Technological Universities Bill 2015: Second Stage (Continued)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 901 No. 3

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  4 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Eamonn Maloney: Information on Eamonn Maloney Zoom on Eamonn Maloney]  There are areas of the Bill on which the Minister and I will not agree but the debate on this sector has now started on a different level with the publication of this Bill. I am being parochial about the Dublin scenario with DIT, ITB and ITT. Many of the differences relate to governance of the overarching body and the fear that the IoT in Tallaght would be subsumed into DIT and would not have the autonomy it has. Obviously, it will lose some power when they amalgamate but the fear among the staff in Tallaght is that they will be moved into a much larger institution and their institution will lose its identity. They also want to protect the quality of the education they provide. I understand that and I am sure the Minister does also because in any amalgamation in the education sector or other sectors, there are vested interests and it is understandable that the staff do not want to be pushed back. That is for another day and I am sure when amendments are tabled, we all will have a few comments to make about that on Committee Stage.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O'Sullivan): Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan I thank everybody who contributed to the debate and, in particular, for a broadly supportive response from the various shades of the Opposition. We are all committed to the notion that there should be an opportunity to develop technological universities and it should be supported. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Murphy suggested this is all about cuts. I reassure them it is about opportunity and not about cuts. It is about giving regions an opportunity to bring IoTs together to ensure they achieve the status of a technological university. There have been cuts in the higher education sector, as there have been across all sectors, not only in education but in other Departments. As Deputy Maloney said, that was because of the economic crash and the fact that we simply did not have money. I managed to increase the education budget this year, a little more than last year’s slight increase. Should I be lucky to return to this position, I would want that to continue in the next budget given the importance of education. That has been stressed by many speakers.

  I assure Members this legislation is anything but a plot on the Government’s part to introduce cutbacks. It has been talked about for a long time, particularly in the south east, where, as Deputy John Paul Phelan said, there has been a sense that a higher education institution with the status of a university was needed, as this would, therefore, increase employment levels and address issues of concern in the region. I am delighted we are making progress there and I expect a report in January from the person working with the two institutions in the region to address issues. Considering where we were even a year and a half ago, we have come a long way regarding the south east.

  The provision of a technological university is of great concern in that region but opportunities also present in other regions in this regard and we have received representations on these. The reason mergers are being provided for is we want universities, ultimately, with a critical mass. We would like larger institutions that will have the appropriate number of students, researchers and PhD students and that will meet all the criteria that need to be reached before technological university status can be achieved. The IoTs knew from the beginning that mergers were part of this process.

  I would like to make Deputy Boyd Barrett aware that this process is voluntary. We are not forcing people to come together. Some regions have decided to do this while others have decided against it. As Deputy Smith said, Dundalk IT is not participating while Athlone IT and Limerick IT, near where I live, are not either. They are working on clusters in regions but I take the Deputy’s point about the North-South discussions. I have had meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, John O’Dowd, and, in particular, the Minister for Employment and Learning, Mr. Stephen Farry, about cross-Border co-operation on higher education. Mr. Farry was particularly interested in the Letterkenny-Derry axis but, obviously, the Deputy is interested in the axis in his own area. I do not know whether anything relating to that could be inserted in this legislation but it is part of the discussions in education meetings in the context of North-South dialogue. We are trying to facilitate cross-Border movement in education where appropriate.

  A number of Members were concerned about staff and ensuring pay, pension and other conditions are protected. I referred to the relevant sections in that regard in my opening contribution but I am sure we will tease all those issues out on Committee Stage. I also agree consultation is needed. We have impressed on the IoTs that they need to constantly talk to their staff and students to make sure they are in the loop about what is happening and that they are genuinely consulted and listened to. I want that process to continue. Those issues have been raised. With regard to security of tenure in the IoT sector, I expect the Cush report shortly. He is looking into making jobs more secure in the higher education sector. The Peter Ward report on this issue in the primary and, particularly, the post-primary sector was published last year and we are implementing that. The Cush report is about job security in the higher education sector and I am told I am likely to get the report in January. We need to implement that as well. We have made a small move giving hourly paid lecturers the status of assistant lecturer but, clearly, there are issues, particularly for the unions that represent workers. We will have an opportunity to address them.

  A number of Members raised the issue of engaging with business. Engaging with the local economic community makes a great deal of sense. It does not preclude engaging with other elements of the community. Many IoTs have courses related to the caring professions, hospitality sector and the arts, and, therefore, it is not only about business. Those who have had job opportunities in their regions because IoTs specifically engaged with business regarding their needs have witnessed high quality jobs coming in and, therefore, I do not make apologies to the two Deputies who referred to this issue. It is right that there should be engagement with enterprise in the region because that is how a region ensures it creates the maximum opportunity for those who live in it. Technological universities will have a strong role in that regard. Engagement with local enterprise is a way to address that. It is not only about multinationals. Many indigenous companies are in the food sector, for example, and they engage with higher and further education institutions. That is important in ensuring we have cross-sectoral and intergovernmental engagement to ensure opportunities to access education and a satisfying and well paid career are created and skills gaps are prevented.

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