Tuesday, 7 October 2014
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I wish to raise the proposed technological universities legislation and specifically the current timeframe for its enactment, which is a cause of concern for some people. I should declare a certain interest in that I hold a lecturing post in the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown, albeit on a part-time basis these days.
When the Minister's predecessor published the general scheme of the technological universities Bill back in January he announced that suitable legislation should be ready by December this year to allow for the legal merging of institutes of technology, so that they could then seek designation as technical universities. This forecast appears to be over-optimistic, however, because according to sources in the Department of Education and Skills, following an inquiry by ourselves, the technological universities Bill is now only at drafting stage and is set to be published early next year. According to the current schedule, the Bill will not be enacted until mid to late 2015 at the earliest, as sources in the Department have indicated in any event.
This vague estimate is worrying, especially given the nature of the Bill in question, which requires it to be enacted in time for the start of the new academic year in 2015. Failure to meet this deadline would have significant consequences for each of the three institutes of technology concerned: the Dublin Institute of Technology; the Institute of Technology, Tallaght; and the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown. In addition, the institutes of technology in Cork, Tralee, Waterford and Carlow would be unable to merge in time for the start of term.
The aim of the TU4Dublin project, which incorporates ITB, ITT and DIT, is that the institutes in question would legally merge on 1 September 2015. It is vital that this date be adhered to in order to avoid problems both for students and the institutes. The absence of such legislation would only serve to foster uncertainty over which college students are admitted to, which programmes they will be enlisted for and, critically, from which college they will receive awards.
Students who are expecting to receive a technological university award may not be in a position to do so, which means the Government will be letting them down. Such tardiness on the Government's part would make students' transition into third-level education even more testing than it already is. The notion that this pressing legislation might arrive too late is therefore disconcerting. Such a regrettable situation would similarly be problematic for the colleges, especially from a financial perspective as their would be two sets of end-of-year accounts for each college. Similar issues would affect the other bidding parties, of course.
The current state of affairs is that the application made by DIT, ITT and ITB has been presented to an international review panel along with that of Cork IT and Tralee IT. A decision is due around November on the state of their bids. Meanwhile, a progress report on these applications for university status came before the Higher Education Authority last week. Unfortunately, these processes will be of little relevance if the affected institutes are unable to act on a positive appraisal of their bids due to a lack of legislation which would prevent them from merging.
Ultimately, any delay could set back the entire project by a year. This would be unfair on thousands of students who deserve better than to be unduly stressed about the future of their college education because of Government inefficiency, should that situation arise. These consequences are absolutely avoidable if the Government proves its commitment to meeting targets to reform higher education by ensuring that this Bill is enacted without delay. A commencement order should be signed by the Minister allowing the legal merging of the Dublin institutes in time for the next academic year. I would be grateful if she could give the House the necessary assurance in this regard.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue which has a high priority for me. I am very much aware of the timeframes outlined by him.
As the House is aware, the higher education reform programme that was given initial impetus by the national strategy for higher education to 2030 is being rolled out. The implementation process relating to the evolutionary pathway laid out in the national strategy for institutes of technology is well under way. The document entitled, Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, published by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, in February 2012 laid out a clear four stage process and criteria for institutes of technology that wished to apply for designation as a technological university. This is to ensure a high quality and performance bar is reached by groups of institutes that intend to apply for this new status. Three consortiums are engaged in the process. As the Senator outlined, two of them submitted detailed plans for a merger to the HEA in the summer that are being considered by an independent expert panel, while the third consortium is in the process of developing its plan. I do not propose to comment specifically on any of these proposals.
The general scheme of a technological universities Bill was published in January this year and went through pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection. The Bill sets out the legislative framework for mergers and the establishment of technological universities. It also provides for modernised governance structures for institutes of technology. It is being drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and I intend to publish it early in 2015 and have it enacted during 2015 in sufficient time to facilitate the first envisaged mergers. That is the timeframe to which we intend to adhere.