Dáil debates

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Institutes of Technology Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

6:00 pm

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Deputy Pat Breen was in possession. He has nine minutes remaining. Níl sé anseo. I call Deputy Devins.

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Devins.

Photo of Jimmy DevinsJimmy Devins (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I am here but Deputy Cassidy may proceed.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 is one of the most important items of legislation affecting the institutes of technology sector since the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992. It provides for an improved strategic framework for higher education and by bringing the institutes of technology under the remit of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, it will facilitate the complementary development of our institutes and universities. The achievement of meaningful collaboration in the tertiary sector is essential if the full potential of higher education is to be realised in Ireland.

The institutes of technology have played a major role in regional development over the past three decades. Participation in higher education has increased dramatically in that time and the opportunities for access and progression which they provide have been a major factor in the creation of the highly educated workforce we have in Ireland today.

The institutes of technology have also been central in the promotion of economic and industrial development in the regions. They are catalysts for development, proving to be an important consideration in the decisions of multinationals to locate in an area. They have also responded to the needs of local industries. In all cases, the creation of meaningful partnerships for research and development and knowledge transfer is a top priority.

Those of us who have travelled with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, whether on visits to India, China, South Africa, where I accompanied the Minister of State, or Toronto in Canada, in my role as chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, know the greatest challenge facing us in respect of future employment lies in research and development and science. I wish to place on the record of the Dáil our appreciation for the great work done by institutes of technology in respect of future job creation. Athlone Institute of Technology is one such example. The midlands is a favoured location for biomedical companies and Athlone Institute of Technology's programmes in bioscience, biotechnology and toxicology create a pool of talented graduates in these areas,where they are so badly needed. Deputy Devins is present for the debate on this Bill. We know about developments in the area around Letterkenny and Deputy Devins's area of Sligo, about which he will speak. Deputy Devins was a former chairman of the Institute of Technology Sligo. Areas such as Athlone and Carlow have been transformed and the contribution made by institutes of technology to rural Ireland is immeasurable. They have brought opportunities to rural Ireland which had never been seen before. Their current and future achievements are on a par with the introduction of free transport by the former Minister, Donagh O'Malley.

The Bill will enable Athlone Institute of Technology and all other institutes of technology to respond much faster to changes in the environment. The greater autonomy envisaged by the legislation will enable the institutes to contribute more meaningfully to the technological, scientific, commercial, economic, industrial, cultural and social development of each of their regions.

The transfer of responsibilities relating to the governance, funding and operations of the institutes of technology from the Department of Education and Science to the HEA is in line with international best practice. Furthermore, the changes proposed in the Bill will drastically lighten the load of external regulation on institutes of technology and allow them to deliver what the OECD report in 2004 identified as their pivotal role in addressing the knowledge economy.

I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science who has been very forthcoming and who, along with her senior officials, put a considerable amount of effort into bringing the Bill to this stage. She is energetic and enthusiastic and has a wonderful grasp of her portfolio. I congratulate her on bringing the Bill forward for our consideration.

Photo of Jimmy DevinsJimmy Devins (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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In the interests of transparency, I will declare my interest in this Bill, having spent eight years as chairman of the Institute of Technology Sligo. This Bill is very welcome and will be widely supported. It is most important and timely legislation which should allow our buoyant institutes of technology sector to prosper and grow. The institutes of technology have been widely acknowledged as the success story of higher education over the past 20 years. Their clear focus on supporting the needs of national and regional economic development has been a driving force behind the tiger economy.

The institutes of technology have not only contributed to the economy through the quality and relevance of their graduates and applied research but have led the way in providing better access to higher education to under-represented and disadvantaged groups. A consequence of this strategic decision has been the considerable increase in enrolments to a position where there are approximately 90,000 students in institutes of technology today. This represents a considerable increase from the national figure of approximately 4,000 enrolments in the early 1970s.

The growth in student numbers has outpaced the ability of institutes of technology to accommodate them and this, in turn, has led to a deficit in infrastructure, a fact recognised and addressed in the capital programme announced in last year's budget. The publication of this Bill comes less than six months after the Government and Minister addressed this need for investment in facilities in the institutes of technology. By setting up a strategic investment fund and a capital investment package that will help deliver world class infrastructure in the institutes of technology, the Government is helping them to deliver the type and numbers of graduates so essential to Ireland's developing knowledge-based economy.

The financial measures announced in the budget will enable all institutes of technology to address the capital project priorities identified in a 2004 independent review of what was needed. This Bill will give the institutes of technology the freedom and operational independence to plan for the occupation and programmes for these new buildings as part of a restructured HEA.

