Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage
The Minister said at the outset that the policy was one of consolidation of institutes and, I presume, the provision of higher education. However, by bringing in this Bill the Minister is going from a two-tier system involving universities and institutes of technology to a three-tier system involving universities, technological universities and institutes of technology that will not be part of the process, such as the institute in the Minister's constituency. That institute has decided to opt out and remain as an IOT, yet it will be governed by many of the issues relevant to this Bill.
The Minister said that the Bill would allow technological universities to operate on a greater scale and allow them the capacity to compete at an international level. In itself, that may be the case, but the organisations cannot compete at an international level or operate with a greater scale and capacity unless they have the resources to match. We can merge institutes, but unless we actually put the funding in place to enable them to increase their capacity and operate at a greater scale, then I do not believe the policy can work. In my opening contribution I went through the cuts to the sector. Funding was cut by €190 million over seven years. There was a reduction in the number of staff by almost 6% and a reduction of 20,000 students. We can only imagine the additional resource implications for a merged institute with no guarantee of obtaining technological university status.
The Minister said this was not a rebranding exercise. However, the question being asked is whether it is an exercise in rationalisation. I have not heard any convincing argument from the Minister to the effect that this is not simply about rationalisation.
The Minister referred to the Munster technological university consortium. I am familiar with the MTU consortium. There are major issues around the process in this case. If the Bill passes in its current form, we could end up with a merged institute applying for technological university status while still having industrial relations disputes involving members of staff. There is industrial action on the way in the Cork and Kerry case. To the best of my knowledge and on the basis of my discussions with members of the TUI in Cork and Kerry, there has been a significant lack of meaningful consultation and engagement. Those involved are seriously disappointed with the level of consultation provided. Despite the Minister's engagements with the TUI at a national level, those involved believe the process has involved providing information rather than actually listening to most of their concerns.
I made reference to multi-campus organisations and set out the fears among some communities that assets may be stripped. I do not believe the Minister's answer on the suggestion that the merged institutes of technology would be multi-campus organisations. Let us consider the Cork and Kerry example. A new entity could retain many of the assets and the buildings in Tralee as well as Cork. However, there is an issue with the criteria for the duplication of courses. To the best of my recollection, there is a specific reference to the effect that the duplication of courses should be eradicated. Let us consider a scenario whereby someone from Cork is currently able to access a course in Cork Institute of Technology. Then, when the merged institutes form a technological university, what happens if that particular course is also being provided in Tralee Institute of Technology? Under this Bill, there would be an argument to the effect that the new entity would have to do away with at least one of those courses in one of the campuses. We could have a situation whereby someone who is currently able to access a course in Cork may no longer be able to access that course and would have to travel to Tralee or vice versa. The multi-campus argument does not add up in respect of the point about the provision of courses. That is one of the reasons for the concerns around the reduction in the number of courses.
I have tabled amendment No. 60 because we are proposing to remove the word "merged" or "merger" and, therefore, we would need entirely new eligibility criteria. This is what we have provided in our amendment. We have set out new eligibility criteria based on the requirement for institutes to have merged before they can obtain technological university status. It is not simply about tinkering with one or two subsections; it is about creating altogether new criteria.
The Minister will argue that we cannot make such a change at this stage because the criteria have been laid out and some of the proposed technological universities are so far down the line that it would be unfair on them to change the criteria in mid-stream. I imagine that is the Minister's opinion. However, if the criteria are flawed, they are flawed. Whether the necessary changes take place mid-stream or at the beginning, we need to get the criteria right, and I do not believe the Minister has got the criteria right in this regard.