Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage

 

3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is an enormous honour to bring the Technological Universities Bill 2015 before the House. This Bill will allow us to expand university-level opportunities to students across Ireland. Those institutions will be linked to industry and will have an enormous impact on our capacity to create and retain jobs in regions such as the south east and north west. The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to one of the key planks of the Government’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 - the modernisation of the institute of technology sector through the establishment of technological universities.

In addition, the Bill provides for a number of important reforms to the governance and operation of the existing institutes of technology. I thank the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and its Chair, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, for undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme of the Bill in April 2014. Many of the committee’s recommendations have been taken into account during the drafting of the Bill before the House today.

The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, published in 2011, provides a framework for the development of the higher education sector to 2030.

The Government has made considerable progress in implementing the recommendations set out in the strategy. In doing so, it has significantly advanced the goal of achieving a modernised, more flexible and responsive higher education system, one that is accountable for high quality performance across the full range of higher education activities. The strategy recommended significant reforms so as to position the institute of technology sector to better meet national objectives. In particular, it recommended consolidation within the sector and a pathway to technological university status for those consolidated institutes of technology. In other words, it made clear that we should allow them to demonstrate a high level of performance that would allow them to become technological universities.

The Higher Education Authority published a four-stage process and criteria for applicant groups of institutes of technology wishing to apply to become technological universities. Initially, three consortiums of institutes of technology expressed an interest in merging and applying to become technological universities. This happened as part of the landscape process undertaken by the Higher Education Authority in 2012 and approved by then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. Two of these consortiums have successfully passed stage three of the four-stage process. These are TU for Dublin, comprising DIT, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown, and the Munster technological university, comprising Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. Both consortiums are working towards full merger in 2016.

There has been a great deal of comment in this House and elsewhere on the technological university for the south east, comprising IT Carlow and WIT. As previously discussed in this House, a preliminary facilitation process has been under way since September this year and there has been strong engagement in that process by both parties. This process is building on the earlier work carried out by Mr. Michael Kelly who concluded that technological university status was an achievable goal in the south east. I take the opportunity to record my thanks to Mr. Kelly for the part he has played in bringing us closer to delivering university level education to the south east.

The current facilitation process involves a series of meetings and is an important building block in building trust between the parties. The facilitator has not yet scheduled all of her meetings because she wants to allow all of the participants the space to reflect on their discussions and complete the work they have committed to carrying out. I am satisfied that this process is likely to finish in January and will happily provide a further update to the House at that time.

Earlier this year the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, made up of GMIT, Sligo IT and Letterkenny IT, also expressed an interest in merging and applying to become a technological university. I recently approved this application to proceed to the next stage. In line with the process for designation as a technological university, stage two of the process involves the preparation of a plan by the Connacht-Ulster Alliance to meet the criteria for designation as a technological university. I look forward to seeing further progress being made for that region also.

The mergers outlined cannot proceed until the Technological Universities Bill has been enacted and the relevant provisions commenced. Therefore, this Bill, in providing the legislative underpinning for those institutes of technology which have established partnerships and wish to merge, represents an essential milestone in the modernisation and reform agenda for higher education institutions. Institutes of technology which do not choose to follow the evolutionary path set out in the national strategy for higher education and the Bill will continue to make an important contribution to higher education within regional clusters. I note that we have some excellent institutes of technology, including that in my home city, which have decided not to pursue technological university status. It is important that we acknowledge that they will remain strong and important institutions within the overall landscape of higher education in Ireland.

The national strategy recommended that the governance structures of all higher education institutions be reformed to ensure they would be fit for purpose and have the expertise relevant to the governance of a modern higher education institution. The Bill, therefore, provides for new and modernised governance structures in the institutes of technology, as well as for other reforms to allow them to become more flexible and responsive to their environment. The institutes of technology have played a very significant role in the development and expansion of higher education in Ireland in the last half century and will continue to do so. DIT has an even longer history. The Bill marks a new era in their development and will bring huge benefits for their students, communities and Irish society.

Having set out the policy context underpinning the development of the Bill, I now turn to its contents. The Bill comprises 117 sections divided into seven Parts, together with two Schedules.

Part 1, sections 1 to 6, inclusive, are standard provisions on citation and commencement, interpretation, orders, expenses, offences and consequential amendments.

Part 2, sections 7 to 19, inclusive, provides for the merging of consortiums of institutes of technology. Chapter 1 provides for the merging of Dublin Institute of Technology with the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown and the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, while Chapter 2 provides for the merging of Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. As I have noted, each of these consortiums has already been assessed by an international expert panel and found to be on a clear trajectory to meet the very robust performance and quality criteria that have been set down for merging institutes which wish to apply for the new technological university status.

Chapter 3 of Part 2 provides a mechanism for the merging of other consortiums of institutes of technology which may apply to the Minister to be merged and the applications of which will be assessed by an expert panel before a final decision is made by the Minister. It is through this mechanism that prospective mergers in the south east and Connacht-Ulster will take place.

Part 3, sections 20 to 54, inclusive, provides for the functions and governance of technological universities, the making of applications by merged institutes to become technological universities, the establishment of technological universities and the incorporation of institutes of technology into technological universities.

Section 22 sets out the general functions of a technological university which reflect the distinct mission of a technological university described in the national strategy for higher education to 2030. These functions include awarding degrees, providing programmes of education and training, engaging in research, collaborating with other higher education institutions and regional stakeholders in business, enterprise and the professions and serving the community and the public interest.

Sections 24 and 25 provide for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing body of a technological university. A governing body will have between 11 and 20 members, including the president of the technological university, a chairperson, staff and student representatives, nominees of the Minister for Education and Skills and relevant education and training boards and between three and eight other external members. The external members will be appointed in accordance with a competency framework agreed with An tÚdarás, the Higher Education Authority. These provisions will ensure technological universities will have fit for purpose governing bodies in line with the recommendations of the national strategy for higher education.

Sections 26 and 27 provide for the appointment of the president and other staff of a technological university, while sections 28 and 29 provide that each technological university shall have an academic council. The functions and membership of these academic councils reflect the enterprise focus of technological universities, including promoting the involvement of business, enterprise, the professions and related stakeholders in the design and delivery of programmes of education and training and research.

Chapters 6 and 7 of Part 3, sections 30 to 37, inclusive, relate to a range of governance issues, including the preparation of strategic development plans, equality statements, budgets, accounts and annual reports, as well as matters relating to borrowing, the setting of fees and the establishment of companies.

Chapters 8 and 9 of Part 3, sections 38 to 47, inclusive, describe how the merged institutes established under Part 2 can become technological universities.

Section 38 sets out the specific eligibility criteria with which a merged institute established under Part 2 must comply before it can become a technological university by order of the Minister under section 40. The criteria set out a robust performance threshold for institutions wishing to become technological universities, are based on those published by the HEA as part of the landscape process and include criteria relating to the composition of the student body of the merged institute, the composition of the academic staff of the merged institute, the doctoral level education and research activities of the merged institute and the ability of the merged institute to perform the functions of a technological university, with particular reference to its governance structures, links with regional stakeholders, quality assurance and enhancement, mobility of staff and students and collaboration with other higher education institutions.

Sections 39 to 43 set out the process for the making of an application to become a technological university and the information which must be included in such an application. They also provide for the appointment of an independent, expert advisory panel to examine the application and the provision by that panel of a report and recommendation to the HEA and the subsequent provision by the HEA of the report, its views on the report and any other relevant information to the Minister.

Section 44 provides for the making of a proposed decision by the Minister while section 45 provides that the Minister may impose conditions on a merged institute where the merged institute does not comply with all of the criteria set out in section 38.

Chapter 10 of Part 3, sections 48 to 54, provides a mechanism for the incorporation of an institute of technology into a technological university.

Part 4, sections 55 and 56, provides for the hearing of appeals against certain decisions of the Minister under the Bill by an independent appeals board.

Part 5, sections 57 to 86, sets out a range of transitional provisions consequent upon the making of orders under Parts 2 and 3, which will ensure that functions, assets, liabilities, staff and so forth of dissolving bodies are appropriately transferred. Of particular note are sections 63 and 79, which provide for the transfer of the staff to the relevant merged institute or technological university. Those sections preserve the conditions of remuneration of transferring staff, while sections 64 and 80 also provide that staff remain members of the relevant superannuation schemes.

Sections 65, 66 and 81 provide for the appointment by the Minister of the first governing bodies of the institutes established under Parts 2 and 3. In each case, it is provided that the Minister will appoint a chairperson, two external members nominated by the Minister and a nominee of the relevant education and training boards as members of the first governing body of the institutes concerned. The president of the institute concerned shall also be a member. Within six months, the first governing body of each merged institute is required to agree a competency framework with the HEA for the appointment of external members, establish procedures for the election of staff representatives and the appointment of external members and conduct elections and make appointments to the governing body.