The significant commitment of funding, and now administrative reform, underscores the Minister's recognition of the essential role played by higher education in national and regional economic development. Across all the institutes of technology, investment plans for facilities have been drawn up which will make a measurable and decisive contribution to regional economic development. The Institute of Technology Sligo will receive funding to refurbish the original engineering wing on the campus.

As this Bill proposes, putting the institutes of technology alongside the universities under the roof of the HEA should also lead to more transparent competition among third-level institutions for the €300 million strategic innovation fund for higher education over the next five years. This fund will stimulate excellence through collaboration and change in the institutes of technology and universities and will enable institutions to address the imperatives of better strategic planning, widening access, flexible provision and lifelong learning, restructuring and collaboration and building towards the fourth level in Ireland.

In bringing forward the funding package late last year, the Minister is building on the valuable investment programme in the sector in the late 1990s. The Minister is correctly insisting that the higher education system must substantially change. The institutes of technology have shown over many years that they are among the most flexible and responsive institutions in the State and I do not doubt they will rise to the challenge.

The institutes of technology have worked very closely with industry and employers at regional and national level to enhance research and development capacity and provide specialist skills and competencies education to meet rapidly evolving technological needs. By their very nature and mission, their close work with industry has given them a distinctive understanding of industry needs and the capacity to respond. This is what drives the continued development of research in the sector.

As I mentioned at the outset, I am particularly familiar with the fine work carried out by the Institute of Technology Sligo. A few weeks ago, Sligo Chamber of Commerce named Dr. Richard Thorn, Director of the Institute of Technology Sligo, as Sligo Chamber of Commerce business person of the year. The designation by a business organisation of a figure from higher education as its symbolic business model was unusual, noteworthy and well deserved. It is not common for a public body such as an institute of technology to be accorded this kind of recognition. Rather, higher education institutions have sometimes been perceived as not being business-minded or responsive to the world of business and work.

The honour accorded to the Institute of Technology Sligo is a public recognition of the college's achievements. It reflects the manner and success with which it is fulfilling its mission of supporting industry and the world of work, in particular by developing programmes that are learner-led, such as distance education and lifelong learning. It also reflects the social leadership role it plays in supporting the economic, social and cultural development of the region. ln its citation, Sligo Chamber of Commerce commended the Institute of Technology Sligo for all its achievements and congratulated Dr. Thorn "for his contribution and unwavering dedication and commitment". It stated that the institute of technology was progressive and forward thinking and one of Sligo's greatest assets, adding that its unprecedented growth and development over the last number of years resulted in it being a leading-edge and innovative institute of technology in both the higher education and commercial arenas.

Sligo was one of the first institutes to draw up a strategic development plan, which clearly maps its aims and priorities over a five year period and sets specific target measurements. A review of IT Sligo's strategic plan is currently under way. Internal auditing and service level agreements have also been introduced. Aside from managing resources, risk-taking and compliancy requirements, they enhance the commercial credibility of the institution.

The institution works closely with renowned companies to design new training programmes. In recent years, it has developed ground-breaking links with Coca Cola, which is based in Ballina. It has also worked closely with local authorities and major regional employers in the north west, such as Abbott and Masonite.

Progressive and forward thinking, Sligo IT is one of Sligo's greatest assets. It has more than 5,500 registered students, more than 500 staff and makes a contribution in excess of €40 million to the local economy every year. It recently celebrated 35 years of academic achievement, which coincided with the attainment of the right to make awards at doctorate level.

I warmly welcome the publication of this Bill, as it marks a major step forward in the development of higher education. I congratulate the Minister and support the Bill.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North, Sinn Fein)
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May I share time with Deputies James Breen and McHugh?

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Agreed.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North, Sinn Fein)
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I am happy to support this Bill, which has been given the broad approval of staff and students in the various institutes of technology. The fact that the ITs will be placed under the Higher Education Authority means they will be under the same overall umbrella as other third level institutions.

The institutes have requested the change, as it will take them out from under the direct control of the Department of Education and Science and allow them greater autonomy in making decisions and designing their courses. The move has also been recommended by other bodies that believe this will facilitate the ITs in strengthening their relationship with the broader economy.

This aspect is important to the Institute of Technology Tralee, especially given that the north campus shares the same site as the Kerry Technology Park. While there is a close relationship between the two, I have at times asked why the IDA has not made more of this in attempting to attract technological industry to the town.

The computer and business courses available at the IT, especially in the area of e-learning, are much praised and geared towards finding graduates employment in these type of industries. It is to be hoped this aspect of its work will be enhanced by its new status under this legislation when it is passed.

