Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage (Continued)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 901 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien] The prospective merger between Carlow and Waterford ITs has been plagued by difficulties and in no way looks ready to happen in the short term given the funding issues the Government has consistently failed to address. One has only to look at the academic requirements for staff, the percentage requirements for research students at postgraduate level and mature student targets to know that much of this will be unrealisable in the absence of funding being put in place.

A range of other issues also need to be addressed in this Bill, from the unavoidable resourcing issue to matters such as definitions, academic freedom and the level of representation on the governing body and academic councils of the technological universities for both staff and students, not to mention the matter of the function of the academic councils. We have serious concerns that the academic councils will be exploited by business interests and that the framing of the Bill is complicit in allowing this to happen. Academic freedom needs to be protected and supported by means of secure tenured employment and by maintaining ministerial inquiry in cases of dismissal. The idea that can have true academic freedom without a secure system of employment is incredibly naive.

This is even more important when we look at the increased casualisation of third level employment alongside the increasing neo-liberalisation of the sector. It used to be the case that people complained about being on one-year contracts, but now nine-month contracts are being given to people and people are being put on hourly pay. It would be interesting to know how many PhD graduates have to sign on during the summer. Some in third level faculties, who should know better, are employing PhD graduates on the JobBridge scheme. This is an outrage. The Government has failed to support those students in their studies most of the time and has failed to support them in their graduate life. There is nothing in this Bill that will address the systemic precarious issues in the third level sector. We do not believe there should be any forced mergers. If mergers are forced where they are not wanted, this undermines the Government view they have academic benefits. This should not be just a simple exercise in cost cutting. It also would be useful to have a more detailed debate on Committee Stage regarding the fate that awaits institutes of technology that do not want to merge, one of which is in the Minister's constituency. The trade unions have raised many concerns that technological universities will be able to set their own employee pay and conditions, leading to unhealthy competition and an end to collective bargaining.

There are also big question marks over the protection of the pay and pensions of teaching staff in the technological universities. The Government has not proven itself particularly willing to protect teaching pay in the past, no matter the part of the education sector. People are right, therefore, to raise this matter. We also have broader concerns around the inclusion of the term “staff association” alongside trade unions, as bodies to be recognised in the terms of employment. Staff associations have a long history of being used by companies and businesses that have no interest in dialogue with their workers. They are used as an excuse to disengage from trade union negotiations. This is something that must be addressed on Committee Stage if the Bill is to have our support.

We also have a serious concern regarding the ability of the technological university to set its own fees for students, subject to the HEA review process, particularly in light of what may come down the road with a long-awaited report due on funding in third level. If third level education is not funded appropriately from the Exchequer, we could face a situation where students enter institutes of technology that are not fit to perform their functions, with teaching being at breaking point and students coming out and in debt to the tune of €20,000 or more. There is also an idea being put about that all courses need to be streamlined and merged so they are not duplicated. While there is merit to the idea that courses should not be overly duplicated, it must be acknowledged that the Government has cut funding to the bone and that not every student can afford to go to another town to attend a third level institute. Many students simply do not have that option.

As stated previously, Sinn Féin gives qualified support to this Bill. We agree with the idea of technological universities, but the legislation in its current form has problems. We will bring forward a range of amendments to address these matters on Committee Stage and will withdraw our support for the Bill if these are not addressed adequately.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl The next speaker is Deputy Paul Murphy, who is sharing his time with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.

Deputy Paul Murphy: Information on Paul Murphy Zoom on Paul Murphy I will start by paying tribute to the institutes of technology and their staff. These institutes are drastically under-funded, but they continue to provide access to higher education for many people who would traditionally be excluded. This is true for the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in my constituency and others.

One point that must be mentioned in the context of this Bill is the extent of the savage cuts implemented in this sector over the course of the crisis, first under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition and continued under the current Government. Funding for the sector has been cut by a massive 35% between 2008 and 2015 and as a result the number of lecturers in the ITs has fallen by almost 10%, more than 500 whole-time posts. At the same time, student numbers have risen by more than 30%. Therefore there has been a significant increase of approximately one third in the student-teacher staff ratio, above the OECD average of 16:1 to a high of 20:1.

In Tallaght, there have been cuts of 40% since 2008, student numbers have increased by an amount equivalent to the national rate and staff numbers have reduced by 10%. A consequence of this is that the resources of the ITs and the working conditions of the staff are being stretched to breaking point. One third of TUI members at second level and a similar number at third level are in temporary part-time employment. We have a massive extension of so-called "flexicurity", precarious employment in third level institutions of people who are preparing people for their future. It is no wonder, therefore, there was such a significant turnout of 56% and such a significant "Yes" vote to industrial action on Monday, with 92% voting for industrial action on the issues of the severe funding difficulties and the horrific cuts that have taken place.

That is a context to this Bill. We welcome the idea that ITs should be able to apply for and get technological university status, but the kind of change proposed in this Bill cannot take place in the context of cuts and rationalisation. The concern of many of those involved is that the Bill may just become another rationale for further cuts, using the amalgamation process to drive a cuts process. Simply put, amendments must be made to the Bill to ensure it cannot become a Trojan horse for rationalisation and the elimination of programme provision. Otherwise, we will not support the Bill on a later Stage.

Institutes of technology should not have to amalgamate before applying for technological university status. They should be able to apply as stand-alone institutes. There has been a transformation and development in terms of ITs and the programmes they offer and they should be permitted to apply individually. It is a difficulty that ITs are expected to amalgamate and then apply for technological university status, with no guarantee they will get that. This would be the worst of all worlds for them, that they have amalgamated but have not the status. Therefore, the requirement for amalgamation should be withdrawn.

For this process to happen properly, additional resources need to be put into the sector. The estimated cost in Dublin for carrying out the amalgamation is almost €24 million over three years and there is clearly little or no money available from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to fund the process.

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