Sections 69, 70, 71, 72, 84, 85 and 86 provide for the continuation of arrangements relating to awarding the international education mark, quality assurance and enhancement and access, transfer and progression where an institute is being dissolved and its functions and so forth are being transferred to another body.

Part 6, sections 87 to 114, provides for a number of amendments to the governance arrangements of Dublin Institute of Technology and the institutes of technology under the Dublin Institute of Technology Act 1992 and the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, respectively. Of particular note are sections 90 and 103, which replace section 6 of each of those Acts with new sections setting out revised arrangements for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing bodies of DIT and the institute of technology. These revised arrangements will be along the same lines as those which will apply to technological universities under section 25. Section 104 sets out procedures for the appointment of the first new governing body of each institution under the revised arrangements.

In addition, Part 6 amends those Acts to revise the arrangements relating to the appointment and membership of the academic councils of those institutions; revise and clarify the procedures for the recruitment and selection of staff; repeal provisions which provide that certain members of staff may not be removed from office without the consent of the Minister; revise and clarify arrangements relating to the determination of budgets and the borrowing of money; revise the manner in which an inspector can be appointed to report into matters relating to the operation of DIT or an institute of technology and amend certain provisions relating to the appointment of a commission by the Minister to carry out such functions of the governing body of DIT or an institute of technology as the Minister determines; and insert revised Second Schedules relating to the operation of the governing bodies of the relevant institutions into each Act.

Part 7, section 115 to 117, provides for consequential amendment to other Acts to take account of the establishment of technological universities.

Schedules 1 and 2 provide for a range of matters relating to the governing bodies and presidents of technological universities, respectively.

I would also like to bring to the attention of Members my intention to address a number of additional issues through the introduction of amendments to the Bill during Committee Stage. I propose to introduce amendments on Committee Stage to provide for the granting of degree-awarding powers, with the exception of doctoral degree level awards, to all the institutes of technology. At present, institutes of technology have been delegated authority from Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to make awards. This delegation extends to master's degree level or doctoral degree level, depending on the institution and field of study involved. In contrast, the universities, as well as Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, are awarding bodies in their own right and, therefore, have the authority to make their own awards at all levels of the national framework of qualifications. The granting of degree-awarding authority to all the institutes of technology would put them on an equal footing with the universities, DIT and the RCSI. It would, therefore, create a single, coherent quality assurance and qualifications space among public higher education institutions and it will support the future growth of institutes of technology as equal partners in the higher education landscape.

It is also my intention to introduce amendments related to the Universities (Amendment) Bill, which is currently at an advanced stage of drafting. That Bill will provide for the amendment of the Universities Act 1997 to provide the Minister for Education and Skills with powers to give directions to universities in respect of the remuneration of public servants and the number of public servants employed and to appoint authorised officers to investigate the contravention of such directions.

It is intended, once that Bill is settled, to insert similar provisions into this Bill to ensure the Minister has similar powers in respect of the technological universities.

This Bill currently sets out a range of transitional arrangements that apply where a body is dissolved under the Act and its functions, staff and so forth are transferred to another institution. It is currently being examined whether additional transitional arrangements are required and, if so, they will be introduced as amendments during the passage of the Bill.

This Bill is another important step in advancing the national strategy for higher education but it will mean much more to the regions of Ireland than just another step in a national strategy. The establishment of multi-campus technological universities will be of great benefit to their regions and to Ireland. Technological universities will have a distinct mission to provide high-quality, enterprise-focused higher education and research. I hope Members will agree that this is an important Bill. I look forward to listening to their views today and further debate as the Bill progresses through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I commend this Bill to the House.

3:20 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for her opening remarks and for outlining the various sections and measures contained in the Bill. It is important to say that, overall, Fianna Fáil supports the concept of a technological university and the development of a new layer in our education system. We were very happy to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny process which took place in March 2014. This involved widespread consultation on the proposals with stakeholders within the institute of technology sector as well as the university sector.

It is exceptionally disappointing that it has taken this long for the Bill to come before the House. The pre-legislative scrutiny took place in March 2014. There has been significant development over the past four or five years, progressing towards this point. It is unfortunate, as we come to the last two or three weeks of the term of this Government, that the Bill has only been published in the past few days. It is now likely that it will only reach Second Stage. Undoubtedly, it will be left for the next Government to take it up and proceed further with it.

This is further evidence of the kicking to touch of a number of issues within the third-level sector over the past four or five years. There has been an issue with overall funding at university and institute of technology level. Decisions over the past three or four years on its future direction have been continuously delayed. As of yet, we do not have the publication of the Cassells report and, according to media reports, it is unlikely to come before the election. The Minister might give us an indication in that regard because a proper debate is needed and the report should have been published so that it could be discussed. However, it has been continually delayed and pushed down the road and this is unacceptable.

Neither have we seen serious consideration of how we will fund the mergers.

It is being done on a shoestring. The Minister and her predecessor have said that the merger of institutes of technology must be done within existing resources but the primary consideration should be academic. The aim should be to improve the quality of teaching within the sector and the range of academic courses available to students. In order to achieve that, those institutions who wish to merge will require additional funding so that staffing ratios can be improved and the options for students increased. However, that issue has not been considered as the process has developed. It is only now, at the end of this Dáil term, that we are getting the opportunity to discuss the legislation.

My party will be tabling amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage and we will tease out the issues in detail then. A number of issues have been raised by various stakeholders and these will have to be addressed as the Bill proceeds through the Houses. The Minister will be aware that staff in the institutes of technology have serious reservations about the development of technological universities and their role as the process unfolds. There has been industrial unrest at the institutes of technology in Waterford, Cork, Tralee and Blanchardstown. Much of the unrest centres on the need for additional consultation by the Department, the Higher Education Authority and the institutes of technology with staff as to how this will develop and what it will mean for them.

It must be noted that the institutes of technology have been under severe pressure in the last three or four years because of the funding crisis. We have seen an increase in casualisation and a significant disimprovement in the pupil-teacher ratio. We have gone from a situation where the institutes were at the better end of the scale with low pupil teacher ratios to one where they are now at the upper end of the scale, which has resulted in significant pressure being placed on staff. Alongside that, staff are now faced with the prospect of what they see as forced mergers and this is a cause for legitimate concern.

While the students unions are broadly supportive of the Bill, they have proposed a number of amendments to it. These cover the definition of students and student unions in section 2, the procedures for dealing with disputes between technological universities and student unions in section 22 and the extension and protection of academic freedom to students as well as staff. Their suggested amendments also seek to ensure that there are three student members on the governing bodies, a minimum number of students on the academic council and ensuring student input to the advisory panels adjudicating on applications for designation as technological universities. I am sure all parties in this House will be in a position to consult with the student bodies on their concerns and proposals for improving the Bill.

Consideration must also be given to the fact that mergers must be completed before a technological university bid can be given the sign off. The institutes of technology will have to come together and formally merge before being given a verdict on their application for technological university status. This means that, having gone through the merger process, there is no guarantee for the institutes that they will be awarded technological university status. They could be left in a situation where a merger has happened, and many of the constituent institutes will feel that they have lost some of their autonomy in that process, but they are not part of a technological university. Some of their autonomy and ability to serve those in their catchment area will be lost but the ultimate goal of becoming a technological university not achieved. This must be given further consideration during the debate on this legislation. We must provide clarity of process so that the institutes do not feel that they could be left in limbo.

It is crucial that the constituent institutes of any technological university which emerges will continue to have significant influence. They must be able to continue to serve their catchment areas, as they have done to date. The development of the regional technical colleges and their subsequent transition into institutes of technology in 2006 has brought about a transformation in educational outcomes and provision in the regions and this must preserved. They have contributed enormously to the increase in the number of students who progress to and graduate from third level education. The institutes of technology are genuinely concerned about their ability to retain the autonomy and influence that has enabled them to provide the wide range of options across different disciplines to students in their areas. While they certainly see the potential for technological university status to enhance their ability to improve their academic offering to students within their locality, they also have a number of genuine concerns. They are worried about mission creep, for example, and the possibility of further consolidation which will reduce their ability to serve their catchment area. They are fearful of being dominated by the larger entity. The health service provides a good example of this, with the development of hospital groups. This has resulted in a number of regional hospitals being put under pressure within the wider hospital group and has led to many services being centralised. The ability of the smaller local hospitals to continue to serve the local population is being diminished. There is a genuine concern within the institutes of technology that a similar dynamic could come into play in the context of mergers and the move to technological university status.