The Institute of Technology Tralee is a significant part of the town's life. Currently, there are 3,500 students and 250 staff. That alone is a large contribution to the town and surrounding area, but most of all it provides an opportunity for third level education within the county for many students who might not otherwise get one. It is to be hoped the greater scope given to ITs under the new legislation will see this aspect expanded upon.

As with other educational establishments, there are certain problems. I note the Teachers Union of Ireland has some concerns about the Bill. Hopefully, these will be resolved before the new structures are put into place. Currently, there is a campaign among students in Tralee to be provided with crèche facilities. This is obviously a crucial issue and the fact it is regarded as being so important is indicative of the changing structures of the student population and the increasing role of women in education. This is only one aspect of the relationship between an educational institution and the community but it is one that needs to be addressed if educational opportunities are to be extended.

One of the successes attributed to the ITs is their role in providing education to communities where participation has traditionally been low. To some extent, this has helped to address the problems faced by those who find themselves in a situation whereby they are unable to access jobs because of their lack of skill levels and may also lack the resources to enable them to return to education. Some of these deficiencies may be directly related to their educational levels, such as computer skills and so on, but others are economic and social in nature. As such, it is important those in danger of falling into a situation of long-term poverty are given the opportunity to return to education and, in that way, acquire the necessary skills to access employment.

One of the issues is the type of grants available. We are all familiar with the problems that have arisen in this respect. Many will also be aware of the large number of young mothers who wish to return to education and the importance of their being able to have child care services. Part of that has to do with finance, but as the campaign in Tralee illustrates, much of it could be addressed if the crèche facilities were provided within the institution. Therefore, I hope this issue is quickly addressed in the interests of all concerned.

James Breen (Clare, Independent)
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Like previous speakers, I welcome the Bill and the part it will play in furthering higher education. Since the inception of regional technical colleges in 1970, the development and participation of students has grown to the point of 50% of all students entering third level education now doing so by enrolling in institutes of technology and more than 20,000 students attending part-time courses in ITs.

However, awareness of the number of ITs and the programmes they offer is still low among the general public. By placing them alongside universities under the umbrella of the Higher Education Authority, this will improve, funding to ITs will increase and the "second class citizen" attitude still adopted by a minority of the general public will be removed.

The role institutes of technology have played in the development of industry cannot be overstated. The specialist areas of catering, hospitality and tourism would not have advanced as far without the certifications and qualifications provided by ITs. Centralising administration under the Higher Education Authority will help to secure the long-term future of these industries and their staffing requirements. Equally, the boom in the arts and creative design industries would never have been so strong without the availability of honours level courses in ITs, which are not available in universities.

The role ITs play in attracting industry to a region, where companies are aware of the availability of highly skilled and highly qualified personnel, should also be recognised. In that regard, I hope the Minister does something to secure the establishment of an institute of technology in County Clare, where currently four of five students who finish third level education must leave the county to gain employment. Will the Minister take note of this fact?

Until now, each institute operated as its own entity answerable only to the Department of Education and Science. The Bill, through the establishment of a governing body to formulate policy and a director to implement policy, would remove this hitherto flaw. One area that I hope the governing body immediately tackles is the poor rate of participation in IT education by the disabled sector of the community. The immediate placement of a disability liaison officer in ITs and a concerted and co-ordinated approach to attract and increase the number of students with disabilities is of paramount importance.

Traditionally, institutes of technology adopted a fluid approach to the transfer of students from one institute to another where personal circumstances may have necessitated such action. I welcome the fact the Bill will make this measure even more accessible. ITs have always attracted students from across the social classes and, with the high staff-student ratio, they helped further the education of those that might never have accessed university education.

I welcome that institutes of technology and universities will not be amalgamated as in other countries, but one concern is the difference in job security in both areas. Staff of universities have tenure enshrined in law but the same does not apply to those in ITs. Will the Minister address this anomaly immediately? I will support the Bill's passage through the House.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the publication of the Bill, which will provide for a major restructuring of the third level education sector. The Bill's main purpose is to provide for the transfer of a range of responsibilities relating to the governance, funding and operations of the institutes from the Department of Education and Science to the Higher Education Authority.

It is welcome that the Bill contains many of the recommendations of both the expert working group report on the future position and roles of the institutes of technology and the 2004 OECD review of higher education policy in Ireland. The provisions of the Bill will allow the institutes to continue to respond efficiently to meet national and regional economic and social needs.

The story of our institutes of technology is one of total success. They started life as regional technical colleges, the first of which was opened in 1970. At the time, it was determined the colleges were required to ensure technically qualified people were produced to ensure demands arising from planning and industrial developments were met. After a shaky start, the RTCs developed into high level institutions, awarding their own degrees under delegated authority from HETAC. Most of the institutes can now make awards to masters level, while four have authority to make awards at doctoral level, clearly illustrating the progress made by them and indicating the excellent academic standards in the sector.

