Tuesday, 12 July 2022
Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: Report Stage (Resumed)
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 14, after line 39, to insert the following:“Report following Citizen’s Assembly on Education. The Minister shall, following the conclusion of the Citizen’s Assembly on Education, prepare and a lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas outlining how they plan to implement or reflect the recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly in respect of higher education with regard to amendments to the provisions of this Act and policy relating to higher education in the State more broadly.”.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, back to the Chamber. I am standing in to speak for my colleague Senator Warfield.
The principle behind amendment No. 10 is the most important point that we would like to see reflected in the Bill. Nowhere in the Bill makes any reference to the public nature of our higher education system. The value of having a public education system cannot be overstated. The public nature should also not be taken for granted. We have seen the wholesale commercialisation of higher education over the past ten years, and in some cases piecemeal privatisation. Most people would be shocked to know that more than one third of the primary school teachers we now train come from a single, for-profit, private college, that the same college is moving into nursing this year, or that we provide millions of euro in funding to private colleges through competitive funding. This amendment represents a chance to draw a line in the sand. The very limited reference to the public sector In the general scheme of the Bill, was taken out.
In his briefing note on the Bill, the Minister highlighted the Bill's role in providing a pathway for private colleges to become designated institutes of higher education, which we discussed at a previous meeting. This is also included in the Long Title as one of the key aims of the Bill. I understand that nothing in this Bill specifically states that designated institutes of higher education would be entitled to public funding, and having met with the Minister's Department to discuss this they assured me that this was not the intention. The Bill, however, is full of references to the HEA's role in supporting designated institutes of higher education to deliver on X, Y, and Z. This creates a huge amount of grey area. Once private colleges become designated institutes of higher education they will want State funding. They already get some €20 million per year in public funding. Their case will only be made stronger by this Bill as it currently stands. This is why we really want to see that public nature of our higher education system referenced and protected by this Bill, in order to remove that ambiguity and replace a strong emphasis on the importance of maintaining a public higher education system.
I will also speak to amendment No. 20, which is in this grouping. The reason behind amendment No. 20 is that precarious employment has been allowed to spread throughout our higher education system. Unfortunately, I am aware it is a factor in local universities and in Limerick. There needs to be a specific reference that the HEA governance of the sector must relate to the working conditions of all workers in the sector. According to the OECD, Ireland's student staff ratio is at 23.4:1. This is far out of line with the OECD average of 15:1. This can only be addressed by a new sustainable funding model. In an effort to address the need to have student-facing staff, colleges have engaged occasional or hourly-paid lecturers. These employees are not technically lecturers, as lecturing staff are defined those contracted to undertake a range of academic duties encompassing teaching, research contribution, and scholarly activity. Across higher education, different job titles or terms are used to describe those engaged in this manner, including: part-time teaching assistants; part-time assistant lecturers; and occasional lecturers and so on. Those engaged in this manner are usually on short fixed-term contracts, which only pay for their teaching. In effect, we are talking about the extension of the gig economy to third level education. It is not something that Sinn Féin would ever tolerate. There is no opportunity for these people to engage in research work. Being research active is core to the role of a lecturer in the higher education sector. Trade unions have recently informed the committee that some institutes of higher education have failed to afford the terms of the public sector agreement to those engaged in this manner. The precarious nature of their engagement is further compounded by the fact that there is no sectoral engagement on industrial relations matters across the university sector. None of this will be new to the Minister and I hope that he will accept the amendment or at least the principle that the HEA should have a role in this area.
I shall now speak to amendment No. 24, which is also included in this grouping. Amendment No. 24 seeks to restore the existing area of section 4 of the 1971 Act, which explicitly charged the HEA with constantly bearing in mind the attainment of the national aims regarding Irish. It rewords this as an objective with specific reference to promoting Irish-medium higher education.The Bill as it currently stands removes this national aim from legislation. The Minister's amendments have not resolved this backwards step. I ask him to take these amendments on board.
