Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage (Continued)

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 904 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan] I was outside tonight at the protest organised by the Teachers' Union of Ireland and there is clearly a great deal of anger, frustration and concern among its members. The common denominator that I noted was the assumption they had made, based on the Minister's statement that this was complex legislation, that adequate time would be provided to examine its complexities. They did not expect the Minister to rush the Bill.

The introduction of technological universities is a good and positive idea in principle and one to which no one objects. However, the concerns of TUI members have not been addressed. The union does not regard the briefings provided by the Minister as engagement. The concerns it expressed have not been taken on board.

On the amendment, the text, as it stands, requires colleges to merge before they can apply for technological university status. What will happen in the case of institutes of technology that merge but whose application for technological university status is subsequently rejected? What are the implications for merged colleges in such a scenario?

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue The Fianna Fáil Party supports the idea of introducing technological universities. The discussion of the Bill in the Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills was very useful and the engagement on the part of the Department was good. There is no rationale for the decision to rush the Bill in recent weeks. The Minister did not engage in any real consultation in advance of Committee Stage and Report Stage.

Academics and staff in various institutes of technology are concerned about the contents of the Bill and the impact some of the proposals will have, specifically the requirement that mergers must take place in advance of approval being given for technological university status. This issue must be revisited. Mergers should not be a prerequisite for technological university status being granted, especially as there is no guaranteed outcome for institutions that proceed with a merger. Naturally, the institutes of technology have genuine and well-founded concerns about what the merger process may mean for their individual identities and ability to continue to serve their local regions, as they have done so well until now.

Since their development, the regional technical colleges and, subsequently, the institutes of technology have played a major role in their regions in seeking to ensure participation in education as well as integration with the local business community. They have done so by serving the needs of the local economy and the educational needs of the communities they serve. There are genuine concerns that this function will be eroded by the merger process required of institutes of technology seeking to advance to technological university status and that mergers will create a gravitational pull towards the centre.

For these reasons, the Minister must further consult trade unions and institutes of technology staff on her proposal. I have grave concerns about the approach she has adopted and oppose the requirement that institutes of technology merge in advance of a decision being made on applications to become a technological university.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan: Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan I will address the various points raised by Deputies. With regard to the issue of time, the Second Stage debate was not guillotined and we had a long and good debate on Committee Stage. We also left sufficient time between Committee Stage and Report Stage to allow a significant number of amendments to be submitted by Opposition Deputies and a smaller number to be submitted by me in response to the concerns expressed on Committee Stage. The Report Stage debate will not be guillotined either. As the schedule for the week indicates, we will have time to discuss the Bill today, tomorrow morning and on Thursday morning. If we do not conclude the debate, so be it. We have provided considerable parliamentary time for the debate, nor do I intend to rush the Bill in the Seanad should it reach the Upper House. I do not know what will be the arrangements in the Seanad as they will depend on what happens in this House in the near future. I want to ensure we have sufficient time to debate the issues and I hope that will be the case.

As Deputies will be aware, the national strategy for higher education for the period until 2030 recommended significant reforms to position the institutes of technology sector to meet national strategic objectives. In particular, the strategy recommended consolidation in the sector and a pathway of evolution for consolidated institutes of technology, should they so wish, to allow them to demonstrate significant progress against robust performance criteria and to apply to become technological universities. I stress again that there is no obligation on institutes of technology to take this route. The Bill, in providing that applications for technological university status can be made only by merged institutes of technology, simply reflects this long-standing policy.

The technological university process is not a rebranding process for the institutes of technology sector. We will continue to have institutes of technology after groups of institutes proceed to technological university status. We very much value the institutes of technology and are offering an opportunity, should institutions so wish, to start on the path of becoming technology universities. Each group will be given an indication, when it moves from stage of the process to the next, as to whether it is on the right path to ensure it is aware of what bar it must reach to become a technological university. Technological university status can be achieved only by merged institutes of technology. This policy has been in place for some time and was included in the criteria from the outset.

The technological university process will require a step change in the performance of the institutes in question in order that they can meet the robust performance criteria, details of which have been in the public domain since 2012. By merging, institutes of technology can achieve greater scale and an increased capacity to provide the quality of education and research which will allow the new institutions to provide an exceptional service to their students and the regions in which they are situated and to compete at an international level. They must reach bars that have been set with regard to research, quality of teaching and so forth if they are to be granted technological university status.

For the reasons I have outlined I cannot support amendments Nos. 3, 18 and 60 to 79, inclusive, in so far as they provide that applications for technological university status can be made by unmerged institutes of technology. It has been clear since 2012 that mergers would be part of the conditions.

On the issue of institutes of technology merging and then somehow failing to achieve technological university status, the Bill provides that this is a possibility. This returns me to the earlier point that this proposal is not simply a rebranding exercise. What is being created through designation as a technological university is a new type of university in Ireland. To gain credibility nationally and internationally, the bar that has been set must be achieved. The objective criteria for redesignation as a technological university, which are set out in section 38, were first published in 2012 and the consortiums concerned have had ample opportunity to assess their progress against these criteria. The Dublin and Munster consortiums have both been positively assessed by an international expert panel as being on a clear trajectory to meet the criteria. I expect, therefore, that any consortium seeking to merge under the Bill would assess current performance and develop its own trajectory to achieve the level required by the technological university criteria before it applies to merge. As such, institutes of technology which have not yet proceeded to that point should ensure they are comfortable with the criteria they must achieve. These have been set out in respect of every step of the process. That is the purpose of providing this information.


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