Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Priority Questions

National University of Ireland.

2:00 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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On a point of order, will question No. 13 be answered with this question?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I am afraid not.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Question 3: To ask the Minister for Education and Science when he will bring forward legislation to abolish the National University of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4313/10]

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Provisions to dissolve the National University of Ireland will be contained in the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill, included in the legislative programme. Recently, the Government approved the general scheme of the Bill and it is hoped that it will be published before the summer recess.

Several factors were taken into consideration in deciding to dissolve the National University of Ireland, NUI. Since 1997, the NUI has not been a federal university in any real sense. All significant powers ordinarily associated with a university are directly assigned to the four constituent universities of the NUI. They make awards themselves and have their own quality assurance procedures that are externally reviewed not by the NUI, but by the Irish Universities Quality Board. While the NUI senate provides a forum for discussion, on most major issues the universities make the decisions. Awards of the four constituent universities may continue to be titled NUI awards and I have commenced discussions with the constituent universities about an appropriate mechanism to ensure the protection of the national and international reputation of the NUI degree.

The NUI performs a wider range of functions for its recognised colleges, including the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the National College of Art and Design, the Institute of Public Administration, the Shannon College of Hotel Management and the Milltown Institute. This includes making awards and acting as an external quality assurance agent. In the context of the establishment of the new qualifications and quality assurance agency, I consider that the arrangement whereby such a separate awarding and quality assurance framework is maintained by the NUI for a small number of recognised colleges is not sustainable. When the awarding and quality assurance functions are removed, it is difficult to support the continuation of the NUI to carry out its remaining functions, the bulk of which would most likely be performed by the constituent universities, as they are by non-NUI universities.

Most of the five recognised colleges of the NUI have already been exploring possible future options for award making, and when the dissolution is completed these colleges will need to enter new awarding arrangements. The recognised colleges could enter a quality assurance and award making relationship with the new qualifications and quality assurance agency or with an existing university. The RCSI is seeking to have its statutory degree-awarding powers commenced and I am moving to have an appropriate review process put in place in this regard. The international reputation of Irish education must be based on the quality of teaching and research as well as the wider experience offered to international students. I do not believe the dissolution of the NUI will have any adverse effect in this regard.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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This has all the hallmarks of a decision the Minister was bounced into taking. Since he made it, he has been back-tracking all the time. The Minister carried out no consultation whatsoever with the constituent colleges of the NUI before the decision was taken. He freely admits this decision will not save money. The McCarthy report outlined a saving of €3 million but the Minister has put on record already that this is not true because the Department does not provide a subvention to the NUI to the tune of €3 million per year. Now, the Minister has produced the argument that this is connected with the new quality assurance agency, which we all support in principle. However, there was never any difficulty with the NUI working with any of the existing agencies when it came to quality.

Will the Ministers justify to the House the decision taken in the context in which he asked Dr. Hunt and his colleagues to report to him soon in terms of the future of higher education in Ireland? Would it not be a more sensible arrangement to wait to see exactly what Dr. Hunt comes up with from that expert group review, rather than allow the Minister's officials to bounce him into making this decision?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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First, I will answer the charge that I was somehow bounced into this decision. I refer Deputy Hayes back to the budget of October 2008. I refer the Deputy to the intention of the Government at the time to introduce a quality authority.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I remember it well.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Does the Deputy recall that at that time we clearly indicated that we would examine the situation regarding the NUI? To say I was bounced into this decision is not correct. Also, I refer the Deputy to the fact that at the time we set out a consultation process in place.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps that is so but we have not seen it.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I advise the Deputy that the NUI made a submission to this consultation. Some of the universities also made a submission. Submissions were made to the higher education review group by the NUI. I find it ironic for the Deputy to say there was no consultation given that his party leader, without any consultation at all, took out of the melting pot a proposal in regard to a much more imperious body, Seanad Éireann, much to the chagrin of the Fine Gael Senators and Deputies.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It is the people's decision.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I find it a little ironic to accept that type of criticism.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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One of the reasons the Minister is all over the place on this issue is that he has been caught. He does not understand the nature or detail of the decision he has taken. Quite frankly, hundreds of thousands of graduates of the NUI are laughing at him and at his complete failure to justify the decision. What will happen to the €12 million investment fund which is still within the National University of Ireland and which was set aside for scholarships and awards to students?

I refer to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that greatly supports the branding of its college and its degrees through the National University of Ireland, which has an international reputation of which even the Minister should be aware. At a time when we are trying to brand Ireland internationally, abolishing an organisation which has an international brand of more than 100 years standing seems not only to be an act of stupidity on the Minister's part but an act in which he has not engaged in consultation with any of the players concerned. This issue has a long way to run and I suspect it will run long after the Minister is no longer Minister for Education and Science.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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It is difficult to give a brief reply to such a long question.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Try it.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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Could we have an agreement on short answers to short questions?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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That is no problem. I will give short answers if the Deputy asks me short questions.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Deputies should allow the Chair to determine that.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I have no problem with that but if asked ten questions, I have a right to answer them.

Consultation took place; I accept that. The Deputy is obviously well briefed by his Fine Gael colleagues. In regard to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the Deputy spoke about international recognition. We are prepared to leave the NUI as a brand name. I have spoken to the presidents of the four-----

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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A brand name without the NUI. Brilliant.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Allow the Minister to reply.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It is waffle.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I have spoken to the four university presidents. If it is their wish to continue with the brand name and if that is the way they wish to award their degrees for international credit, that can be put into legislation as NUI. The corporate entity of the NUI will not remain because it is not a federal university.

In regard to the Royal College of Surgeons, there is a letter in the Department from that college looking for degree awarding powers on the basis of a by-law which I can change.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It is not looking for the abolition of the NUI.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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It is looking for degree-awarding powers and I have had discussions with it. It will have to undergo a review process like every other institution which wishes to award degrees. It has agreed to go through that process and I am putting that in place for it at present.