I was a contract researcher working on the Horizon 2020 programme. An incredible thing about Ireland and our third level system is the amount of funding we have been able to draw down due to the excellence of our principal investigators, PIs, and researchers. They draw awards from the Exchequer, through Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Teagasc and all our national funding agencies. They also draw down funding at an international level because our researchers are competing at that international level. We are now able to ensure that we offer more PhD and post-doctoral posts. We are training more people at third level. This is possible because of the excellence and ability to draw down funding, including from Horizon Europe, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, NIH. We have researchers who are winning that funding in their own right. That funding is available for three or four years. When this funding is garnered through an institution, one can then take on researchers, post-doctoral staff, PhD and masters students. They are able to gain experience through an institution. We need to ensure with this Higher Education Authority Bill that researchers working on these awards have their full rights when working in an institution. It is incredible to see the increase in the number of researchers. We need to ensure that contract researchers in higher education institutes and universities have full rights.
I am concerned about some remarks that Senator Gavan made concerning private institutions. Ireland is unusual in that about 95% of students attend publicly-funded or public institutions, which is different to most other countries. We have one of the highest third level education participation rates in the world, with about 62% of 18-to-20-year age cohort attending. As for the money Senator Gavan pointed out as going to private institutions, it includes funding for institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which funds students attending courses. Private colleges such as Hibernia fulfil a specific need for people who want to take up those courses. While we are not talking about public funding going to Hibernia, I think we need to look at extending student grants to support students.
I thank Senators for their forbearance. We are resuming Report and Final Stages of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022. We were discussing amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive; and Nos. 14 to 27, inclusive. Senator Malcolm Byrne was in possession.
My concern relates to the fact that we have a small number of private higher education providers that meet a need within the State. I am a big supporter of the public education system. Senator Gavan seems to suggest that these providers are somehow damaging our education system. They are not; they are supplementing it. The SUSI grant scheme should be extended to those other institutions. Some of them, such as the Royal College of Surgeons and the National College of Ireland, are what you might call halfway-house institutions. The Minister will be aware of the various issues we discussed around designation in this regard. While asserting the public nature of our system, at the same time, we must recognise the importance of the role of a number of the private providers. Those private providers are still subject to the same requirements that Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, set out with regard to the quality of the qualifications that need to be provided.
I accept that amendment No. 15, which was tabled the Independent Senators, relates to the transparent use of public money. This reinforces what the legislation is about. The Bill legislation is about accountability regarding the use of public money. What is proposed is simply changing some of the wording but it is a very clear acknowledgement of what the legislation is about. It is not about academic autonomy; it is very much about the questions of financial accountability.
I have a number of amendments in this grouping. As I understand it, the amendment put forward by Senator Gavan is not about discouraging other areas. It seems to be about promoting, protecting and enhancing the public aspect, which is an important aspect. Again, it is a positively framed amendment in that regard.
All of my amendments relate to the objects and functions of an túdarás. This is really important because it sets the agenda that will transform. We will come to some of the details on the functions later. These amendments seek to influence the setting of the tone.
Regarding amendments Nos. 11 and 12, the current high-level aim of the HEA is outlined as leading the strategic development of the Irish higher education and research system with the object of creating a coherent system of diverse institutions with distinct missions that is responsive to the social, cultural and economic development of Ireland and its people and supports the achievement of national objectives. I am concerned that in the new set of objects, the idea of a coherent system of diverse institutions with distinct missions is not there in the same way. We will come to some of the amendments in respect of diversity within institutions, staff and students and how it works but the institutions themselves have very diverse roles. The National College of Art and Design and NUI Galway are very different. This is not just about the question of autonomy but the fact that there is a value in having diverse institutions with distinct missions and the fact that when it comes to many areas of policy, one size does always not fit all and different things are brought by different institutions. Something that may be missing compared with the current aims of the HEA is that acknowledgement of the value in diversity not just within but between institutions and the fact that they may have very distinct missions. This should be celebrated, promoted and stated at the highest level. We have equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion in higher education. That is internal but there is a value in how the idea that institutions have distinct missions and being diverse is framed within the HEA currently and it should be carried through into the objects of an túdarás.