We must also discuss the financial pressure on the institutes of technology. While this is not directly related to the Bill before us today, it is an important issue in the context of their engagement and participation. I wish to refer to an example from my own county of Donegal. The funding structure that was put in place by the HEA, particularly in the context of multi-campus institutes, puts many of the more peripheral institutes under severe pressure in terms of continuing to provide the services they have provided to date.

This has been on the Minister's desk and will come across her desk again.

It is crucial that we examine how multi-campus institutions can be facilitated in terms of the funding model. There has been increasing pressure in the past three or four years with the result that a number of institutions have been working off their reserves. It is an unsustainable position and not one which can be isolated from the policy development in regard to mergers and working towards technological university status.

I will leave it at that. I look forward to the Bill being further taken through the various Stages, even if, unfortunately, it will be in a new Dáil term. Hopefully, this will work out in a way that sees our very successful institute of technology sector further developed and sees the facilities available to young people and learners of all ages enhanced and developed within their localities.

3:40 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am not sure if it will be left to the next Dáil to see the passage of this Bill because we are coming back after Christmas.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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We will try to do something in January as well.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am sure the Minister is eager to get the Bill passed before the Dáil rises. We will have to wait and see how long Committee Stage takes.

As the Minister is aware, Sinn Féin has a long-standing position of support for the introduction of technological universities in this State. However, that is not to say this is a position of unqualified support. We are broadly supportive of the concept of having legislation to allow the development of technological universities to proceed. Indeed, Senator David Cullinane has a strong record of supporting the development and consultation process around a technological university for the south-east. The Oireachtas report on which he was rapporteur, entitled The South East Economic Development Strategy, looked at strategies to address decades of regional underdevelopment. It identified a technological university in the south east as a critical factor in attracting inward investment and fostering growth in that region.

In moving that project forward, it remains the case that it is incredibly important that every effort is made to work collaboratively. However, that is not just the case with this initiative or with the management of the two institutions in that particular case. For technological universities to be introduced, and for them to be worthwhile, it is imperative that the staff who are expected to deliver are involved in the processes or consulted. This year, we have seen industrial action from institute of technology staff because of the proposed mergers. Only this week, there was a ballot on industrial action by members of the Teachers Union of Ireland which was overwhelmingly supported. While we welcome the legislation and are broadly supportive of it, we also recognise the valid and well-founded fears of trade union members and those working in academia that the mergers and rationalisation will result in reduced course provision that will not be of benefit to students, staff or the wider community. If mergers are to go ahead, they must be adequately resourced. That aside, in the opinion of some people, the Minister has failed to set out any significant reason as to why a merger is an essential component of achieving technological university status. In that context, they find it very difficult to see this initiative as being more than a fig leaf for cost-cutting.

The institute of technology sector is suffering from chronic under-funding. It is for that reason there was a 92% vote in favour of industrial action by institute of technology members of the TUI in their recent ballot. The staff in these institutions have seen a cut of over one third of the funding and an increase of almost one third in the number of students, with a reduction of staff totalling almost 10%. They are expected to work miracles on a shoestring budget and are stretched to, and beyond, capacity in many cases. The answer to those extremely negative resourcing issues is not to push bodies into a process that results in more cuts while leaving them with a better sounding name. It is our view that this legislation in its current form does not have the full confidence of many of the essential stakeholders.

We are also concerned with the manner in which the legislation has been dealt with, specifically around the late publication and the fact that one of the programme for Government commitments was to consider bringing in a technological university in the south east. Now, in the final weeks of the Government, we are seeking legislation that, in my opinion, will be rushed through regardless of what I or any other Opposition Member has to say about it.

We have seen previous concerns raised by members of the Committee of Public Accounts who said the mergers of the Munster institutes of technology had not been publicly costed, with over €3 million going on pay and professional fees alone. I am not convinced the matter of high costs has been dealt with sufficiently. While it is okay for management, the staff on the ground who will be expected to deliver the front-line courses are not being factored in and have not been included in the discussions in any meaningful manner. At the same time, they shoulder the burden and the negative aspect of cost-cutting across the board, which displays a worrying lack of foresight at Government and departmental level.

The criteria for becoming a technological university were set out in 2012 by the Higher Education Authority and require two or more institutes of technology to merge before a final application can be made. Many critics of the model being presented have said that it is just a cover for cuts and more concerned with rationalisation. Given how the institute of technology sector has been managed recently, it is hard to disagree with that. It also appears there is still the core issue of institutes of technology having to merge with no guarantee of achieving technological university status. We could end up with a merged entity which is awaiting designation as a technological university and yet still fails to meet the very strict criteria laid down.

I note that TUI members in both CIT and IT Tralee, whom I have met personally on a number of occasions, are currently engaged in industrial action against the mergers. The TUI branches in the Cork colleges oppose the Bill and have asked us to vote against it on Second Stage today. Their particular concerns are the merger of institutes being a precondition of re-designation as a technological university, with no guarantee that re-designation of the merged entity will actually happen, even when the required criteria are met. They have noted their particular opposition to the Bill as they have no confidence in the Munster technological university, MTU, process, with particular reference to the following: the Higher Education Authority policy approach; the international panel report; the financial commitment of Government; the local engagement process; the strategic process and its educational merit; and the point that elimination of course duplication contradicts the current mission of regional provision for both institutes. Those are their concerns.

While we are in favour of a legislative framework that will allow technological universities to be established, and we will vote to allow this Bill to go forward on Second Stage, I put the Minister on notice that we will withdraw our support for the Bill if our concerns and those of the staff of the institutes of technology are not addressed in a meaningful way on Committee Stage and Report Stage. In the absence of proper resourcing, unfortunately, it looks as if this is just something that Government Members can use in certain constituencies to say they are providing people with a technological university without actually looking at how that is going to happen in practice, what shape it has or what kind of working conditions or education will go with it.

The prospective merger between Carlow and Waterford ITs has been plagued by difficulties and in no way looks ready to happen in the short term given the funding issues the Government has consistently failed to address. One has only to look at the academic requirements for staff, the percentage requirements for research students at postgraduate level and mature student targets to know that much of this will be unrealisable in the absence of funding being put in place.

A range of other issues also need to be addressed in this Bill, from the unavoidable resourcing issue to matters such as definitions, academic freedom and the level of representation on the governing body and academic councils of the technological universities for both staff and students, not to mention the matter of the function of the academic councils. We have serious concerns that the academic councils will be exploited by business interests and that the framing of the Bill is complicit in allowing this to happen. Academic freedom needs to be protected and supported by means of secure tenured employment and by maintaining ministerial inquiry in cases of dismissal. The idea that can have true academic freedom without a secure system of employment is incredibly naive.

This is even more important when we look at the increased casualisation of third level employment alongside the increasing neo-liberalisation of the sector. It used to be the case that people complained about being on one-year contracts, but now nine-month contracts are being given to people and people are being put on hourly pay. It would be interesting to know how many PhD graduates have to sign on during the summer. Some in third level faculties, who should know better, are employing PhD graduates on the JobBridge scheme. This is an outrage. The Government has failed to support those students in their studies most of the time and has failed to support them in their graduate life. There is nothing in this Bill that will address the systemic precarious issues in the third level sector. We do not believe there should be any forced mergers. If mergers are forced where they are not wanted, this undermines the Government view they have academic benefits. This should not be just a simple exercise in cost cutting. It also would be useful to have a more detailed debate on Committee Stage regarding the fate that awaits institutes of technology that do not want to merge, one of which is in the Minister's constituency. The trade unions have raised many concerns that technological universities will be able to set their own employee pay and conditions, leading to unhealthy competition and an end to collective bargaining.

There are also big question marks over the protection of the pay and pensions of teaching staff in the technological universities. The Government has not proven itself particularly willing to protect teaching pay in the past, no matter the part of the education sector. People are right, therefore, to raise this matter. We also have broader concerns around the inclusion of the term “staff association” alongside trade unions, as bodies to be recognised in the terms of employment. Staff associations have a long history of being used by companies and businesses that have no interest in dialogue with their workers. They are used as an excuse to disengage from trade union negotiations. This is something that must be addressed on Committee Stage if the Bill is to have our support.

We also have a serious concern regarding the ability of the technological university to set its own fees for students, subject to the HEA review process, particularly in light of what may come down the road with a long-awaited report due on funding in third level. If third level education is not funded appropriately from the Exchequer, we could face a situation where students enter institutes of technology that are not fit to perform their functions, with teaching being at breaking point and students coming out and in debt to the tune of €20,000 or more. There is also an idea being put about that all courses need to be streamlined and merged so they are not duplicated. While there is merit to the idea that courses should not be overly duplicated, it must be acknowledged that the Government has cut funding to the bone and that not every student can afford to go to another town to attend a third level institute. Many students simply do not have that option.

