally have not gone to college. People in areas such as Tallaght have gone to college because there is an institute of technology in the area, and I want to ensure that continues. In terms of these mergers, we want to ensure the local and regional population is encouraged by them and does not have a sense that education is more distant than currently. That is very much part of how we are engaging with the different institutes.
Yesterday I launched the strategy for access to higher education. We have assigned an additional €3 million to it this year to increase the access fund and improve the transfer from further to higher education. We want to ensure the attendance at higher education of under-represented socio-economic groups, people with disabilities and Travellers is increased. Institutes of technology play an important role in this, as the technological universities will in the future. We have specific targets in that plan and we want to ensure more equity of access.
Some Deputies spoke about the multi-campus issue being more costly for students if they have to travel from their own region. The point of it is that additional campuses will be added to existing institute of technology campuses. The purpose of this is that in regions where the technological universities will be, there will be other campuses students can attend. They will be functioning multi-campus entities. An example from my own area is the amalgamation of Limerick Institute of Technology and the Tipperary Institute. There are now campuses of the institute in Tipperary as well as in Limerick. That is an example of a multi-campus institution. It should not put barriers in the way of students in terms of the cost of living away from home.
There were some other issues but I think I have referred to most that have been raised. We will have the opportunity to debate the legislation further on other Stages. I hope to get the Bill through in the lifetime of this Dáil and I will look for committee time as soon as we finish Second Stage. It is very important legislation. Some have called it historic. It gives the opportunity for a new type of university in a number of regions in the country. This legislation is the basis for moving forward so it is important that everybody here has the opportunity to tease it out because clearly there are issues around governance and security for staff. There are many issues that must be dealt with fully. I am not saying we will rush it through but if we have time, it would be a positive to complete the legislation during the life of the current Dáil. I thank those who have contributed.
Everybody who has spoken here today has wished everybody a happy Christmas. I wish Members, staff, ushers, the Acting Chairmen who assist the Ceann Comhairle and everybody else a very happy Christmas. We will return to the Bill in January.