Amendment No. 14 relates to the language in the Bill. It is currently specified that one of the objectives of an túdarás is to support designated institutions in contributing to social, economic, cultural and environmental development and sustainability through leadership, innovation and agility. On one level, you could say there is a potential overlap between innovation and agility. I have a concern in that agility is a very undefined term. In respect of some other concepts that sound good and for which we fought for years, for example, flexibility in the workplace, I would have understood this from a work-life balance perspective when I was working with the National Women's Council of Ireland and others. However, this became quite different in the understanding of employers when they were promoting non-fixed hours contracts. Similarly, the term "agility" is ambiguous. Innovation is already supported. We should think of public as well as private innovation because public research plays a key role in innovation. Innovation is important but having agility in there seems to be underscoring and emphasising. It matches a concern I will discuss later when we come to the question of the functions of an túdarás. There is a bit of duplication. When you put similes alongside each other, you feel something is getting an extra push compared to other things. Innovation and agility are alongside each other. When we come to section 9(1)(f) on the functions of the HEA, we see a reference to meeting the educational and skills needs of individuals, business, enterprise and the professions. Again, business and enterprise are being framed differently and placed in front of the professions. There is a concern that it could lead to a greater weighting in terms of a certain approach. We do not want the long-term transformative work of our universities in front-line research and intellectual exploration that lay the foundations for the future to be subsumed in terms of the needs of enterprise or the skills the market is telling us it needs in the next two, three or five years.That is why I am a little concerned about the use of the word "agility" and replaced it with the word "excellence". The word "excellence" is mentioned elsewhere in the functions and is a better word than "agility" here. Also, I wish to note that the word "excellence" is referenced for research but not teaching.
On amendments Nos. 15 and 16, students' unions and other representative groups have highlighted and expressed concerns about the term "value for money" as it is used throughout the legislation. The term is outdated because the general focus in public spending is now on effectiveness, efficiency and impact. Even within procurement, we work in the wider frame of the most economically advantageous tender whereas a value-for money frame can often be quite a narrow remit. Sometimes the ways that value for money tend to be measured can be extremely narrow and can lean towards a short-term frame of thinking rather than a long-term frame of thinking for outcomes, results, impacts and effects of educational spending, which will not always come through in respect of a short-term balance sheet but have very significant impacts on society. The investment is education but the benefits and returns accrued do not always come through with a very narrow value-for-money frame. In that regard, I have sought to replace it with an obligation to: "ensure that designated higher education institutions are transparent in their use of public money and that such monies are used in a sustainable and ethical manner". Sustainability and ethics are crucial in terms of moneys. Let us consider the basic principles such as the important campaigns for divestment in higher education institutions. If value for money is the primary frame then initiatives such as divestment become more difficult. The language I have used in amendment No. 15 is a much clearer obligation and refers to sustainability and ethics. The EU due diligence directive is coming but is not strong enough. The global direction of travel must be towards a joined-up analysis of how money is spent.
I have used the word "sustainable" in a separate way, rather than referencing, and I will not repeat the concerns expressed by my colleague. I am extremely concerned about this matter so if there is a re-evaluation of matters in this legislation then I urge the insertion of an up-to-date and appropriate definition of environmental development and sustainability rather than going back to something from 1987, which is before the Rio Earth Summit took place in 1992, in terms of environmental development and sustainability. Crucially, at present we are leaving out and not using the available definition of "sustainable" from the UN sustainable development goals that Ireland negotiated. Ireland, along with Kenya, led the negotiation of what sustainability should look like globally and persuaded hundreds of other countries to sign up to that. So obviously we should use that definition. If we are able and confident enough to ask all the countries of the world to sign up then that we should be willing to use the definition ourselves when we talk about sustainability. That is an important matter and not an academic one. The definition in the Bill, which I am sure has already been discussed, only talks about the present moment and the future yet does not look to things like historical responsibilities, In that regard, it is out of step with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, and the recognition of respective responsibilities, capacities and capabilities. That is why I have framed "sustainable" in a different way here and think that it needs to be underscored within the legislation separate from the definition that was provided in the definitions section. I hope that we can change the definition even at this late stage.