As stated previously, Sinn Féin gives qualified support to this Bill. We agree with the idea of technological universities, but the legislation in its current form has problems. We will bring forward a range of amendments to address these matters on Committee Stage and will withdraw our support for the Bill if these are not addressed adequately.

3:50 pm

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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The next speaker is Deputy Paul Murphy, who is sharing his time with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Socialist Party)
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I will start by paying tribute to the institutes of technology and their staff. These institutes are drastically under funded, but they continue to provide access to higher education for many people who would traditionally be excluded. This is true for the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in my constituency and others.

One point that must be mentioned in the context of this Bill is the extent of the savage cuts implemented in this sector over the course of the crisis, first under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition and continued under the current Government. Funding for the sector has been cut by a massive 35% between 2008 and 2015 and as a result the number of lecturers in the ITs has fallen by almost 10%, more than 500 whole-time posts. At the same time, student numbers have risen by more than 30%. Therefore there has been a significant increase of approximately one third in the student-teacher staff ratio, above the OECD average of 16:1 to a high of 20:1.

In Tallaght, there have been cuts of 40% since 2008, student numbers have increased by an amount equivalent to the national rate and staff numbers have reduced by 10%. A consequence of this is that the resources of the ITs and the working conditions of the staff are being stretched to breaking point. One third of TUI members at second level and a similar number at third level are in temporary part-time employment. We have a massive extension of so-called "flexicurity", precarious employment in third level institutions of people who are preparing people for their future. It is no wonder therefore there was such a significant turnout of 56% and such a significant "Yes" vote to industrial action on Monday, with 92% voting for industrial action on the issues of the severe funding difficulties and the horrific cuts that have taken place.

That is a context to this Bill. We welcome the idea that ITs should be able to apply for and get technological university status, but the kind of change proposed in this Bill cannot take place in the context of cuts and rationalisation. The concern of many of those involved is that the Bill may just become another rationale for further cuts, using the amalgamation process to drive a cuts process. Simply put, amendments must be made to the Bill to ensure it cannot become a Trojan horse for rationalisation and the elimination of programme provision. Otherwise, we will not support the Bill on a later Stage.

Institutes of technology should not have to amalgamate before applying for technological university status. They should be able to apply as stand alone institutes. There has been a transformation and development in terms of ITs and the programmes they offer and they should be permitted to apply individually. It is a difficulty that ITs are expected to amalgamate and then apply for technological university status, with no guarantee they will get that. This would be the worst of all worlds for them, that they have amalgamated but have not the status. Therefore, the requirement for amalgamation should be withdrawn.

For this process to happen properly, additional resources need to be put into the sector. The estimated cost in Dublin for carrying out the amalgamation is almost €24 million over three years and there is clearly little or no money available from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to fund the process.

The suggestion that the cost be met from further efficiency cuts, or "efficiencies" is unacceptable in the current climate. That translates, in reality, to a process of cuts.

A second issue we would like to raise is the question of dissolution of institutes of technologies. The Bill effectively provides for the dissolution of the institutes at Tallaght, Blanchardstown, Cork and Tralee, with Tallaght and Blanchardstown to be amalgamated with Dublin Institute of Technology. There is no further process envisaged in the Bill other than the issuing of an order by the Minister setting a "dissolution day". It has been argued that given that an international panel has already assessed the case for the amalgamations in Dublin and Munster, no further process is necessary. Given that we now have the legislation setting out the terms and conditions for being a technological university, surely individual institutions should be allowed to look again at the issue. This is particularly important given the opposition of staff in many of the institutes of technology to forced amalgamations. The Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, is about to ballot members for industrial action on this specific issue, as there is significant disquiet about the lack of consultation and engagement with staff. In light of this, there should be provision in the Bill for the institutions to collectively trigger the process prior to the Minister issuing an order and only after agreement has been reached with staff on the terms of the amalgamation.

The third point I raise is that it is clear in reading the Bill that it is unnecessarily slavish to the needs of business and enterprise. This is in line with an approach that is generally happening across education but in clause after clause, the needs of enterprise and industry are acknowledged and privileged over what the Bill refers to as "other stakeholders". There is a stark contrast between the number of times the word "enterprise" appears relative to terms such as "community". The Bill would have us believe that business and community interests are the same thing. Technological universities are to serve the community and public interest by, in the first instance, "supporting the development of business and enterprise at local, regional and national levels".

A strong illustration of the slavishness to business relates to the provisions for the academic councils, which are traditionally composed of academic staff and are forums for debate and the making of decisions on all matters related to academic programmes and research activity. Their main focus is on upholding academic standards. The Bill as it stands indicates "the majority of members of the academic council shall be members of the academic staff of the technological university,". That clearly raises the prospect of non-academics from outside the institutes being members of the academic council and the prospect that those with unduly narrow views of education will come to have influence over the structure and content of our higher education programmes. All those committed to a broad view of education should oppose such moves.

The Bill also proposes with regard to membership of academic councils that they would be "a member of the academic staff with sufficient experience, in the view of the technological university, of business, enterprise or a profession"; and "members of the academic staff with sufficient experience, in the view of the technological university, of collaboration with business, enterprise, the professions and related stakeholders in the region in which the campuses of the technical university are located for a purpose as referred to". This is a concrete example of the privileging of the needs of business and the placing of business at the centre of these technological universities. Our education system is not a tool of the business community. Education is a public good and it should be retained as such. It should not be limited to preparing students to adapt to the demands of employment and remaining competitive in the labour market. The immediate needs of employers are not a good basis for designing a curriculum. What concerns industry is what is relevant to industry and the interests and concerns of employers and big business in particular. It is not necessarily the same for society or students. We must remain committed to a view of education as a vehicle to enhance the capacity of citizens to learn, develop critical thinking and contribute to a society that provides a good life for all. This will involve being critical of the practices of business and students should be prepared in their education to do so.

A fourth point to be raised relates to governing bodies. The proposal as currently outlined in sections 25, 65, 66, 81 and 104 is unsatisfactory, as these sections see a diminished role for the Minister and the establishment of a system of self-regulation, which may diminish public accountability. Following the first appointment of governing bodies, the Minister's role will be reduced to the appointment of two external members. Levels of staff representation on any new bodies arising from this legislation should be no less than current levels, at least, at two academics and one non-academic person. Given that the technological universities will be formed from amalgamated institutes of technologies, staff and student representation should be expanded to provide for representation from all relevant institutes that have been amalgamated. It is also the case that as currently written, there is no provision for trade union representation on governing bodies.

The last point I want to raise relates to collective bargaining and the threat that is potentially contained in the legislation as currently written. As the Minister knows, all staff currently working in institutes of technology are covered by national collective agreements covering the whole sector. The Bill in section 27(2) provides with respect to trade unions that the staff of a technological university shall be employed on such terms and conditions as may be determined by the technological university, subject to the approval of An tÚdarás, given with the consent of the Minister etc. The implication of this is that staff working in different technological universities could have different terms and conditions. It is clearly implied. This is different from the heads of the Bill as published, which contained head 55, that: "The Minister may, in relation to the performance by a technological university of its functions, give a direction in writing to that technological university requiring it to comply with a (a) policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far it relates to the remuneration or numbers of public servants employed in that technological university, or (b) collective agreement entered into by the Government or the Minister." It also indicates that "a technological university shall comply with a direction under this section". That provision in the heads of Bill does not appear in the Bill as published. It is legitimate for people to have a concern that collective bargaining is being undermined and there can be a fragmentation with respect to terms and conditions of those currently working in the institutes of technology. There could potentially be a race to the bottom and competition between institutes that forces wages and conditions down across the sector. This would weaken the position of a union representing academic staff across the different technological universities, which is completely unacceptable.

The Minister must retain at least a similar role to now in ensuring similar pay and conditions apply across all new institutions created by this legislation. Otherwise there is the prospect of differential pay and conditions, making it less attractive to work in some technological universities, undermining their ability to attract the high calibre staff they need to provide a high quality education. Finally we note that staff who transfer to new amalgamated institutions are only guaranteed their current levels of remuneration and not their current conditions of employment. We support the demand of the TUI that transfer of undertakings regulations should be applied to ensure people are transferred in total with respect to pay and conditions.

I generally welcome the idea of technological universities and institutes of technology being able to apply to be technological universities. It cannot be a Trojan Horse for further cuts or the undermining of worker rights and conditions. It cannot be a Trojan Horse for the undermining of collective bargaining.

