Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage (Continued)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan] For the south-east region more than for any other region, this is a particularly critical matter. The region has just shy of 500,000 people and it is pretty much the only region without an existing university, which has been a constant bone of contention. It is also the region with the highest average rates of unemployment even at the height of the boom, the lowest disposable household income even at the height of the boom and the lowest third level education attendance rates of any region of the country even at the height of the boom. The argument for establishing a technological university in the south-east region is strong.

Section 38 outlines the criteria for such a designation. I started in Waterford Regional Technical College in September 1997. I am not sure if it was a regional technical college or an IT at the time because, in a rather typical display of fudging by the now Leader of the Opposition and then Minister for Education and Science, Waterford Regional Technical College was to be upgraded to IT status. However, there was a clamour from other regional technical colleges around the country and the names of all institutions were changed at the drop of a hat by Deputy Martin regardless of any meeting of criteria as far as I can remember - I was only 18 at the time and was not particularly involved in political decisions, although I would have been interested. I know it caused much disquiet in the institute in Waterford that when it had reached the standard, the Minister took a decision that all regional technical colleges would simply have their names changed. That is why section 38 is so important. It sets out in detail the teaching and educational criteria for a designation as a technological university in future. The process needs to be transformative in terms of education and not just about changing the name on the door, which is what Deputy Martin did in 1997.

Deputy O'Brien correctly made this point. In my region across Wexford, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and into Tipperary many families are not in a position to send their children to universities in Dublin or outside the region because they cannot afford to do so. Having a university in their own region where the costs of sending their children to it would be greatly reduced, is a significant factor. The institutes of technology and the regional technological colleges before them have been a great success because they gave an opportunity for a third level education to thousands of people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity. The technological university status can have a similar impact into the future for many thousands of people in regions of the country who would not be in a financial position to move away from home to go to a university.

Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about the academic councils of the new technological universities. He expressed alarm and concern over the prospect of non-academics on academic councils. I say, "Alleluia" to the prospect of having some non-academics on academic councils. Deputy Murphy also happened to single out for special mention that there is no direct provision for trade unionists to be appointed to academic councils while at the same time saying that they should not contain representatives of business. I believe the legislation is correct in not singling out any specific groups for inclusion or exclusion. If we are talking about a new structure for education, there should be an alignment with the needs of industry into the future. That is a fact of life and it is something I would welcome.

Deputy Murphy expressed alarm that this legislation might be a Trojan horse for rationalisation, whatever that phrase means. I do not suspect it is anything of the sort. However, there is obviously a need, whether it is in this city or in other regions in the country where there are existing institutes of technology and where some duplication takes place, for an overall body responsible for development of third level education in a technological sense under this new technological university heading. It makes absolute sense and I fully support it.

Following the process the Minister mentioned in her earlier contribution, Professor Donnelly, the president of Waterford Institute of Technology and, Dr. Mulcahy, the president of Carlow Institute of Technology, are endeavouring to ensure that a bid can happen for the south east region. It is much overdue and is something the region badly needs. It has the potential to be a major economic driver for the future of the five counties that make up the region, which for far too long have lagged behind academically and in terms of household incomes despite the perception that exists in other parts of the country that everything is always much better on the east coast than in other parts of the country. Even at the height of the Celtic tiger, the south-eastern economic indicators were much lower than in most other parts of the country. The possibility of a technological university has the potential to provide a huge economic stimulus and to attract much-needed foreign direct investment as well as local investment to ensure we have a thriving region economically as well as socially into the future.

That is why I fully support the legislation. I commend the Minister on her work and her endeavours so far. I commend the Bill to the House.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith As Deputy John Paul Phelan said, this legislation requires detailed and critical scrutiny. I disagree with his remarks on what the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, did in the context of supporting the regional technological colleges and the institutes of technology. During the period he held the office that the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, holds now, there was huge investment and growth in that sector. If two colleges had the same status it would not be appropriate to have one designated as an institution of technology and the other as a regional technological college. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s when the regional technological colleges were established, they all had the same status and description. It would cause problems from the point of view of interacting with partners in education on the international scene to have different titles for colleges providing the same level of education.

I broadly welcome the Bill, as my party spokesperson, Deputy McConalogue, did. However, he flagged a number of issues he would like to see amended on Committee Stage. We need to reconsider the requirement for existing institutes to merge if they wish to be considered for designation as technological universities. Deputy McConalogue made a practical and useful suggestion in that regard.

I do not believe we should have a university or an institute of technology in every county. We know that is not feasible and we would demean our whole third level education sector if we took that route. The institutes of technology have been very successful and great credit is due to a succession of Ministers, who ensured they got substantial funding to allow them grow and develop, and also to the leaders within the institutes.


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