I believe I have discussed the matter addressed in amendment No. 16. On amendment No. 17, the Minister highlighted the issues. He has indicated that he is willing to engage on these issues that concern amendments Nos. 17 and 18.
Section 8(1)(d) provides for the authority "to advance equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion in higher education". Equality is wider than just equality of opportunity, which the Minister has acknowledged. As section 8 lists the top-tier objects of an t-údarás, it is really important that equality is at its centre, and equality in the widest sense, because that will have a cascade effect later in the Bill. Amendment No. 17 seeks the deletion of the caveat "of opportunity" so we have equality in its widest sense, including equality of outcome.
Similarly, amendment No. 18 seeks to insert "equity" after "equality" as equity does different work from equality. The acceptance of the amendment would be a constructive move forward, would be consistent with some parts of the Bill that try to give practical effect to equality measures and would set a better frame for equality measures later in the Bill.
Amendment No. 19 seeks to provide for the value of participation within higher education, which is important. These amendments deal with equality, diversity, participation and inclusion.
One thing in which an t-údarás has a role, as have all universities, is both inclusion for those who are there and ensuring wider participation in universities. I make that point in the knowledge that the overall purpose of the Bill is to widen and deepen participation. I attended the Traveller Pride Awards ceremony earlier today and presented an award to Jason Sherlock of the Mincéirs Whiden Society of the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG. The society does really important work. Such societies, in working with the college on, for example, the Universities of Sanctuary initiative, have both worked to create inclusion within the university community and have driven and actively promoted wider participation in universities, and have reached out in that way. Therefore, it would be appropriate to insert this provision in section 8(1)(d) as it refers to the objects of an t-údarás.
Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are fundamentally important. I am sure that other Senators have spoken about academic freedom.
The issue has been discussed and debated. I am sure that it will continue to be discussed and debated further.
Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 refer to academic freedom for both staff and students in the objects of an t-údarás. Amendment No. 21 seeks to insert "and protect" after the word "respect. This section is the appropriate place to include this because academic freedom is set at a high level in terms of functions, which can have the appropriate effect elsewhere. There have been and will be debates on it going in and from my perspective, we will come to that. The equality statement performs a specific function but it is important to recognise that both staff and students, I have in mind some PhD. students, do really important, transformative and challenging work. For example, human rights work is being done in different institutions such as the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUIG, as well as work being done on front-line human rights defenders in Trinity College, Dublin, and elsewhere.
In the section on functions.I am just clarifying that it is an important issue. This seems to be the place where it might sit. Sorry, it is in the objects and functions. I thank the Senator for his clarifying question. The objects being the high tier. I suppose we will get into the detail on functions later. It is about making sure that things have a cascading effect throughout the legislation.
Amendment No. 25 is important. I arrived when the debate was under way. It seems this issue has already been the subject of some discussion. It relates to the importance of public research for the public good, which addresses social and environmental needs. This is not to the detriment of any individual institution. There are important and diverse institutions in the State that are doing important work. However, we need to be honest that there has been a worrying trend and emphasis, and occasionally a reliance, on private sector investment and partnerships in the third level sector. This is the result of prolonged underfunding of the higher education. While they have an important role to play, we must place an emphasis on investing in public research for the public good. Regrettably, this has not been the case. Talented postgraduates in science, arts and humanities often have to leave Ireland to continue their research overseas or give up their research ambitions due to the lack of funding. There are research topics which are important and may be the basis of key theoretical work that provides transformation in the long run may not be commercially profitable or have an immediately deliverable outcome. These can be left aside although they may be crucial in addressing the social and environmental challenges and needs faced by society.