4:00 pm

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Before calling Deputy Boyd Barrett, as I will be leaving the Chair shortly, I will avail of the opportunity to wish a happy Christmas and prosperous new year to all the staff. These include the reporters in front of me; the ushers; members of the press, whom I never see because they are seated behind and over my head; officials around the Houses; members of an Garda Síochána; staff working in the restaurant and bars; staff in the communications area; my fellow Members; and members of the Government. It will be an exciting new year for everybody. I apologise for interrupting proceedings but I will be leaving before the Deputy finishes.

4:10 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish the Ceann Comhairle a very happy Christmas and wish him the very best for the new year. I wish all my fellow Deputies, or adversaries, on the other side of the Chamber a happy Christmas.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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We are Deputies too.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Deputies and adversaries. I wish all the Oireachtas staff, who make life bearable for us in here even if we possibly make it unbearable for them at times, a happy Christmas.

The idea of a technological university is one to which everyone would subscribe. Everyone would subscribe to the idea that it should be an option available to the institutes of technology to allow them to upgrade to being technological universities. This is a laudable objective but the people at the coalface - the teaching staff in the institutes of technology - are deeply concerned and suspicious about the real import of this Bill given what has been happening on the ground in the institute of technology sector for the past seven years under the impact of relentless cuts and austerity. They fear that this is just a process of rationalisation where rationalisation is a euphemism for more cuts and consolidation to cover up those cuts and enforce more cuts and more attacks on the quality and conditions in the institutes of technology as they affect the teaching staff and students. This will not enhance the experience or quality of the education or the situation for teaching staff, who are key in delivering the education to students.

As has already been rehearsed by other Deputies, the institutes of technology have been hammered since 2008. There has been a 35% cut worth €190 million between 2008 and 2015 resulting in critical low levels of staffing at a time when student numbers have jumped very significantly. We have seen a 32% rise in student numbers in that period. Incredibly, at a time when we have seen a major increase of effectively one third in the number of students, we have seen a 9.5% cut in the staffing levels. We have many more students but far fewer staff and cuts in funding across the board in the institute of technology sector. This is having a devastating impact on the staff who are suffering precarious employment. About one third of those working in the institutes of technology are in precarious positions, suffer income poverty and are severely stressed trying to do their jobs. It is also leading to a detrimental situation for students - larger class size and less access to laboratories, tutorials, student support and general quality of education.

This is the reality against which the noble objective now being set out must be measured. It seems to be a hallmark of this Government to engage in noble objectives, grand plans that sound wonderful in announcements and ambitions that are coming down the road. One then looks at the grim reality of services, infrastructure and so on that have been hacked to pieces. When I look at this plan for technological universities, I cannot help but think that it sounds a bit like centres of excellence in the health service, which is a beautiful idea championed by this Government. The Government will downgrade, reform, restructure or close the smaller local hospitals and merge them into groups and have centres of excellence. It sounds beautiful but then one looks at the reality, which is a euphemism for cuts and fewer services. I am just making the comparison with what has happened to the health service and saying that this sounds like it. If the Government does not provide the resources and staff, all the wonderful restructuring turns into a nightmare of cuts and a degrading of services. This is unquestionably what is happening in the health service.

Looking at this, it is difficult to see how it can be anything other than that. If the resources are not provided, if staffing levels are not dramatically improved and if the cuts are not reversed, what we will get is a repeat of the fiasco and disaster that the Government slogan "more for less" in the health area has produced. We got a lot less for less in the health service. How could it be otherwise in this process of mergers and rationalisation, notwithstanding the wonderful and noble aspirations for technological universities, if it is against a background of butchered resources, staffing and services?

I pay tribute to the teachers. I was informed about a lot of this coming from the picket line in Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, IADT, where teachers were on strike recently. It did not take them long to get across to me how stressed, overworked, desperate and despairing they were regarding the situation in which they were working. It is not just reading off the documents we got from the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, it is also about the teachers on the picket line. They do not want to be on strike. There would be industrial action in Dublin but for the agreement at the LRC in July. We have had industrial action more recently across the country and the TUI is saying with a huge mandate that it will go on strike if the Minister enforces mergers without addressing its concerns on all of these issues. It is the last thing it want to do but it is at its wits' end. Against a background of being battered with cuts for the past seven years, it strongly suspects that it will be more of the same and that none of the assurances it sought in its engagement with the Government, the Department and relevant Oireachtas committee in respect of the heads of Bill on a range of areas, with which the Minister is familiar, will materialise. These include collective agreements arising out of the Haddington Road agreement to safeguard conditions over the transfer of undertakings so that staff members carry over their conditions into any merged entity; the complete failure to have proper consultation and to guarantee that no mergers will go ahead until there is consensus and agreement and all the concerns of the teaching staff have been met; and the need for a proper case to be set out on any mergers towards technological universities that will guarantee the quality and standard of the education and the regional access that is required. This latter aspect is a hallmark of the institutes of technology, so that they provide access to third-level education for people who in many cases cannot afford to travel to study and who need third-level education near to where they live, as Deputy O'Brien mentioned.

Do we need to underline that point against the background of the housing crisis, which affects students among many others? They are desperately trying to find housing. Many assurances are required and most important, the resources, staffing and so on to ensure that this aspiration for technological universities, laudable as it might be, is not simply a recipe for more cuts, rationalisation and so on, that degrade the quality and experience of education in these technological universities.

How can there be academic freedom in the new institutions if people do not know they are going to have a job in a year’s time because they live in fear? That is not conducive to academic freedom and freedom of expression, which is the hallmark of third level education because staff are too terrified to say anything in case their contract is not renewed. Against a background where 33% of people employed in third level education are in precarious situations and that figure has been growing, the workers and the unions say it should be approximately 95% permanent tenured employment if there is to be security for the teachers and the necessary academic freedom so teachers feel confident to express their views and say what they think, which is what universities are all about. There should be adequate representation of workers, trades unions and students on the governing bodies of these institutions in proportion to the number of these institutions that may be merged so there is academic and student leadership of the universities. That is what is needed to make something more than a university in name.

As Deputy Paul Murphy said, when one considers all the references to enterprise and industry and so on in the Bill “slavish” is the right word. The Bill is saying the technological universities must serve the interests of business and enterprise. I would put it the other way around: business should support third level education, which it is not doing. Why should the universities, which educate our young people, providing a service to society and the public, be slaves to business, which does not reciprocate and where Government policy ensures it does not reciprocate? Why do the businesses not pay some taxes to fund third level education? They are its chief beneficiaries. The extraordinary profits the multinationals make per employee in this country are off the Richter scale. This is to a significant extent explained by transfer pricing, contract manufacturing and intricate tax avoidance schemes. These companies make unbelievable profits from the young people we paid to educate and who have, through their own endeavours, reached a point where they can make enormous profits for these companies, which do not feel any need to reciprocate and pay a bit of bleeding tax.

4:20 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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They pay a bit.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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They do everything in their power to avoid it. The dogs on the street know it, with the double Irish, and now the knowledge box - any old excuse - and they constantly lobby the Ministers about ways to get out of tax. They are employing accountants left, right and centre to come up with new and intricate mechanisms, in many cases facilitated by the political establishment, to avoid paying tax. Talk about cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. The cumulative result is skills shortages because we do not have enough educated people to feed the monster of multinationals.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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Is the Deputy against jobs?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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No. I am for these companies, which make enormous profits from our young people, putting something back into educating the young people from whom they extract these profits, rather than us paying for the education, and students and teachers contributing to producing educated young people and letting these lads run off with the goodies.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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We have increased tax over the past five years.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am deadly serious about this.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I know the Deputy is and so am I.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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We should be standing up for ourselves and telling these multinationals that they will have to cough up a bit of money to pay for the educated workforce from which they make so much money, with profits that are off the Richter scale. That is not a hyperbolic description of their profits. Based on the productivity per worker in Ireland, it is all made here. Could they please contribute something towards these chronically underfunded universities, where students are on miserable grants?

I say no to student loans. Has the debt economy not done us enough damage without inflicting the debt economy on our students so they will come out of third level education owing €20,000 or €30,000 to the banks? What an outrageous suggestion. The Minister should get rid of the fees, make the multinationals pay their taxes to fund our third level education.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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That was an excellent contribution from Deputy Boyd Barrett. He was very passionate as usual. I have to agree with him that there should be no student loans and that the corporate sector should make a substantial contribution to our third level institutions because more and more they locate themselves in the vicinity of third level institutions to obtain the best in research and qualified students who graduate from the colleges.

