Wednesday, 5 October 2022
Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: From the Seanad
For all the changes and amendments we have made to this Bill, this is just a simple spelling mistake. I request that the Chair would direct the Clerk in accordance with Standing Order 196 to make the following minor correction to the text of the Bill on page 80, line 25: to replace the word “reprsentatives”, which is misspelt, with the appropriate spelling of the word “representatives”.
The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, as Members will know, was published in January of this year. I genuinely want to thank all the Deputies involved for very intensively engaging on this Bill. We have had a lot of engagement and I believe we have made a lot of improvements together. The Bill completed its Final Stage in the Dáil in June with a total of 179 amendments made. We then took the legislation to the Seanad and I accepted, and we made, a further three amendments there. Today, we are back, if not to reopen the Dáil debate, then to seek the approval of Dáil Éireann for those three amendments.
I consider that the 179 amendments made in the Dáil and the three amendments made in the Seanad have strengthened the Bill. They have addressed a lot of issues that were raised in the Oireachtas and, equally important, that were raised by stakeholders more widely as we went through the consultation process. As I said, I welcome the positive engagement of colleagues on this legislation. While we all debated the minutiae of the legislation, as we should, I note that this legislation passed Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann without a division, which I think was a general welcome for the broad thrust of the reforms we are all trying to progress.
The three amendments made in the Seanad amend the provision regarding the student membership of the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology. For the avoidance of doubt, the amendments simply replace the reference to "three student members" on the governing body, which is what is stated in the legislation as drafted, with the reference to "three student union representatives". I acknowledge that these were amendments in the names of Senators Ruane, Higgins and Flynn and their group in the Seanad, but I know they were very much speaking, as Deputies would have been on all sides of this House, on behalf of the student unions which sought this amendment.
These are amendments that we are putting in place for the avoidance of doubt. The provisions in the Higher Education Authority Bill in regard to the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology include provisions that a governing authority, with the approval of the Minister, will make appropriate regulations regarding the selection, election, nomination or appointment of members to the governing body. It was expected that these procedures would provide for student members to be elected to the governing body in accordance with current practice. It is certainly not the policy or legal intention to appoint students to the governing body who have not been elected by the student body. As Minister, I certainly would not approve any procedure which did not provide for an election for student members to the governing body. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I did accept these amendments proposed in the Seanad to ensure that it is three student union representatives who are appointed to governing bodies. These appointments will still be governed by the regulations made by the governing body. There will be 19 members on the governing bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology.
In addition, we made a lot of amendments in this House around the Irish language, which was important. We had a good bipartisan approach and Deputy Ó Snodaigh did a lot of work on that, which I acknowledge. We had good engagement between myself and Deputy Ó Cathasaigh around the whole issue of climate, environmental sustainability and transparency in regard to how this legislation will relate. In the Seanad, it made sense to further strengthen the student union voice. When this Bill was published, we were talking about having two student union representatives and we have increased that to three. We are now clarifying that they are absolutely student union representatives and I will formally move the three amendments in that regard.
I commend the Bill to the House in its entirety. It will have a real, lasting and positive impact on some of our most important educational institutions. I want to have a final word on the legislation in the context of academic autonomy. Our researchers, academics and intellectuals are key drivers of sustainable progress, equality and our country's future prosperity. It is important to put on the record of this House that academic freedom of higher education institutions and staff continues to be explicitly enshrined in Irish law and legislation. This is a co-regulation model. It is only correct that the taxpayer has confidence that public funds which go into our institutions are managed appropriately. Anything less would be falling short of our responsibilities. The overall aim of this legislation is to provide a high-quality, student focused system with appropriate oversight and accountability to underpin public confidence.
As a last word, I thank the officials who have worked so hard on the legislation. I thank Tanya Kenny, Ide Mulcahy and Stuart Morris, who join me here today, and Keith Moynes in the Department. They have worked on this legislation for a very long period of time. I thank everyone who engaged with this legislation, in particular the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, the student unions, including the Union of Students in Ireland, all of the various universities, the chairs of governing authorities, the presidents and the Government and Opposition Deputies, in particular Deputy Conway-Walsh. We have a fine piece of legislation that will modernise the structure. I thank everyone for engaging on it.
I thank the Minister. I would like to speak to amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive. I commend the work of the Seanadóirí and the student unions on the work on these amendments and in getting them accepted. It is important there is no ambiguity in regard to the fact it should be student union representatives on the governing board or authority of every higher education institution. I particularly want to thank the student unions for all of the work they have done throughout this Bill with, as the Minister said, the IUA, THEA and many others. There has been a huge effort to try to get this legislation as right as possible, recognising that we did not get our own way on everything, but we got some of it. There was a collective approach to it.
Of course, it is only when the legislation starts to be implemented that we will see if there are any unintended consequences. It is a shame that the trade union representative has not been given a place on the governing authority in the same manner, although I recognise that some progress on including trade union representation in the Bill has been made. We see the need all of the time to have student voices central to the management of colleges. Right now, in Maynooth, we have seen the construction of a student centre fall through due to what I am sure is genuine construction cost inflation.
Vital to resolving the issue is ensuring that students have decision-making power over the full amount of funding. Thankfully, Maynooth University has confirmed that no funding from the student levy will go towards any development cost in the abandoned project, but we need to ensure that trust and partnership are at the heart of the relationship between students and the institutes. When trust breaks down, restoring it can be difficult. These amendments strengthen that relationship and codify the role of students and students' unions.