I emphasise this because there is a lacuna. I hate to have to put it that way. In amendment No. 26, I have specifically named the issue of public-public partnerships for research between designated higher education institutions and public bodies, both in Ireland and internationally. With the assistance of Deputies, because, of course, Senators cannot do so directly, I have put forward a number of parliamentary questions on public-public research. I hate to say that the first two question came back with a response as to whether I meant public-private research. The assumption had been that I had made an error and accidentally wrote the word "public" twice. That answer came back a second time. It was only in the context of a third, very lengthy and specific parliamentary question that I got any information in respect of the public-public research that is or might be happening. I highlighted this to the Minister's predecessor, former Minister of State Mary Mitchell O'Connor.
I am concerned that many universities have memorandums of understanding around how they will form partnerships with private companies. Some of the new scholarships and grants in science and technology are partnerships with business that the State subsidises. However, public-public research has been left in the second tier. I had the opportunity, as a member of the finance committee, to discuss this with the EU Commission this morning. When it comes to the challenges we face in areas such as climate change, the environment or Covid, we cannot rely on public-private partnerships. We saw with the failure to deliver the TRIPS waiver what happens when states channel all their public money into private partnerships rather than public research for the public good. On climate, many of the most important actions we take may not be profitable for anyone but may deliver the changes we need. They may cost everyone something but they may be what we need to survive on this very fragile planet which has had ten of the hottest years in 100,000 years over the past decade. It is in that context that I emphasise this. I urge the Minister to accept this amendment and that we might have a new approach on public-public research. Let it not be the poor relation in the research agenda in future.
The Minister is looking at a research agenda in the future so I am highlighting now that this is crucial. Public innovation has the potential to go to scale, transfer to other countries and to have technology transferred to developing countries more quickly. We can bring solutions to scale at a higher level, more quickly and share them with more of the world, if we track the sustainable development goals and other goals, if we do so on a public basis with public ownership.
Is amendment No. 27 in this group?
Amendment No. 27 seeks to specify that an object of an túdarás is "enable and assist research sharing and technology transfer between designated higher education institutions and public bodies". I have already made this point. It is in line with Article 4.1(g) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which specifies that all parties to the agreement, which includes Ireland, should:
Promote and cooperate in scientific, technological, technical, socio-economic and other research, systematic observation and development of data archives related to the climate system and intended to further the understanding and to reduce or eliminate the remaining uncertainties regarding the causes, effects, magnitude and timing of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies.
One of the European Union's greatest moral, humanitarian and diplomatic errors ever has been its failure to share technology around Covid-19 vaccines.
We need to say that if we put billions of public money into research, it must involve a public return. We cannot let patents and bottlenecks and the maximisation of profit stand in the way of the sharing of technologies that could save lives across the world on climate. This is fundamental. I hope our institutions can lead in technology and in a new era of research for the global common good.
That was a lengthy list of amendments. I thank the Senators for taking me through the amendments. I will start on research while it is fresh in my mind. I have announced our intention to bring forward a research Bill close to January 2023. That will be a really important opportunity. It will be the first time that the State will introduce stand-alone legislation relating to research. There will be an opportunity in that legislation to explore public-public partnerships and some of the broad and legitimate issues Senator Higgins highlighted. I expect that the Bill will be before the Houses next year.
Amendment No. 10 is in the names of Senator Gavan and his colleagues. The Senator acknowledged that there is nothing in the Bill that in any way tries to undermine the public nature of the higher education system. He is asking why we do not explicitly state that we intend to protect and enhance its public nature. There are two answers to that. First, we must be very clear about the tapestry that forms higher education in Ireland. I am the Minister who has taken student loans off the table. This is a Government which very clearly believes that education is a public good. We want to invest more of public funds in our education system. It might not suit some narratives but we are very clear on the idea that education is a public good and that increased Exchequer investment and no student loans is the way to go, along with reducing student costs and charges. The next budget is our first chance to show form on that. However, we must also be truthful. I could point to representations from most Members of this House and of the Lower House asking why we are not providing funding for this not-for-profit college or for that private college that is responding to a particular need.In fact, I believe there are amendments coming up in legislation asking me to extend provision of student grants to private and, in some cases, to private-for-profit colleges. We are providing a pathway to designation. Senator Malcolm Byrne referred to the issue in respect of the National College of Ireland. This legislation allows colleges for the first time to put up their hand to say they wish to be designated. Designation does not correlate with funding but relates to quality and to protection for students. I wanted to be clear in respect of that. This legislation when passed mandates a strategy for tertiary education. This will be an opportunity to further flesh out those details.
