Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Institutes of Technology

10:30 am

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Labour)
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I felt compelled to raise this very serious issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, given the circumstances I will address in my contribution. It is fair to say that Dundalk Institute of Technology is at a very serious crossroads. The road it takes over the next few weeks and months will determine its prospects and those of the north east for generations to come. In recent weeks, the Minister of State has been quoted as saying that the technological university status reforms, which were commenced by my own party in government, represented "the single most important development in the higher education landscape of recent years and a very significant element of the national research agenda". She went on to state that technological universities will be pivotal in delivering national strategic priorities, including widening access to higher education and increasing regional development and socioeconomic progress. I could not have put it any better but, bizarrely, the leadership and the governing authority of Dundalk Institute of Technology, the third-level institution in my own locality, has yet to make an application or even lay the groundwork through the establishment of a consortium to seek technological university status. More worryingly, it appears that it has no intention of doing so. It looks like it wants to go it alone. It now stands isolated as other institutes of technology have fully embraced the concept of technological university status drawing down millions of euro in dedicated funding to make technological university status happen.

I am extremely ambitious for my own county of Louth and my own region, as are the staff of Dundalk Institute of Technology. This is why Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, members in the institute have voted to stand up and be counted by taking strike action next Tuesday. They are confounded by the dog-in-the-manger and autocratic attitude of the college leadership that has seen technological university status effectively binned against the express wishes of staff. My information is that any prospect of technological university status remaining live has, in essence, been buried as part of the institute's strategic plan review process. Indeed debate has been suppressed in the institute where the question of technological university status has been removed from the agenda of the academic council. That is my understanding. This is an extraordinary intervention at the highest level of the institute and a breach of the academic council's constitution.

It has been speculated that some other alternative is being considered - a poorer alternative to technological university status that has no legislative anchoring or support. Staff want what is best for Dundalk Institute of Technology and that is technological university status. The Minister of State will be told, and I am sure it may appear in her briefing notes, that consultation continues when no meaningful engagement has taken place between TUI members and college authorities regarding technological university status. Real consultation has not taken place either around the proposed development of what is known as a fifth school at the campus. Instead, and true to form, in the college authorities' consideration of the prospect of a fifth school at the college, the public service stability agreement and all industrial relations norms have been set aside because it appears that the ambition of the college authorities is to develop a new school on campus founded on the basis of casual contracts for academic staff, which will inevitably herald a race to the bottom in terms of employment standards and quality assurance.

A total of 99.1% of TUI members at the institute who were balloted for industrial action voted to strike. This illustrates the depth of anger and frustration among academic staff. My view is that staff across the entire institute feel the same. The atmosphere is toxic and poisonous. Staff who want to see the institute meet its potential must be backed. This is a fight for the future of not just Dundalk Institute of Technology but the prospects of my region. The reset button must be pressed. I would be interested in hearing the Minister of State's views on where the institute must go from here. I want to hear her back the TUI members' staff initiative and to back their ambition for the institute to make sure we can deliver technological university status for a very valued institution in our region.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know he has a particular interest in this issue but I do see that we are joined by a school and students. As Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, the epicentre of everything I do is ensuring that students and young students coming through our education system get the very best. I have said on numerous occasions in the Dáil, Seanad and institutes of technology, wherever I am, that we should all make students the epicentre of what we do. Many of us must forget vested interests.

My Department was informed by the TUI this week that members of that union employed by Dundalk Institute of Technology will be engaging in strike action on Tuesday, 19 November 2019, following a ballot of members. I was very sad to hear Senator Nash say that there is such a toxic atmosphere in the institute. I urge all those involved to go back to basics and think about where the students are and what is best. I have said that technological universities have a pivotal role in third-level pathways to education for our students. I recently announced €90 million will be ring fenced. I had not seen much publicity given to it - probably until the Senator mentioned it in the Seanad. This funding will be for the development of technological universities over the next three years.

In its letter to the Department, the TUI outlined its reasons for taking action, including allegations that institute management has failed to adhere to national collective agreements and to respect industrial relations mechanisms and fora.The union also cited a proposal to create a new fifth school in the institute as a reason for the action and expressed concern in relation to the future strategic direction of Dundalk Institute of Technology.

The dispute appears at this stage to relate to internal matters within the institute and as such, local discussion between the union and institute management will be needed. No dispute is resolved without the parties involved sitting around the table to discuss the issues between them. I urge the parties here to engage in that dialogue in an effort to avoid the proposed strike action that would inevitably result in disruption to the students, and to resolve the issues in dispute. Officials in my Department have been in contact with the human resources management in the institute and are monitoring the situation.

