Thursday, 27 October 2016
Topical Issue Debate
Higher Education Institutions
I thank the Acting Chairman. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this matter. I further thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking the time to be here. In light of the current situation, plenty of people want to meet him on Kildare Street.
This issue I want to address has been in the doldrums for a number of years. My reasons for addressing it arise on foot of a number of newspaper articles published in recent months and as a result of concerns that have been brought to my attention by constituents. As a Cork Deputy, I have a vested interest in the biggest educational institution not only in Cork but in Munster. I refer, of course, to University College Cork. This matter was addressed recently in an article published in The Irish Timeson 11 October under the headline "Fear and loathing on campus: bullying at Irish universities".
There are significant levels of dissatisfaction among staff at University College Cork regarding gender issues and the promotion process relating to staff within the college. Despite being the very first university to appoint a female professor in Ireland and Great Britain - Professor Mary Ryan in 1909 - the college now has the second lowest number of female professors in the country. A report by Barry Roche in The Irish Timeson 11 July last gave an insight into unpublished research by management at UCC. The latter showed that 36% of the 375 respondents, comprising 265 females and 110 males, believed the culture and atmosphere were not female friendly and inclusive. Half felt the promotion process in UCC was not transparent and fair and one in four felt that academic promotions were not free of gender bias. One quarter felt they were not treated fairly on merit, without regard to characteristics such as gender, civil or family status or, most strikingly, sexual orientation.
The fact that this report was suppressed and shelved and no attempt was made to deal with its findings is a damning indictment of senior officials at the college. As a result of what I have mentioned, many cases have been brought by staff of UCC against the institution. We saw recently where a Member of the House tabled a parliamentary question seeking information on the amount that UCC and other universities have spent on legal fees over the past number of years. The results were startling. Figures reveal that UCC has spent almost €1.5 million in the past five years on legal cases involving staff. These cases are on range of issues. In the report I mentioned, 55% of staff said that they would not feel comfortable reporting an issue if they felt they were treated unfairly, while 43% said they would not feel comfortable reporting an incident where they witnessed another staff member being treated unfairly. This is a culture of fear within - a fear to defend oneself, a fear to act and a fear to help others. Who are those who create a culture of fear? They can only be classed as bullies.
It can be argued that the fact UCC hired six full-time solicitors also creates a fear of taking on the establishment. When compared, for example, to Trinity College, the number of complaints made by staff is much higher than in UCC yet the legal costs are much lower. Staff in Trinity College have the confidence to bring any concerns they may have to the appropriate bodies within the college and have confidence in the internal processes that are in place. This is not the case in UCC. The latter uses the power of taxpayers' money to contest the outcomes of internal and external cases, such as the Jordan, Tyndall and Bushin cases. There have been scenarios whereby UCC has failed to implement the outcome of internal appeals cases, despite them having been chaired by a High Court judge. Staff at UCC do not want to appeal or question any grievances they have because they cannot rely on the internal processes at the college.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am not privy to some of the content of the claims he has of cases where he suggests unnecessary appeals may have been made to contest findings or to some of the other concerns he raised. The Higher Education Authority is very concerned about gender equality and has initiated a system-wide review of higher education institutions' gender profiles and gender-equality policies encompassing all higher education institutions under its remit in 2015.
The review process formally began in September 2015 with the development of the terms of reference and the appointment of the expert group. With the support of the HEA, the review was conducted by a five-member independent expert group chaired by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, former European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. The report of the expert group regarding the HEA national review of gender equality in higher education institutions was published in June 2016 and I welcomed its publication. The expert group's 61 recommendations provide an informed and considered basis for a collective and participatory national approach to attaining gender equality in Irish higher education. The report includes objectives, recommendations, proposed timings and key performance indicators for all relevant stakeholders in the higher education sector. It also contains an in-depth analysis of the gender balance of higher education staff across all grades of employment, as well as management teams, academic councils and governing boards. As the chair of the group, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said at the launch, "This report clearly demonstrates that significant gender inequality remains in higher education, and this must be addressed - for equality, social and economic reasons."