I thank Senator Dolan for her contribution and for reflecting on her own experience as a researcher. Again, our research legislation will provide a chance to do some further exploration of that.
On amendments Nos. 11 and 12, I want to be very clear that diversity of our higher education system is one of its strengths. That is the balance we were trying to protect in this. We are recognising that there is a diversity and the policy intent of the Bill is very clearly to maintain diversity within and among higher education institutions. Section 35 of the Bill specifically refers to this because it mandates for the preparation of a performance framework for higher education and research. This section provides that the HEA shall, in preparing a performance framework, take account: "of the diversity of functions, objects and priorities of different higher education providers". The reference to "the diversity of functions" was specifically included in section 35, following engagement with the higher education sector. This sector itself asked us to move on this, to be truthful, and we have included diversity there for the reasons outlined by Senator Higgins and, as I said, at the request of the university and higher education sector. That section addresses the proposed intent of this amendment.
On amendment No. 14, which proposes the replacement of the word “agility” with “excellence”, we had engagement on this and I see the benefit of that engagement coming through in some of the comments because, as was said, we read the legislation and recognise the word “excellence” is used in the previous object and, therefore, we consider the issue of excellence to be addressed in the objects already. The word “agility”, and I accept the word "agility" and the lack of definition, was included in the object to emphasise the need for higher education institutions to be agile and responsive in contributing to social, economic, cultural, and environmental development and sustainability. We believe that having “excellence” in the previous object and “agility” in this section makes sense but we may agree to differ on that.
Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 propose to delete one of our objects and replace it with an alternative wording. It is important the current object is retained in order to ensure that the higher education institutions are accountable for their performance and use of the substantial Exchequer funding which they receive. There are, however, a number of provisions in the Bill which could be used to ensure that designated institutions of higher education spend Exchequer funding in an ethical and sustainable manner, including conditions of funding, data collection, reporting provisions, guidelines, codes and practices.
On amendment No. 17, Senator Higgins is correct in that we engaged on this on Committee Stage and I have considered it because the issue of equality versus equality of opportunity are two different things. There is no point in arguing to the contrary; it is a statement of fact. I have gone back and have spoken to the drafters and to our legal counsel on this. We are satisfied that we have specific reference to equality in the legislation. The Senator has acknowledged that and we have equality statements, which we have discussed. On equality of opportunity, there are two reasons that phrase should remain. First, we believe in this instance that it is a more targeted phrase because we are specifically talking about opportunity and equality of opportunity. This is not a political spectrum argument of equality versus equality of opportunity. We are trying to ensure that opportunity is to the fore here and that there is value in opportunity. Second, and as importantly, we cannot read the legislation in isolation. We are trying to mirror provisions within the sectoral legislation which travels with this. As the Senator will know, that phrase also appears in the Universities Act 1997 and Technological Universities Act 2018. There is always a risk for both myself and for Senators that when we read parts of legislation in isolation rather than with the sectoral legislation, we can perhaps miss what we are trying to achieve here.
On the words “equity” and “participation”, we believe the provision as drafted covers equity and participation. We are using the words “equality, diversity and inclusion”, EDI, because it has now become very established parlance and there is a very clear understanding right across the sector and among all of us about the EDI agenda and the work that needs to be done there. There is obviously a very strong emphasis in the Bill on equity and I believe the Senator would recognise that as well.
On the issue of participation, section 46 of the Bill provides that the HEA shall prepare a: “strategic action plan ... providing for equity of access ... and participation and the promotion of success in, higher education.” The Bill is not silent on equity or on participation, not that the Senator is suggesting it is.