It is, however, very important to recognise the contribution that the international sector has made to Ireland. That was one of the major contributors in a period when there was nothing in the country over the past seven or eight years. Foreign direct investment was maintained at an all-time high although many punters were saying that the country was going down the tubes. The foreign direct investment and the Irish diaspora sectors were out front in ensuring that direct investment was maintained at a strong level.

I welcome the legislation and see it as a glass half full rather than a glass half empty. I do not want to see cuts and I do not believe the legislation is being introduced in any way to effect cuts to the third level sector. It is being introduced on the basis of rationalisation. When we consider the history of the institute sector we see why that is necessary. Many of the Members will remember that the regional colleges were developed at more or less the same time as we joined the European Union. We were very fortunate that the strategy and foresight of the people who were in government at the time saw the importance of having a necklace of institutes of technology, which were called regional colleges, around the country.

The colleges in question were located at Letterkenny, Sligo, Mayo, Tralee, Cork, Waterford, Dún Laoghaire and Louth. They were built not just with the goodwill of the EU but also with funding it provided. The EU helped to build and staff the colleges, as well as paying the students. It was a win-win situation so that by the time the computer IT revolution hit across the globe, Ireland was best placed - more than any other country in the world - to have students graduating from these colleges who were fit for the new job markets then coming on stream.

That is the real reason foreign direct investment interests have been so willing and enthusiastic to come to Ireland. From the very beginning they became embedded in the process. One can see how so many of those IT companies have been here for over 20 years. We had wonderful work experience both in terms of qualified students entering the workplace and the ability to source experience, as well as the development of laboratory and other academic facilities in those colleges.

It was essential that somewhere down the line there would be a consolidation of those colleges which are located throughout the country. When that was happening, the Dublin Institute of Technology required its own consolidation because it consisted of six faculties scattered across the city, three of them in my own constituency, namely, Bolton Street College of Engineering, the College of Catering in Cathal Brugha Street and the College of Marketing and Design in Mountjoy Square. That consolidation process, which has been ongoing for a long period, is about to take extend to the new Grangegorman campus.

When I first entered politics and was elected to the local authority in 1991, I became chairman of the City of Dublin VEC and held the position until 1999. At that time, the Dublin Institute of Technology came under the aegis of the City of Dublin VEC. It was not a stand-alone college. The 1992 Act was necessary to enable the Dublin Institute of Technology to operate as a third-level college on a stand-alone basis. The process allowed it to thrive through consolidating the various faculties. The college then began seeking a common campus so that all the faculties could come together. It has taken all that time, since 1992, to achieve it. No attempt was made to build the DIT campus at Grangegorman before the current Government took office.

In 1993, I recall that the National Museum was seeking a new site to expand from its location beside Leinster House in order to display all the social paraphernalia that had been accumulated over the years to indicate that aspect of the country's legacy. Dr. Pat Wallace was the museum's director at that point. Discussions on the possible location were held between the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and the then Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and our current President, Michael D. Higgins. Mr. Higgins came to me to inquire whether there was a suitable location in my constituency - which there was - for both projects. The National Museum is now located at Collins Barracks, which was then being emptied of soldiers, and the DIT campus is now in Grangegorman. Unfortunately, for very many reasons, nothing was built in that period but the consolidation of the DIT is now taking place at last and who would not say that is a good thing?

We should take the extra step to consolidate the institutes of technology into a single technological university for the city of Dublin, including Blanchardstown and Tallaght with the DIT. That makes sense to my mind. As well as cutting costs, it would avoid duplicating services. It would bring together staff, students and facilities in order to develop a co-ordinated, whole-of-city technological university, allowing further diversification on a streamlined basis. That is a desirable way forward that would enhance the quality of education and service, as well as providing more diverse resources to meet the educational needs of students and the community at large.

Universities should be embedded in their communities and not just for third-level purposes. Wherever there is an institute of education or a university, one can see thepro rataintake of third-level students in those areas. However, third-level institutions should be involved at every level of the education system, including primary and secondary, thus providing pathways towards the courses and facilities on their doorstep. That is the way forward. It is time we discussed having community-based universities as well as primary and secondary schools. If that was done, the quality of education would be so much better, as would the quantity of the intake.

The Bill represents a desirable way forward. I understand that the Minister's next step will be to examine the south-east sector and the Connacht-Ulster alliance, as well as seeing what can be done to consolidate the provision of technological expertise in the future university framework. I commend the Bill to the House.

4:30 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I commend the Minister on introducing this legislation. It is a pity we are discussing it on a Thursday evening before Christmas because this is one of the most significant proposed changes to the way in which our education system has operated for many years. It is very much to be welcomed. Effectively, it is about introducing a new type or category of third-level institution for the future.

I must declare a number of vested interests in this legislation. As a representative for Carlow-Kilkenny, I have an existing institute of technology in my constituency. As somebody who studied in an institute of technology in Waterford, I also have a keen interest in that institution. From the start, this new categorisation was included in the programme for Government and it is welcome that we are now discussing the terms of the legislation that will allow these new institutions to come into play.

I do not want to rehash everything that has been said by previous speakers. However, the Minister referred to the ongoing, arduous efforts in the south-east region, including the current facilitation process which is hopefully coming to a conclusion. I hope the Minister will get an opportunity in January to tell the House about the outcome of that process.

For the south-east region more than for any other region, this is a particularly critical matter. The region has just shy of 500,000 people and it is pretty much the only region without an existing university, which has been a constant bone of contention. It is also the region with the highest average rates of unemployment even at the height of the boom, the lowest disposable household income even at the height of the boom and the lowest third level education attendance rates of any region of the country even at the height of the boom. The argument for establishing a technological university in the south-east region is strong.

Section 38 outlines the criteria for such a designation. I started in Waterford Regional Technical College in September 1997. I am not sure if it was a regional technical college or an IT at the time because, in a rather typical display of fudging by the now Leader of the Opposition and then Minister for Education and Science, Waterford Regional Technical College was to be upgraded to IT status. However, there was a clamour from other regional technical colleges around the country and the names of all institutions were changed at the drop of a hat by Deputy Martin regardless of any meeting of criteria as far as I can remember - I was only 18 at the time and was not particularly involved in political decisions, although I would have been interested. I know it caused much disquiet in the institute in Waterford that when it had reached the standard, the Minister took a decision that all regional technical colleges would simply have their names changed. That is why section 38 is so important. It sets out in detail the teaching and educational criteria for a designation as a technological university in future. The process needs to be transformative in terms of education and not just about changing the name on the door, which is what Deputy Martin did in 1997.

Deputy O'Brien correctly made this point. In my region across Wexford, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and into Tipperary many families are not in a position to send their children to universities in Dublin or outside the region because they cannot afford to do so. Having a university in their own region where the costs of sending their children to it would be greatly reduced, is a significant factor. The institutes of technology and the regional technological colleges before them have been a great success because they gave an opportunity for a third level education to thousands of people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity. The technological university status can have a similar impact into the future for many thousands of people in regions of the country who would not be in a financial position to move away from home to go to a university.

Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about the academic councils of the new technological universities. He expressed alarm and concern over the prospect of non-academics on academic councils. I say, "Alleluia" to the prospect of having some non-academics on academic councils. Deputy Murphy also happened to single out for special mention that there is no direct provision for trade unionists to be appointed to academic councils while at the same time saying that they should not contain representatives of business. I believe the legislation is correct in not singling out any specific groups for inclusion or exclusion. If we are talking about a new structure for education, there should be an alignment with the needs of industry into the future. That is a fact of life and it is something I would welcome.

Deputy Murphy expressed alarm that this legislation might be a Trojan horse for rationalisation, whatever that phrase means. I do not suspect it is anything of the sort. However, there is obviously a need, whether it is in this city or in other regions in the country where there are existing institutes of technology and where some duplication takes place, for an overall body responsible for development of third level education in a technological sense under this new technological university heading. It makes absolute sense and I fully support it.

Following the process the Minister mentioned in her earlier contribution, Professor Donnelly, the president of Waterford Institute of Technology and, Dr. Mulcahy, the president of Carlow Institute of Technology, are endeavouring to ensure that a bid can happen for the south east region. It is much overdue and is something the region badly needs. It has the potential to be a major economic driver for the future of the five counties that make up the region, which for far too long have lagged behind academically and in terms of household incomes despite the perception that exists in other parts of the country that everything is always much better on the east coast than in other parts of the country. Even at the height of the Celtic tiger, the south-eastern economic indicators were much lower than in most other parts of the country. The possibility of a technological university has the potential to provide a huge economic stimulus and to attract much-needed foreign direct investment as well as local investment to ensure we have a thriving region economically as well as socially into the future.

