Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: From the Seanad


6:12 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister. I would like to speak to amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive. I commend the work of the Seanadóirí and the student unions on the work on these amendments and in getting them accepted. It is important there is no ambiguity in regard to the fact it should be student union representatives on the governing board or authority of every higher education institution. I particularly want to thank the student unions for all of the work they have done throughout this Bill with, as the Minister said, the IUA, THEA and many others. There has been a huge effort to try to get this legislation as right as possible, recognising that we did not get our own way on everything, but we got some of it. There was a collective approach to it.

Of course, it is only when the legislation starts to be implemented that we will see if there are any unintended consequences. It is a shame that the trade union representative has not been given a place on the governing authority in the same manner, although I recognise that some progress on including trade union representation in the Bill has been made. We see the need all of the time to have student voices central to the management of colleges. Right now, in Maynooth, we have seen the construction of a student centre fall through due to what I am sure is genuine construction cost inflation.

Vital to resolving the issue is ensuring that students have decision-making power over the full amount of funding. Thankfully, Maynooth University has confirmed that no funding from the student levy will go towards any development cost in the abandoned project, but we need to ensure that trust and partnership are at the heart of the relationship between students and the institutes. When trust breaks down, restoring it can be difficult. These amendments strengthen that relationship and codify the role of students and students' unions.

When the Minister first introduced the Bill in the Dáil, I stated that governance was not the main issue facing the sector and that legislative reform would be of limited value unless it was accommodated by a sustainable funding model. The past ten years have seen piecemeal privatisation and deep commercialisation of public third level education. As a result of what the IUA labelled State divestment from third level education, the ethos and focus of these centres of education and research have been shifted towards commercial considerations and large amounts of time and energy are being spent on operating on a commercial basis, energy that would be better spent on developing education and research. When the Minister released the future funding document this summer, there seemed to be hope that we would see progress, and rightly so. The €307 million funding gap was identified and the Minister committed to addressing it over three years. I will take this opportunity to ask the Minister to commit to the funding that is needed to fill the gap so that we are not falling further behind in higher education.

This Bill will go some way towards preparing us for the present and the future. I commend everyone involved, including Ms Tanya Kenny and others among the Minister's staff. I hope that it brings about the structures and governance that are needed if we are to fund the sector properly so that we can secure third level education as a public good.


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