On amendment No. 20, a very important issue is being raised here about working conditions, pay and, as Senator Gavan said, precarious employment. There is a real problem with precarious employment in the third level sector. The way to address that is through properly funding the sector and, in return for funding the sector, making sure the sector addresses both student and staff ratios and the issue of precarious employment. The Funding our Future implementation group, which we have established and which is chaired by myself, Professor Anne Looney and Professor Tom Collins, has specifically set about improving the ratios of staff to students and to reducing precarious employment as a key metric on which we will measure ourselves and the system’s success in return for the additional investment we expect to be able to begin to make after the next budget in September. From a somewhat legalistic point of view, we believe that this would be the wrong place to insert this provision, considering there is employment legislation, and the likes already in place. I share the view of the Senator in tackling precarious employment but I do not believe this is the right place to set it. I am, however, absolutely determined to tackle, and to work with the sector on, precarious employment.
We had a lengthy debate on academic freedom in this House and I presume we will have another one in a while. We had one in the other House too and it is quite right and proper that we do so, which I do not say in a flippant way. One of the most important foundation stones of a democracy is academic freedom. I certainly hope we all, across the political spectrum, value academic freedom, and I think this country we do value it. Academic freedom is provided for in section 14 of the Universities Act, in section 10 of the Technological Universities Act and in section 5A of the Institute of Technologies Acts 1992 to 2006. This Bill does not amend these provisions in respect of academic freedom, so they travel with it. I cannot stress that point enough. The absolute legislative provisions and the law in respect of academic freedom, which already exists in those three pieces of statutory legislation, come with us in respect of this Bill. Therefore, academic freedom is absolutely protected. This amendment with regard to protecting academic freedom is, therefore, deemed to be already addressed in the Bill. As I said, it is important the HEA Bill is read in conjunction with sectoral legislation.
There is a provision in sectoral legislation for independent dispute resolution to resolve any disputes and student unions, together with staff associations, are required to be consulted on the preparation of any dispute resolution processes.
This Bill has been significantly strengthened in respect of the Irish language. We brought forward more amendments after engagement in the other House, and I mention Deputy Ó Snodaigh in this regard. I believe we brought forward approximately 20 amendments on the language. I am very satisfied with it and I want to thank Conradh na Gaeilge for its work. I do not view it necessary, therefore, to accept further amendments in respect of the Irish language.
I thank the Minister. He did well to get back on all of those amendments. I wish to make a couple of points. The Minister is right that we support this Bill. I very much acknowledge the point made by him on grants. The announcement earlier this year was very welcome in that we will not being going down the loans route. Our amendment were to protect and enhance the public nature of the higher education system and the reason we believe that is important was best exemplified by Senator Malcolm Byrne's response, where he clearly has no problem with an enhanced role for the private sector in education. That is fine and is an ideological difference between us. We believe in enhancing the public role ahead of the private role. Parties on the right, which traditionally support privatisation and outsourcing, like Fianna Fáil, take a very different view. That is why I highlighted the fact that one third of our teachers are now being produced via a private for-profit teaching college. To me, that is not the way to go and is a prime example of the commodification of third level education. That is not the way we should go.That is an ideological difference between us - a left-right difference.
I appreciate that the Minister has said there is a problem with precarious work. It is important that he acknowledged this because Senator Dolan did not do so. Anyone involved in third level education knows there is a massive problem with precarious work, people having short-term contracts and having those contracts terminated. It is a major disincentive to their staying in the system. That is why we wanted to include the clause about decent pay and good working conditions for academics, including PhD researchers, a very important area which is really not working as it should be at the moment, and non-academic staff in designated institutions of higher education. Those are my points, but I do welcome some of the responses from the Minister.
It might have been academic as to whether I had been precluded because the Minister has responded, at least in part, to a similar amendment Senator Higgins tabled. I am referring to the issue of academic freedom. Senator Higgins's similar amendment to section 8 refers to the specific issue of the academic freedom of students. I take on board what the Minister said about existing legislation that needs to be read in parallel with this legislation regarding guarantees of academic freedom. However, my amendment to section 8 seeks to include the idea of the academic freedom of students when we are talking about the objects of an túdarás. Among the listed objects is "to respect the academic freedom of higher education providers and academic staff in those providers". There is no reference to students. Senator Higgins and I have proposed amendments to that line. Hers is slightly different from my effort, but the end point would be the same. It would cover the academic freedom, not just of higher education providers and academic staff, but also the academic freedom of students.