That is why I fully support the legislation. I commend the Minister on her work and her endeavours so far. I commend the Bill to the House.

4:40 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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As Deputy John Paul Phelan said, this legislation requires detailed and critical scrutiny. I disagree with his remarks on what the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, did in the context of supporting the regional technological colleges and the institutes of technology. During the period he held the office that the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, holds now, there was huge investment and growth in that sector. If two colleges had the same status it would not be appropriate to have one designated as an institution of technology and the other as a regional technological college. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s when the regional technological colleges were established, they all had the same status and description. It would cause problems from the point of view of interacting with partners in education on the international scene to have different titles for colleges providing the same level of education.

I broadly welcome the Bill, as my party spokesperson, Deputy McConalogue, did. However, he flagged a number of issues he would like to see amended on Committee Stage. We need to reconsider the requirement for existing institutes to merge if they wish to be considered for designation as technological universities. Deputy McConalogue made a practical and useful suggestion in that regard.

I do not believe we should have a university or an institute of technology in every county. We know that is not feasible and we would demean our whole third level education sector if we took that route. The institutes of technology have been very successful and great credit is due to a succession of Ministers, who ensured they got substantial funding to allow them grow and develop, and also to the leaders within the institutes.

That goes back to the principals or directors of the regional technical colleges, as well as the many public representatives who served on the boards of those colleges through the vocational education committees, VECs. They often do not get credit for the contribution they made to education at local and regional level.

Deputy Costello referred to the possibility of the merger of the different institutes in the Dublin area, as well as the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. I want to refer to the other part of Ulster which would be regarded as the north east. For my county, Cavan, part of it is in the north west, while other parts are regarded as being in the north east. Monaghan is very much designated as being in the north east. I cannot see Dundalk Institute of Technology readily accommodated in a particular cluster, either regionally or geographically. While I admit I quickly went through this legislation, I did not see provision made for co-operation with similar educational institutes north of the Border. We all talk about growing the all-Ireland economy with greater co-operation between North and South. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Wall, and I participate in the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We meet different groups who all support growing the all-Ireland economy, as well as growing synergies between North and South, be it in improving infrastructure and in the provision of health and education services. There is a wonderful opportunity to ensure greater co-operation between third level colleges and universities in the North of Ireland and in the South. However, from the last figures available, proportionally there are fewer students from the North of Ireland in universities and institutes of technology in the South than would have been in the past. I know more people on the island are thankfully participating in further and third level education than in the past. Proportionately, however, the number of students going from North to South or South to North has actually declined. That is a deficit we need to address. If Dundalk Institute of Technology provides particular courses not readily available north of the Border, there is no point in some university or institute of technology north of the Border trying to provide the same course and competing for students. Resources will always be scarce both North and South to deal with demands on the provision of health and education services, as well as infrastructure. There is great scope for us to provide education services much more on a North-South and on an all-Ireland basis. I hope on Committee Stage the Minister will make some provision to ensure such co-operation is effected. I am sure the Minister will be told by the Department, universities and institutes of technology that this is not practical as the third level sector in the North is funded differently. Every Department, statutory agency, university or institute of technology lives in their own world, in a silo. We need to get this out of society for the better of everybody, as well as a better return for the taxpayer and for the student who will benefit with being provided with education as near to home as possible. If a Cavan student needs to access a particular course which is only available in Enniskillen rather than in Navan, then there is no reason the student cannot go North or vice versa.

We still have too much of a partitionist mentality when it comes to the delivery of services. We have had the opportunity since May 1998, when we overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement to put new administrative political structures in place in this island, to start to look at the delivery of services on an all-Ireland basis. We have not been doing enough in this regard. When the Minister is bringing forward legislation, which will put a new type of higher level education facility in place, this is the time to look at the provision of services on an all-Ireland basis. I hope the Minister will take that opportunity.

The institutes of technology have never been given credit for the great contribution they made to ensure children from more disadvantaged backgrounds got access to third level education. From the statistics for first-year entrants in Dundalk Institute of Technology, quite a number of them were the first members of their families to have the opportunity to go to third level education. There has been a distinct policy by the institutes of technology to ensure extra assistance and access programmes to ensure children from a background where education may not have been a priority in the past due to financial circumstances, or where parents did not get the opportunity to go on to further or third level education, get to third level. Thankfully, today we have much better third level participation of young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. That is extremely important.

Today, the Minister’s office would have received correspondence from Deputy Kirk. Last night in Leinster House, several Oireachtas Members from the north east met with members of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, branch from Dundalk Institute of Technology. The delegation put forward a compelling case for additional financial assistance needed by the institute. They outlined how there is a deficit in the provision of technology for some particular courses. There are some courses which it will be difficult for them to deliver if there is not some investment in technology available to them. Deputy Kirk's request has been made to the Minister on behalf of the Oireachtas Members from the north east, Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath, of all parties and none. We are seeking a meeting with the Minister to support the case made by the TUI branch in Dundalk Institute of Technology. Its members outlined the significant growth in its student population, which is welcome, and the projected increase in enrolments. It must also be factored in that the population in Louth and Meath has grown considerably over the past 15 years. Quite a number of students from north County Dublin also attend Dundalk Institute of Technology, along with a large student population from Cavan and Monaghan. I hope the Minister will be able to give some assistance early in the new year to Dundalk. The members of staff who we met last night are extremely impressive and committed to their work. They stressed to us that it is not a trade union pitching for better conditions for themselves but advocating for better conditions and better delivery of education services for the students under their care.

Deputy Costello spoke about the Connacht-Ulster Alliance which makes sense with Letterkenny, Galway-Mayo and Sligo Institutes of Technology. However, for the north east and Dundalk, one is dealing with the Border. That is why I am anxious that the whole area of North-South co-operation is advanced. We can all talk about co-operation but we need to be adventurous, ambitious and deliver services to students. Whatever part of Ulster a student comes from, he or she should not be a stranger south or north of the Border. My party's education spokesperson, Deputy McConalogue, will put forward several amendments in this regard on Committee Stage and I hope some of his proposals will be implemented.

It is important legislation and the whole area of technological universities is a welcome development. Again, I do not believe we should have a technological university in every county. The area of further education does not get enough credit for the contribution it makes and has made over the past several years.

I know that Cavan Institute, a college of further education in my county, has given many students the opportunity to go on to institutes of technology or universities and complete their primary degree courses and, in many instances, many of those students have gone on to complete a master's degree. That progression from further education through to third level is vitally important. The further education sector is also one that needs to be adequately funded. The further education sector and the colleges of further education were put in place to meet the emerging needs of the economy in those local areas. I agree with Deputy John Paul Phelan's point that the institutes of technology or the colleges of further education should have a good working relationship and close collaboration with industry in their area. When I chaired the board of management of the then Cavan College of Further Studies we were cognisant of ensuring that courses that tapered in with some local industries were provided, where we had some particular strengths, and young people were equipped with skills to meet the job opportunities that might arise in their own areas.

An area that is worth considering is the agricultural colleges. While I have not given this any detailed thought, it should be noted that they are also a great resource. I was involved in Ballyhaise Agricultural College in my own county some years ago. It linked up with Dundalk Institute of Technology and provided a degree course in food and farming. The young students could do their first year in Ballyhaise Agricultural College, and some of them may not have had the points to go directly into an agricultural science course, but they were able, on successful completion of the relevant certificate in agriculture at the agricultural college, to go on to Dundalk Institute of Technology and complete a degree course in food science or food and farming. Many of those people are now gainfully employed in our agrifood industry, which has experienced substantial growth during the past decade. The agricultural colleges are an important resource and they should not be left out of the further and higher education sector, nor should they be left to stand alone. There may be an opportunity to develop a greater synergy between the agricultural colleges and the institutes of technology.

5:00 pm

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I welcome the Bill and the Minister should be commended on bringing it forward. I listened to her opening statement on the monitor. I do not agree with everything she said but I agree with most of it. In many respects what is being provided for in this Bill in the third level education sector is historic. Collectively, if we succeed in achieving what the Minister wants to achieve in the technology sector together with the raising of the status and quality of education in that sector, this will have been a good day's work.