With regard to the next steps, the expert group's recommendations provide an informed and considered basis for a collective approach to this, in attaining gender equality, but the achievement of true gender equality in Irish higher education institutions requires systematic positive action from all stakeholders. The review proposes that the next step should see the development of a detailed implementation plan, which will include a robust system of follow-up evaluation and performance monitoring linked to funding through the HEA's strategic dialogue process. It is important that we now ensure this detailed implementation plan is developed, to build on the work of this expert group, and I welcome the fact that officials from the Department of Education and Skills will now liaise with the HEA, the institutes of higher education, research funding agencies and other key stakeholders in the development of such a detailed implementation plan. Higher education institutions will risk funding penalties if they fail to address gender inequality following the development of the detailed implementation plan.
It is also important to remember that Irish girls and young women continue to outperform their male counterparts in educational attainment. Ireland currently occupies the top position for female graduates across the European Union as measured in the keynote statistics for the European Union's economic growth policy.
What is clearly outlined is all institutions will have to develop an implementation plan to address weaknesses that have been exposed. Under the recommendations, it is intended a number of practical measures will be put in place, for example, a vice president for equality, a key decision-making body with a balanced membership, and a gender equality sub-committee of the governing authority. Each higher education institution will have an academically-led gender equality forum and so on. There are many recommendations which if acted on will hopefully address some of the Deputy's concerns.
I thank the Minister for his response which was more general and dealt with the gender equality issue. I was talking about more than just gender balance in the college.
Following on a number of articles that were published recently, the revelation of legal expenditure at UCC, and concerns that have been brought to my attention, it is clear that the institution is mirroring a culture of bullying and imprudent use of public funds on legal costs. The misuse of these funds diverts administrators away from core functions at a time Irish universities are failing in the international rankings. The time for hiding behind the sectoral autonomy of the universities and the HEA needs to end. Who is holding them to account? There is no transparency or accountability in the university system anymore when it comes to appointments many of which can be described as "casual". There is no accountability with regards staff complaints or issues and no questions are asked as to why millions of euro are spent by universities every year on legal fees.
It is clear that universities are going to great lengths to cover up issues that staff may have with them through intimidation to the point where the victims will drop their case. The Department needs to act now because down the line there will be another inquiry involving yet another High Court judge. The Minister and his Department have four nominees on the governing body of UCC. There is an onus on him to investigate the concerns I have raised, which have been in the public domain. The Minister may not have been informed officially but the press usually carry the true story. While I have focused on this issue, I acknowledge the good work being done in UCC. This year, for the second year in a row, it has been recognised as the No. 1 college in Ireland, given its focus on education and higher grades for students. I ask the Minister to come with a more positive reply. I will probably be back to him again.
In general, the Equality Tribunal is the forum for hearing extreme cases of bullying. Every college must have an anti-bullying policy. The relationship with the HEA involves setting out performance areas under which colleges must show they are addressing concerns. I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the authority. I cannot substantiate the cases in respect of any college or whether one college is better or worse than another. Cases have been brought to the Equality Tribunal, which have resulted in a broad programme of action being take by colleges to address bullying or prejudice in selection procedures and so on.
The idea behind Ms Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's approach is that there would be respect across the system and people's rights and opportunities would be respected. While the expert group concerned itself with gender equality and there is evidence that many women are not advancing as they ought to, there are wider principles, which if they were brought to bear in all the colleges, would address these concerns.
I will bring the Deputy's concerns about one institution to the attention of the HEA. I have no basis for confirming or otherwise that there is a problem. I have read the articles but as they have indicated, the research was undertaken in order that an action plan could be taken on board by the college concerned. As I understand it, there has been some action within the college. I will seek to establish more information for the Deputy in light of the reports he has tabled and ascertain whether I can give him a more satisfactory response.