Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
First, I welcome the establishment of the Department. I wish both the Minister and the Minister of State well, as I have done in the past. I believe it is a step in the right direction to give as much access to third level as possible, particularly to those in the regions and those who do not have the wherewithal to attend third level. It gives them the opportunity. It also allows the Department a greater focus on what is required to bring greater numbers into the university sector.
I also welcome the developments in relation to the technological universities. Carlow and Waterford should move ahead quite quickly under the guidance of the recently appointed Mr. Boland and should reach recognition in January 2021. I look forward to that. The south-east region has suffered badly economically because of the lack of university status within it. I know from experience that companies that wish to come and set up in Ireland look at the educational system and what is available, particularly the universities. I have no doubt that the south-east region will benefit, not only Waterford and Carlow. I know that Kilkenny is part of the plan for future - a campus of some sort there. There is great opportunity.
I am glad that Deputy Nash raised the issue of publicly funded education because we must look at a model that will give greater public funds to those who wish to attend third level. As I finished my leaving certificate, it was not possible or affordable for me to attend third level. In a sense, at that time it might not have had the same impact as now.
Given the digital economy we are creating and the world as all of the markets merge, it is important that we have highly qualified people who can go into that marketplace, develop a footprint for Ireland abroad and attract the companies that will create a critical mass of employment in Ireland. That can only be done through education. I would support any move the Minister makes to increase the input of public funds to support students attending college. Some of the really bright students often cannot get to college and yet, through their own initiatives, manage to rise to the top. However, it is a battle when one does not have the qualifications behind one.
I also welcome the amounts of money the Minister is giving to the universities to establish the newer ones and to keep funded the well-established universities as they move along in time. I am positive about their development but we have to learn from the past. The Minister stated that he met the presidents of the various institutions recently. My concern is that we have had the universities before the Committee of Public Accounts on numerous occasions. They have been late in submitting their accounts. They have been less than spectacular in how they have described their expenditure and in many instances, there were controversies and scandals that were swept under the carpet by the State. There was a cover-up in terms of how those issues arose within certain universities. I am not painting them all with the one brush, but there were issues and those issues, by and large, were not addressed. They were certainly ignored to facilitate the ongoing work of a university or, indeed, to facilitate individuals to progress in their jobs and get out the other side. No one was found guilty, as it were, of the terribly poor governance that existed in some universities. No one was found to be short in his or her delivery of protection for the employees of universities and yet there were many whistleblowers in the University of Limerick, Cork Institute of Technology and elsewhere. I brought a case to the Minister's attention. The Minister has taken much of the baggage from the Department of Education but, historically, there are issues. They are not resolved.
I am deeply disappointed that even as we debate this positive move in terms of third level, there are legacy issues from the past that the players at management level within some universities are simply not willing to deal with.
We passed legislation in this House about whistleblowers. We offered them protection. Some of them came forward in good faith, wanting to improve the work ethic around them, their work environment generally, or to report directly a wrongdoing. They have been vilified. They have lost their jobs. The individual named at the Committee of Public Accounts lost her job. To this day State money is being used by that particular institute to drag the person through the courts, to deal with her in a very bad way and not to acknowledge at all the rights the person has as an employee of the institute in question.
There is something we can do in real time in that, where we see money being wasted, it is important for the Minister to step in, call the university or institute out and ask what they are doing with the taxpayers' money we are giving them. Some institutions have been funding highly paid solicitors, barristers and senior counsel to defend a position that is indefensible and to railroad someone in light of the legislation we passed in this House giving protection to whistleblowers. They are making their lives absolutely impossible, taking their jobs from them, bringing on poor health, forcing them into a situation where the institutes are actually breaking the law by asking them to do certain things people simply should not be asked to do because it is illegal to do so. However, because they have the power of the State behind them and a bottomless pit as far as resources are concerned, they are able to do this to individuals.
I am asking the Minister, as I did before, and the Taoiseach as well, to call a halt to it, not to be afraid to say that enough is enough. Unless the Minister or someone senior does so, if he does not take them out and make an example of them, they will continue to do it under the new arrangements for universities and institutes of technology. Vice-presidents or presidents are not beyond accountability, and they have to be told that. They have to be told that it is taxpayers' money that is keeping them in their job. Those of them who are Accounting Officers or heads of finance and governance should be challenged on the quality of control they have in their finances or challenged on the quality of governance that they have.
If we as legislators do not keep them on their toes through the Comptroller and Auditor General, who else is going to do it, rather than any of us standing back from a position and not taking on the system in favour of a whistleblower or someone who we know is truthful and honest and has done nothing wrong? If we do not do it, who else will? Those individuals cannot afford to go to court. They take a huge risk in doing so and yet they set out with the right intentions to do right by the State and the institute that they respected. Nobody should be allowed to play with public money in the way some of the institutions do, and the Minister must find some way to empower the Comptroller and Auditor General, who himself knows all about the background to education, because I understand he was part of the audit in his previous position. All I am asking from the Minister is, on matters of governance and accountability and in legacy cases, that he not be afraid, that he has the power of this House and his position behind him to resolve the outstanding issues that the vested interests simply will not.