Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage
I will address the various points raised by Deputies. With regard to the issue of time, the Second Stage debate was not guillotined and we had a long and good debate on Committee Stage. We also left sufficient time between Committee Stage and Report Stage to allow a significant number of amendments to be submitted by Opposition Deputies and a smaller number to be submitted by me in response to the concerns expressed on Committee Stage. The Report Stage debate will not be guillotined either. As the schedule for the week indicates, we will have time to discuss the Bill today, tomorrow morning and on Thursday morning. If we do not conclude the debate, so be it. We have provided considerable parliamentary time for the debate, nor do I intend to rush the Bill in the Seanad should it reach the Upper House. I do not know what will be the arrangements in the Seanad as they will depend on what happens in this House in the near future. I want to ensure we have sufficient time to debate the issues and I hope that will be the case.
As Deputies will be aware, the national strategy for higher education for the period until 2030 recommended significant reforms to position the institutes of technology sector to meet national strategic objectives. In particular, the strategy recommended consolidation in the sector and a pathway of evolution for consolidated institutes of technology, should they so wish, to allow them to demonstrate significant progress against robust performance criteria and to apply to become technological universities. I stress again that there is no obligation on institutes of technology to take this route. The Bill, in providing that applications for technological university status can be made only by merged institutes of technology, simply reflects this long-standing policy.
The technological university process is not a rebranding process for the institutes of technology sector. We will continue to have institutes of technology after groups of institutes proceed to technological university status. We very much value the institutes of technology and are offering an opportunity, should institutions so wish, to start on the path of becoming technology universities. Each group will be given an indication, when it moves from stage of the process to the next, as to whether it is on the right path to ensure it is aware of what bar it must reach to become a technological university. Technological university status can be achieved only by merged institutes of technology. This policy has been in place for some time and was included in the criteria from the outset.
The technological university process will require a step change in the performance of the institutes in question in order that they can meet the robust performance criteria, details of which have been in the public domain since 2012. By merging, institutes of technology can achieve greater scale and an increased capacity to provide the quality of education and research which will allow the new institutions to provide an exceptional service to their students and the regions in which they are situated and to compete at an international level. They must reach bars that have been set with regard to research, quality of teaching and so forth if they are to be granted technological university status.
For the reasons I have outlined I cannot support amendments Nos. 3, 18 and 60 to 79, inclusive, in so far as they provide that applications for technological university status can be made by unmerged institutes of technology. It has been clear since 2012 that mergers would be part of the conditions.
On the issue of institutes of technology merging and then somehow failing to achieve technological university status, the Bill provides that this is a possibility. This returns me to the earlier point that this proposal is not simply a rebranding exercise. What is being created through designation as a technology university is a new type of university in Ireland. To gain credibility nationally and internationally, the bar that has been set must be achieved. The objective criteria for redesignation as a technological university, which are set out in section 38, were first published in 2012 and the consortiums concerned have had ample opportunity to assess their progress against these criteria. The Dublin and Munster consortiums have both been positively assessed by an international expert panel as being on a clear trajectory to meet the criteria. I expect, therefore, that any consortium seeking to merge under the Bill would assess current performance and develop its own trajectory to achieve the level required by the technological university criteria before it applies to merge. As such, institutes of technology which have not yet proceeded to that point should ensure they are comfortable with the criteria they must achieve. These have been set out in respect of every step of the process. That is the purpose of providing this information.
Reference has been made to the argument that the merging of institutes of technology is simply a ruse to allow for rationalisation and cost saving. That is absolutely not the case.
I wish to touch on the issue of geographical equality or inequality raised by Deputy O'Brien. Merged institutes will be multi-campus entities which will continue to provide a broad range of programmes of education and training in each of their campuses. Indeed, by creating institutions of greater scale and strength, high-quality multi-campus technological universities will be able to bring greater social and economic benefits to their respective regions.
I have had discussions with TUI representatives as well as public representatives in areas where there are merging institutions. Like Deputy O'Brien, they have raised the point around certain young people from a given area. For example, perhaps no one from the family has gone on to higher education, yet these people may have done so because there was an institute of technology in their local area. I am very conscious of that and I have no wish to put anything in the way of people in those areas to prevent them from continuing to look at their campus as their campus in their community. There is no intention to water that down in any way. The regional focus of the technological universities is clearly set out in the Bill. In particular, section 22 sets out the overall functions of a technological university.
Amendment No. 60, proposed by Deputy O'Brien, seeks additional amendments to the criteria over and above the deletion of the word "merged". Firstly, the amendment includes a reference to "community development organisations" and "learners" in the proposed section 38(1)(k)(iv). This criterion reflects the function of a technological university to develop programmes with the involvement of business, enterprise, the professions and other related stakeholders, which is part of the distinctive mission of a technological university. This is specifically about the programmes. We will be addressing the issues of community later, but this particular subsection is about the programmes they are developing. Similarly, the proposal to delete subsection (2)(b) from the criteria, which relates to this involvement, would go against the mission of a technological university. The amendment also seeks to amend the same subsection and include a reference to programmes being developed in a time and place to suit their needs. I note that the functions of a technological university at section 22(1)(b) provide that technological universities will provide programmes that reflect the needs of citizens and other stakeholders in the region in which the campuses of the technological university are located as well as facilitating learning by flexible means. Having given this issue careful consideration, I believe that the existing provision addresses the concerns raised by Deputy O'Brien, and I cannot support amendment No. 60 for that reason.