Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 904 No. 1

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Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Amendment No. 1 arises out of committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 1, 2, and 4 to 6, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I move amendment No. 1:

In page 9, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
" "academics" means tenured officers of the institute;".

I thank the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and her officials for the briefing we received last week. It was certainly very helpful to us. As a result of the consultation, we will withdraw during the course of this debate some of the amendments we have submitted. I thank the Minister for ensuring there was no guillotine imposed on the Bill. We asked for this on Committee Stage.

  Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 are just technical amendments to better clarify who and what is intended by certain definitions in the Bill as a result of other amendments we have proposed.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O'Sullivan): Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan I thank Deputy O'Brien for his comments. My officials did brief Opposition members. I met some members of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, who expressed concerns to me. We had met them before that also. I have a number of amendments tabled that I hope address some of the issues raised by the two Opposition Deputies here in the Chamber, Deputies Jonathan O'Brien and Maureen O'Sullivan. We have no intention of restricting this debate in either the Dáil or the Seanad. It is very important legislation and we want to ensure there is sufficient parliamentary time to debate the issues.

As I outlined on Committee Stage, amendments Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6 would insert definitions for words that are not used in the Bill, nor in any of the amendments put forward by the Deputy. For that reason, they are unnecessary. Amendment No. 4 would insert a limited definition for the word "programme", a word that is used in the Bill. However, the extensive definition of the term "programme of education and training" is referred to in the Bill by reference to that set out in the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012. Introducing an additional definition of the word "programme" would, therefore, introduce uncertainty. That is the reason I cannot accept the amendments.

  Amendment put and declared lost.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I move amendment No. 2:

In page 10, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
" "Department" means academic unit within a school of the institute;".

  Amendment put and declared lost.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Amendments Nos. 3, 18, and 60 to 79, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 61 to 79, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 60. Amendments Nos. 3, 18, and 60 to 79, inclusive, are to be discussed together.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I move amendment No. 3:

In page 11, to delete lines 8 to 15.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, these amendments would remove all references to the term "merged" or "merged institutions" from the Bill. I know she will argue in her rebuttal that this would defeat the whole purpose of the Bill, but I ask her to hear me out. As she is aware, we are in favour of the introduction of technological universities, but not in the way she is proposing and the way the Department has brought forward this legislation. As she said in her opening contribution, this is very complex legislation. Despite her claim that there has been ongoing engagement with the trade unions and staff on this, I do not believe, having spoken to members of the TUI, that this is the case. The TUI has informed me that it has had three meetings in the past year with the Department and that it was very clear at those meetings that they were briefings rather than engagements. In the TUI's opinion, none of the significant concerns raised has been taken on board.

  In the absence of an allocation of proper funding for the merger process, it is difficult to regard this Bill as anything other than the bandying about of the word "university." Many staff members feel it is just a smoke screen for rationalisation, which would have severe detrimental effects not only on staff but also on students in terms of both access to third level education and the quality of service therein. That there is no guarantee that the technological university designation will be conferred on a merged institute of technology entity, and that the provisions of the Bill apply to both merged and non-merged institutes of technology and technological universities, is of concern.

  We still have concerns over the potential consequences of the Bill, given the current crisis owing to under-funding, under-staffing and precarious employment in the institutions, which we believe has still not been addressed. Between 2008 and 2015, funding for the sector was cut by a massive 35%, or nearly €190 million. Over the same period, lecturer numbers fell by almost 10%, or by 535, while student numbers rose by a staggering 32%, or in excess of 21,000. There is no guarantee that the mergers, if they were to proceed, would not result in a reduced number of courses.

  As a result of the massive cuts in funding, the resulting loss of lecturers and the staggering increase in the number of students, many institutes are just keeping their heads above water. The intention to effect such considerable additional change without appropriate resourcing in an era of significantly damaging cutbacks to the sector is, at best, ill-advised. We believe the requirement that institutes of technology must merge before they can apply for technological university status is more related to a programme of rationalisation than to any academic considerations based on the various missions, values and ethos of particular institutes.

  Those mergers that are envisaged must be appropriately funded, and the regional mission, including multiple programmes, which is central to the institute of technology ethos, must be retained. Institutes have a proven track record of excellence in programme development and content, in addition to a significant commitment to regional equality and equity of access. They provide multiple programmes from National Framework of Qualifications level 6 to level 10, ranging from apprenticeships to doctorates. The mission of the sector is distinct, with a strong focus on meeting local and regional needs.

  A rationalisation agenda will lead to a dramatic reduction in the provision of some of the programmes, in my opinion and that of many of the academics. There are serious justified concerns about a risk of geographical inequity in respect of access to higher education as a result of this Bill. Towns and communities with an existing institute that is being coerced or forced to merge under the requirements of the Bill have real cause to worry. As matters stand, an invaluable part of a local economy may effectively be downgraded or asset-stripped as a result of this Bill. Throughout the whole process, there has been in some institutes a consistent failure to properly consult the real experts, the academic staff.

  The Bill, despite the changes and additions the Minister has proposed regarding the social and cultural objectives, is still excessively focused on the concerns of business and enterprise. It would be a grave mistake to prioritise the short-term needs of employers over the long-term needs of students and society. An appropriate balance is required.

  I am concerned about the threat the Bill poses to national collective bargaining and the terms and conditions of staff members. Other concerns related to the Bill include the weakening of staff and local representation on governing bodies and the weakening of the academic voice. That is the reasoning behind the amendments we have proposed.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan I thank the Minister for the engagement and extensive discussion on Committee Stage and the follow-up meeting with officials, as promised by her. It was good that some of the points we made on Committee Stage were taken on board for Report Stage, but there are still major concerns.

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