This legislation recasts the situation that existed heretofore regarding the HEA and stands alongside existing legislation on higher education. The Bill rightly covers new ground and increasingly important is the need to recognise, promote and defend the academic freedom of students. On Committee Stage, I set out the reasons for doing so. I said it was not just a matter of equality. In another place I have proposed that an equality statement would involve reporting back on colleges' policy on promoting the academic freedom of students. It is also a matter of quality. What makes higher education higher education and what makes a university a university is that they provide a place for people to explore new ideas and possibilities, sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable or challenge the status quoand establishment thinking.
On a previous occasion, I stated that if a student or postgraduate researcher wanted to engage in studies in areas that might challenge current orthodoxies, for example, on the issue of climate change, a university is precisely the place where there should be freedom to do that kind of thing. Increasingly, we live in a world where there can often be a chilling effect on the free expression and exploration of ideas. That can happen in informal ways in university campuses, but it can also happen where power is exercised academically. As a result, it is important for the legislation to address the issue of academic freedom of students.
On the previous occasion, I mentioned the increasing challenge by inter-institutional links of an international nature. I mentioned the joint colleges, the joint delivery of courses with China and so on, questions about the human rights, human dignity and academic freedom of Chinese people coming here to study in centres which are partly or possibly completely funded, partly controlled and perhaps completely controlled ultimately by the Chinese Communist Party. We need much more discussion than we have had to date about how Confucius Institutes operate and are funded. Last year we had controversy about how Chinese is taught and examined at leaving certificate level.
We are in a very complex and delicate situation, and it is important that legislation on higher education is not just set in traditional narrow ways about what academic freedom is but actually addresses new challenges and new problems. Part of that involves recognising and promoting academic freedom of students. That should be done with an eye to potential problems of an international nature, of a global nature and of an economic nature. It should also be done because we recognise that the environment we live in is not always one where people are free to explore ideas. This legislation should be about guaranteeing the quality of what our universities and higher education institutions can do for people and can do for our community, our society and our world.
Promoting and guaranteeing excellence is what that is all about. That is why so many of the universities were concerned about the precise way in which their autonomy and independence are to be respected. We had other debates about other sections and amendments and no doubt we will return to them. However, the academic freedom of students is pretty central. I do not understand why the Minister would not accept the amendment to section 8 concerning the objects of an túdarás. If the objects of an túdarás include education providers and academic staff in those providers, why is there no reference to students in that context?
I strongly support what Senator Mullen said. In a very enlightened way this recognises the idea of student unions and their participation in the life of universities. Just as governing bodies and recognised institutions must respect academic freedom, so also must student unions. It is wrong that any students should face intellectual boycotts, defunding of their societies or whatever because of pressure from a student union seeking to force some of its number to conform to particular ideological goals. From that point of view, what Senator Mullen has said deserves considerable thought. His amendment should be accepted.
Regarding academic freedom and the use of short-term contracts, I happen to have some second-hand but fairly accurate observation of the effect of those short-term contracts in universities. There was a time, I think it was in this House, that the great Michael Tierney was called to book for using short-term contracts and denial of tenure. A visitor was appointed to University College Dublin to investigate whether that was happening. On occasion, some people who have tenure in universities preach what they do not quite practice themselves regarding performance targets for younger academics and research targets that they never actually achieved themselves and certainly do not implement. I ask the Minister to consider the fact that academic freedom is seriously infringed by giving people short-term contracts.
I am not going to get involved in Senator Gavan's ideological left-right dispute but I will make one point about whomever is producing teachers in this country. We need more of them and we need to keep them. We cannot have them going abroad in their droves, as they are at the moment. Many schools right across Ireland cannot fill vital teaching roles at present due to the absence of decent candidates.