The strategic direction of Irish higher education institutes is a matter for each higher education institute, HEI, as an autonomous institution. Government policy, as set out in the programme for Government, is to support the creation of technological universities as HEIs of sufficient size, capacity and critical mass to have a significant impact for students at regional, national and international level. Technological universities will have greater links to industry and will have a major impact on the capacity to create and retain jobs in regions. They will assist significantly in achieving national strategic objectives as set out under Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan and Future Jobs Ireland. The Government will continue to prioritise those institutions that have clear ambitions and plans for the furthering of industry-relevant technological research and education.

In addition to the provision of the enabling legislation in the Technological Universities Act 2018, whereby two or more institutes of technology may choose to come together to seek technological university status, such consortia of institutes of technology will continue to be supported in terms of significant Exchequer funding. To date more than €30 million has been provided to technological university development consortia in the State and to Technological University Dublin, which was established on 1 January 2019. I also wish to inform Senator Nash that I am a Minister of State who has really pushed this agenda. Yes, the Technological University Dublin is up and running but I wanted to hear from other consortia also to ensure they embrace the technological university pathway. I am glad to hear the Senator speak of the importance of technological universities, but I stress that each institution is autonomous with its own governing body. I understand there is a process strategy currently and that the governing body representatives, led by Professor John Bristow, have been working on this for the past six months and their report is nearly ready. Perhaps we need to see that report before we have strike action.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Labour)
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With respect, that is what the Minister of State has been briefed on but the reality on the ground is something different. We are not talking about a bunch of revolutionary firebrands who are putting themselves first and trying to take industrial action to simply appeal for better terms and conditions and so on. This is a bigger issue than Dundalk Institute of Technology itself. This is about the socio-economic development of Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan and the entire north east into the future. It goes beyond even the immediate interests of staff and current students in Dundalk Institute of Technology. The Minister of State set out in very clear detail the benefits that will accrue to institutes of technology that develop consortia to engage in the TU process. They are very clear, and it is a very persuasive argument. It seems, however, that the management at Dundalk Institute of Technology cannot be persuaded to go down this route. For the life of me I cannot understand why it is not the case. There has been no meaningful engagement or consultation whatsoever. Issues have been presented to the TUI and to other staff representative bodies in the college as a fait accompli. It is not good enough. Diktats have been issued at the highest level and staff, who should be treated as partners in a collaborative process, are being left in the dark and outside of the door. This has contributed to an escalation of tension in the college at a time when the college authorities and trade union members should be working together to further the interests of the institute's entire community and the interests of the wider region.

The Minister of State will be aware that the Border area has suffered from relatively poor levels of third level access and engagement. The best way to address this is to ensure we have the best possible institution going forward, based on best practice, and that this is done in a collaborative way with staff, who have seen little evidence of this to date. Therefore, staff have felt they had no alternative but to take industrial action to withdraw their services and their labour on Tuesday. I would like to hear from the Minister of State that there is time for the reset button to be pressed. I would like the Minister of State to prevail on the college authorities to ensure they pursue TU status for Dundalk Institute of Technology in collaboration with staff.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I wish to be very clear that any institute of technology can decide to seek to join an existing consortium if all parties agree. That reset button is there from the Department of Education and Skills. We would welcome any positive moves from any institutes of technology. Senator Nash is referring to Dundalk Institute of Technology in particular but I would say to the other consortia to please hurry up the process. It is going on far too long. I really want people to engage in the process for the sake of the students. Any of the consortia, including Dundalk Institute of Technology, can decide to join an existing consortium or form a new consortium of their own if sufficient partners can be found.

I will outline what Dundalk Institute of Technology has been doing. The institute had at one point considered joining the Connacht-Ulster alliance, the CUA consortium, which comprised GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT. The Department supported two separate studies that examined Dundalk Institute of Technology, Limerick IT and Athlone IT potentially also joining the CUA. These studies were the Economic Impact of a Technological University in Ireland - An exploratory study by Viewforth Consulting Limited and The Development of the Technological University TU5: International perspectives and options, by Professor John L. Davies. In the final analysis none of these institutes of technology, including Dundalk Institute of Technology, joined the CUA consortium. Athlone and Letterkenny institutes signalled earlier this year that they would form a consortium of their own, a decision that has subsequently been formalised by the governing bodies of both higher institutes. The consortium received €2 million in 2018 in higher education landscape restructuring funding to advance these proposals. Our door in the Department is open. One will not find another Minister more anxious to get the technological universities up and running. As I said earlier, we will help in that process. Again, I ask that they please get around the table to work it out. We are waiting to help them down the line.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.