One of the greatest features of the institutes is their regional remit. This is important because we in the west are continually fighting a battle to get the Government to give real meaning and expression to its verbalising on balanced regional development. Almost in spite of Government policy the institutes, by their regional basis, have set a framework in education that should be pursued in other areas. Unfortunately, the Government has not yet learned from the success story that has brought so many benefits to the regions. The benefits of the regional focus cannot be overstated. Many of the institutes have formed community and commercial links in their regions and the success of these links and the resultant benefits for the regions are enormous.

Placing the institutes of technology under the control of the Higher Education Authority and removing them from the Department of Education and Science is a true recognition of the important role of the ITs. It is also a recognition of the progress made by the ITs in educational terms since the foundation of the RTCs. From a shaky start, the institutes can now offer diverse courses in science, engineering, business, music, art, tourism, software development, nursing and agriculture among others.

I acknowledge the contribution made by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology located in my county. It has made a major contribution to the west. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank and commend the staff working in the institutes of technology for their valuable work and the major contribution they have made to society. It is important we remind ourselves that many of those people and their former students were the driving force of the economic success we enjoy today.

We must also focus on those who have been left behind, the children who do not get that far. We have moved on in recent years, increasing the numbers in third level education and I commend the Minister and those involved for encouraging such progress. We must focus on those in poverty, however, and education as a way to escape it and the institutes of technology are vital in achieving this. We must also listen to the concerns of those who work in the institutes of technology. I pay particular tribute to the members of the TUI.

This Bill facilitates the designation of the institutes of technology under the Higher Education Authority, providing an improved strategic framework for higher education. It substantially amends the Regional Technical Colleges Acts 1992 to 2001, the Dublin Institution of Technology Acts 1992 to 2001 and amends the Higher Education Act 1971.

Section 4(a) amends section 3(1) of the Regional Technical Colleges Act to specify the colleges to which the Bill applies, declaring that the Crawford College of Art and Design, the Cork School of Music and the National Maritime College of Ireland are schools of the Cork Institute of Technology. Those involved in art and design, which are such an important component of education, must be encouraged. As a society, taxpayers and Members of the Oireachtas, we must support those involved in this area of education. I pay tribute to the artists in our society who have made such a massive contribution to the nation and put Ireland on the map. A society that does not look after its artists is going nowhere. I say the same about the Cork School of Music and the National Maritime College of Ireland.

When dealing with these issues, we should consider the students. They must be given a voice and I urge the Minister to take on board the views of those students who want be directly involved in the governing bodies of these organisations. Students have a major contribution to make towards the development of education.

I welcome the debate on this Bill and commend those involved with it.

7:00 pm

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies for their contributions and co-operation on this legislation. It demonstrates the support in this House for the institutes of technology and the value we place on their work, the education they provide, their links with industry, their contribution to individual student development and to the economy. Those of us who have institutes of technology in our areas are aware of the work they have done.

It is significant that today we see the completion rates for students in the sector. They have increased from 57% in 1999 to 75% in 2004. That is an achievement to celebrate because it shows that not only is access succeeding but student support structures are also working. I commend the staff and directors for that.

This significant Bill has broad support. It brings the institutes of technology within the higher education system. It is of critical strategic importance for the future development of higher education in general, not just the institutes of technology. We want to see the institutes reach their full potential, ensuring they will have the opportunity to continue to compete for research funding under SFI and the PRTLI. It will also ensure the entire education system can move forward in an integrated and strategic fashion.

By coming under the umbrella of the HEA, the institutes will move away from the clutches of the Department of Education and Science, giving them more autonomy and managerial freedom. They will be able to meet their institutional objectives and will have the freedom to maximise their contribution to social and economic progress. It will also give an opportunity to put in place more modern, transparent and coherent institutional governance because the Bill defines the roles of the governing body, director and president and ensures there is accountability. It brings modern management practices into higher education institutions, something the directors welcome.

In recent months, I have been privileged to be able to announce a number of initiatives on higher education: the strategic innovation fund for research, the national plan for access, this legislation and the increased investment of almost €8 billion on third level over the next five years. The aim is to make it available to as many as possible while meeting the needs of students and society. I take on board what has been said about the broad base of disciplines offered, it is not all about technology, it is also about art, design and music, the rounded education offered by the institutes of technology.

This Bill is a contribution to the future of higher education but it also recognises the role our vocational education committees, in nurturing the institutes of technology, have played over the years and the contribution they have made in each of the regions and to the economy. As we look forward to Committee and Report Stages, I know there will be full support for the Bill. I thank the Deputies and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.