When the Minister first introduced the Bill in the Dáil, I stated that governance was not the main issue facing the sector and that legislative reform would be of limited value unless it was accommodated by a sustainable funding model. The past ten years have seen piecemeal privatisation and deep commercialisation of public third level education. As a result of what the IUA labelled State divestment from third level education, the ethos and focus of these centres of education and research have been shifted towards commercial considerations and large amounts of time and energy are being spent on operating on a commercial basis, energy that would be better spent on developing education and research. When the Minister released the future funding document this summer, there seemed to be hope that we would see progress, and rightly so. The €307 million funding gap was identified and the Minister committed to addressing it over three years. I will take this opportunity to ask the Minister to commit to the funding that is needed to fill the gap so that we are not falling further behind in higher education.
This Bill will go some way towards preparing us for the present and the future. I commend everyone involved, including Ms Tanya Kenny and others among the Minister's staff. I hope that it brings about the structures and governance that are needed if we are to fund the sector properly so that we can secure third level education as a public good.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill during its last lap through the Houses. It is once-in-a-generation legislation, as evidenced by the fact that the legislation it is replacing is some 50 years old. When one thinks of the sea change that has happened in third level provision since 1972, imagining ourselves 50 years into the future is difficult.
These amendments are in keeping with how the Bill has been approached during its journey through the Houses. There has been good cross-party engagement. There has also been good engagement from the education committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Kehoe. We have worked collaboratively across the House. Sinn Féin has been constructive in its input, as has the Labour Party. I shared some amendments with Deputy Ó Ríordáin because they were similar in nature. This process has been an example of good practice in terms of how legislation can be built across the various stages through constructive input.
Here we have what are small but impactful amendments. They clarify the Bill's provisions and remove any doubt, and they put the voice of students front and centre in the governing authorities. The amendments show that the likes of students' unions have a role in influencing legislation, in that they can speak to their legislators, who then bring their concerns to the fore during the legislative process, with those concerns making it into the final piece of work. That is important and much to the good. We saw this happening throughout the legislation's passage. The Minister referenced how the Irish language community had an opportunity to influence the Bill. Important and impactful amendments were made in order to legislate for the Irish language within this Bill. Similarly, I tabled amendments on the sustainable development principles and they were incorporated into the Bill. I would have liked to have seen our climate obligations and the Paris Agreement explicitly mentioned in the Bill but, as Deputy Conway-Walsh said, we do not always get everything for which we ask.
The Minister mentioned that public funds needed to be managed appropriately. During the Bill's passage, I referred to how there were not only public funds within our third level sector, but also private funds. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about privatisation and commercialisation in the sector. That is certainly the case. Along with public moneys, we have an obligation to ensure increased transparency of the private moneys that are being put to work in our third level institutions, including the issue of where they come from. There will be other opportunities to approach this question. Recently, I spoke on Second Stage of the Screening of Third Country Transactions Bill 2022. The charities regulation Bill also has facets to do with third level education and is at pre-legislative scrutiny stage. In light of these Bills, there may be other ways to approach this issue.
These amendments are a good example of the process in general. Since this is once-in-a-generation legislation, there was a good cross-party approach to it and constructive engagement with stakeholders throughout the sector, be that students' unions, the IUA or Conradh na Gaeilge. I could name many others. By engaging in this process in the way we have, we now have stronger legislation.
I wish to comment on the work done by every one in the Department. A Trojan amount of work was put into this significant legislation. I am glad of this opportunity to speak as the Bill makes its final lap through the Houses.
There is enough argy-bargy, ruaille buaille and points of disagreement in the House from time to time, so it is nice to be here - let us keep this between ourselves - when we are all getting along well on this legislation. It has been a good example of teasing through legislation, working across party lines and trying to arrive at the best outcome. As the Deputies mentioned, there will be some points that we would all put greater emphasise on and some that we would put less emphasis on, but the broad thrust of what we are trying to do is to overhaul outdated legislation that comes from a different time, a different Ireland and a different higher education system.
Implementation was mentioned. I am pleased it was because, although there has been much debate on this legislation, and rightly so, its enabling provisions are in many ways the key to its success. Section 143, which we discussed a great deal during the legislation's passage, allows for codes, guidelines and practices to be developed and co-designed with the sector. This provision will be exciting for the sector. Regarding many issues that the House has discussed, for example, climate, all-island co-operation and taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, there are now opportunities to work collaboratively across the sector with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to develop codes and guidelines to modernise our sector and ensure that it delivers for society and the economy.
I agree on the question of funding. Our budget and Sinn Féin's budget submission allocated similar amounts. Obviously, this was a cost-of-living budget and we all had a responsibility to ensure that, aside from increasing core funding, people could keep warm this winter and we could reduce the cost of education for families and students. We took some measures - significant measures, I would argue - in that respect.
I thank the Oireachtas education committee. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh rightly acknowledged it. He and Deputy Conway-Walsh are both members of it. I thank the Chair of the committee, Deputy Kehoe, and its clerk for the many hours that they gave us. I also acknowledge Conradh na Gaeilge for the constructive and effective way in which it engaged with this legislation. Speaking as a Minister, it was a good example of how an organisation could lobby, make representations and effectively change legislation in a constructive sense. I thank Conradh na Gaeilge.
I appreciate that the Deputies acknowledged and thanked the officials in my Department, who have done Trojan work. They have rightly made themselves accessible to all Members of the Houses. I want to put on the record that we have been fortunate to have such a dedicated team of public servants working on this Bill. I thank Ms Tanya Kenny, Ms Íde Mulcahy, Mr. Stuart Morris and Mr. Keith Moynes in the Department for all of their work on the legislation.
I commend the Bill to the House.