There are many divisions in our society, be it in health or other areas, but the sector that most reflects the divisions in society is the education areas, and there are many examples of it. Deputy Smith rightly pointed out that since the institutes of technology have evolved they have offered students from working class areas the opportunity to have their first introduction to third level education. I am one of the lucky ones because there is a very good institute of technology, Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in the constituency that I represent, which is the third largest centre of population in the country. It is worth noting that 30 years ago within the wider community in Tallaght - approximately 100,000 people live there - only a little more than 2% of students who left second level school went on to third level. Today that figure is 22%. It has taken the best part of 30 years to raise the percentage of students from working class areas who go on to a third level institution. I repeat the point Deputy Smith made, namely, that those students are the first members of their family, having regard to their parents and grandparents, to get their foot in the door of a third level institution. We still have a long way to go in terms of the difficulty that was illustrated by other Members, in that, if one's parents are lucky enough to have the required disposable income, one is pretty much guaranteed from birth to get a place in a third level institution and one is guaranteed a better standard of living and a better education. Those are the types of barriers we should be trying to break down. We should make third level education not a privilege for some in society but open for all in society who complete their second level education.

The Institute of Technology, Tallaght has done tremendous work in the manner in which it has developed during the 20 plus years that it has been established. Its catchment area is not only south Dublin, it also has an intake of students from Kildare and further afield. It has a very good reputation and has made great progress in the quality and variety of courses it offers. It has quite high standards, which is a positive development. There is a strong attachment to the institute because of what it has managed to do for many families in giving many working class students the opportunity to get a third level education.

One or two Deputies became very exercised about the cuts in education. I acknowledge there were cuts in education across the board. Unfortunately, that is history. Sometimes when people speak in this House they choose to forget what happened in 2007 and 2008 as if the collapse in the economy never happened. When the Minister was being criticised about the cuts in education neither of the Deputies referred to the fact that there was no cut in the €100 million subsidy that is given to private schools. It may have something to do with the fact that those two Deputies, who come from the great and the good, the privileged, went to private schools. I did not see them becoming exercised about calling for the abolition of the €100 million that goes to those small number private schools, which could be distributed among the institutes of technology about which they got so agitated. However, that is the nature of politics.

There are areas of the Bill on which the Minister and I will not agree but the debate on this sector has now started on a different level with the publication of this Bill.

I am being parochial about the Dublin scenario with DIT, ITB and ITT. Many of the differences relate to governance of the overarching body and the fear that the IoT in Tallaght would be subsumed into DIT and would not have the autonomy it has. Obviously, it will lose some power when they amalgamate but the fear among the staff in Tallaght is that they will be moved into a much larger institution and their institution will lose its identity. They also want to protect the quality of the education they provide. I understand that and I am sure the Minister does also because in any amalgamation in the education sector or other sectors, there are vested interests and it is understandable that the staff do not want to be pushed back. That is for another day and I am sure when amendments are tabled, we all will have a few comments to make about that on Committee Stage.

5:10 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I thank everybody who contributed to the debate and, in particular, for a broadly supportive response from the various shades of the Opposition. We are all committed to the notion that there should be an opportunity to develop technological universities and it should be supported. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Murphy suggested this is all about cuts. I reassure them it is about opportunity and not about cuts. It is about giving regions an opportunity to bring IoTs together to ensure they achieve the status of a technological university. There have been cuts in the higher education sector, as there have been across all sectors, not only in education but in other Departments. As Deputy Maloney said, that was because of the economic crash and the fact that we simply did not have money. I managed to increase the education budget this year, a little more than last year’s slight increase. Should I be lucky to return to this position, I would want that to continue in the next budget given the importance of education. That has been stressed by many speakers.

I assure Members this legislation is anything but a plot on the Government’s part to introduce cutbacks. It has been talked about for a long time, particularly in the south east, where, as Deputy John Paul Phelan said, there has been a sense that a higher education institution with the status of a university was needed, as this would, therefore, increase employment levels and address issues of concern in the region. I am delighted we are making progress there and I expect a report in January from the person working with the two institutions in the region to address issues. Considering where we were even a year and a half ago, we have come a long way regarding the south east.

The provision of a technological university is of great concern in that region but opportunities also present in other regions in this regard and we have received representations on these. The reason mergers are being provided for is we want universities, ultimately, with a critical mass. We would like larger institutions that will have the appropriate number of students, researchers and PhD students and that will meet all the criteria that need to be reached before technological university status can be achieved. The IoTs knew from the beginning that mergers were part of this process.

I would like to make Deputy Boyd Barrett aware that this process is voluntary. We are not forcing people to come together. Some regions have decided to do this while others have decided against it. As Deputy Smith said, Dundalk IT is not participating while Athlone IT and Limerick IT, near where I live, are not either. They are working on clusters in regions but I take the Deputy’s point about the North-South discussions. I have had meetings with the Northern Minister for Education, John O’Dowd and, in particular, the Minister for Employment and Learning, Mr. Stephen Farry about cross-Border co-operation on higher education. Mr. Farry was particularly interested in the Letterkenny-Derry axis but, obviously, the Deputy is interested in the axis in his own area. I do not know whether anything relating to that could be inserted in this legislation but it is part of the discussions in education meetings in the context of North-South dialogue. We are trying to facilitate cross-Border movement in education where appropriate.

A number of members were concerned about staff and ensuring pay, pension and other conditions are protected. I referred to the relevant sections in that regard in my opening contribution but I am sure we will tease all those issues out on Committee Stage. I also agree consultation is needed. We have impressed on the IoTs that they need to constantly talk to their staff and students to make sure they are in the loop about what is happening and that they are genuinely consulted and listened to. I want that process to continue. Those issues have been raised. With regard to security of tenure in the IoT sector, I expect the Cush report shortly. He is looking into making jobs more secure in the higher education sector. The Peter Ward report on this issue in the primary and, particularly, the post-primary sector was published last year and we are implementing that. The Cush report is about job security in the higher education sector and I am told I am likely to get the report in January. We need to implement that as well. We have made a small move giving hourly paid lecturers the status of assistant lecturer but, clearly, there are issues, particularly for the unions that represent workers. We will have an opportunity to address them.

A number of Members raised the issue of engaging with business. Engaging with the local economic community makes a great deal of sense. It does not preclude engaging with other elements of the community. Many IoTs have courses related to the caring professions, hospitality sector and the arts, and, therefore, it is not only about business. Those who have had job opportunities in their regions because IoTs specifically engaged with business regarding their needs have witnessed high quality jobs coming in and, therefore, I do not make apologies to the two Deputies who referred to this issue. It is right that there should be engagement with enterprise in the region because that is how a region ensures it creates the maximum opportunity for those who live in it. Technological universities will have a strong role in that regard. Engagement with local enterprise is a way to address that. It is not only about multinationals. Many indigenous companies are in the food sector, for example, and they engage with higher and further education institutions. That is important in ensuring we have cross-sectoral and intergovernmental engagement to ensure opportunities to access education and a satisfying and well paid career are created and skills gaps are prevented.

I do not make any apologies for that.

Deputies Costello, Maloney and Smith spoke about the issue of opportunity for sectors of the population that traditionally have not gone to college. People in areas such as Tallaght have gone to college because there is an institute of technology in the area, and I want to ensure that continues. In terms of these mergers, we want to ensure the local and regional population is encouraged by them and does not have a sense that education is more distant than currently. That is very much part of how we are engaging with the different institutes.

Yesterday I launched the strategy for access to higher education. We have assigned an additional €3 million to it this year to increase the access fund and improve the transfer from further to higher education. We want to ensure the attendance at higher education of under-represented socio-economic groups, people with disabilities and Travellers is increased. Institutes of technology play an important role in this, as the technological universities will in the future. We have specific targets in that plan and we want to ensure more equity of access.

Some Deputies spoke about the multi-campus issue being more costly for students if they have to travel from their own region. The point of it is that additional campuses will be added to existing institute of technology campuses. The purpose of this is that in regions where the technological universities will be, there will be other campuses students can attend. They will be functioning multi-campus entities. An example from my own area is the amalgamation of Limerick Institute of Technology and the Tipperary Institute. There are now campuses of the institute in Tipperary as well as in Limerick. That is an example of a multi-campus institution. It should not put barriers in the way of students in terms of the cost of living away from home.

There were some other issues but I think I have referred to most that have been raised. We will have the opportunity to debate the legislation further on other Stages. I hope to get the Bill through in the lifetime of this Dáil and I will look for committee time as soon as we finish Second Stage. It is very important legislation. Some have called it historic. It gives the opportunity for a new type of university in a number of regions in the country. This legislation is the basis for moving forward so it is important that everybody here has the opportunity to tease it out because clearly there are issues around governance and security for staff. There are many issues that must be dealt with fully. I am not saying we will rush it through but if we have time, it would be a positive to complete the legislation during the life of the current Dáil. I thank those who have contributed.

Everybody who has spoken here today has wished everybody a happy Christmas. I wish Members, staff, ushers, the Acting Chairmen who assist the Ceann Comhairle and everybody else a very happy Christmas. We will return to the Bill in January.

Question put and agreed to.