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] My dealings were with DIT, Blanchardstown, Tallaght and Dundalk. The ladder system and progression routes were valuable. Someone could progress from a certain level right up to PhD level through the institutes of technology. Their connections with PLC colleges were invaluable.

The concerns are that those IOTs that do not merge will be at a disadvantage. As Deputy O'Brien said, certain colleges offer the same courses. If a particular college no longer offers a course it means that students will have to move from one campus to another, which undermines the regional basis of IOTs. It also creates a funding issue and affects SUSI grants. Students in Cork IT may not receive a grant that would enable them to attend Tralee IT and stay there because of the grant situation.

There is another issue regarding those working on PhDs. Doing a PhD requires considerable finances and time. I do not think that issue has been taken into account. If an institution meets the criteria, why can it not apply for technological university status in its own right? I know this refers to the criteria, but where was that issue in the discussions?

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue The Minister has so far failed to answer a key question. How can she ensure that when there is a requirement on IOTs to merge that part of their achievements, namely, increasing participation levels within their regions, will not be eroded by the consolidation of courses? It is a real concern of those in the regions and individual institutes of technology. When they see the structure of the Bill and the erosion of local input into their IOTs within the wider merged technological universities, there is inevitable concern that courses will be consolidated away from local campuses and, as a result, there will be a reduction in the participation levels of local students, something into which great inroads have been made in recent years. I ask the Minister to address this issue.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan: Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan I will try to address some of the issues raised. I refer to the general point on access. On the concern that the number of students who currently attend institutes of technologies in the region might decline or that students would be less encouraged to do so, I wish to categorically state that is not the intention of the Bill. In fact, the Department is planning for consistent increases in the number of students that will attend higher and further education over the next decade. It is policy to provide those options. Obviously, it is also policy to provide other options, such as apprenticeships and so on, but that choice should be available to students.

In my previous contribution I said we committed, as per section 22 of the Bill, to retaining the regional element. Merging institutions does not mean the focus on individual campuses will be in any way diminished. Separate individual campuses will be retained in the merged institutions with, I expect, increased numbers of students for individual campuses, whether they are individual IOTs that remain separate or are merged and subsequently become technological universities in conjunction with other institutions.

I repeat what I said. It would not be fair to change the criteria mid-stream, when it was clear to anybody who was involved in, or stayed out, of the process that mergers were one of the criteria. It remains one of the criteria and, therefore, we cannot say that an IOT does not need to merge in order to meet the criteria. It is one of the criteria that was very clearly explained at the time; it was not hidden.

We have already provided extra resources this year to facilitate the process. There is no intention of using this as a way to cut down on the resources available to the sector. There were some resource elements to the process, but they mainly involved ensuring there was proper consultation. For example, the institutes in the Munster region have agreed to free up four trade union representatives on a full-time basis. There is a problem with that because I understand the TUI does not trust the process. We have asked the institutions to free up the staff members concerned and they have agreed. The Department, the Higher Education Authority and I have reiterated time and again to the institutions concerned that they need to consult properly with their staff, academic and otherwise. We will reiterate the point if there is some doubt that is not actually happening.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to SUSI. We will address the issue. She suggested students would not receive the non-adjacent rate if, for example, they lived in Cork and attended Tralee because they were adjacent to the Cork campus. That issue will be dealt with by SUSI to ensure that if the campuses in which students' courses are situated are far away enough from their homes to qualify under the current system for the non-adjacent rate that they will qualify for the correct rate. I would not want any students to be disadvantaged in that way.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien We will not reach agreement on this. That is the reality of Government and Opposition. Genuine concerns have not been addressed and that has led to a situation whereby industrial action is taking place, such as those involved in the Munster technological university proposal. Trade union members feel they have not been listened to or consulted properly. Ultimately, these are the people that will be asked to deliver the high-quality education the Minister stated will be the result of merging institutes to form technological universities.

The Minister has not addressed the issue of the duplication of courses. From reading the documentation, I understand that one of the objectives is to remove course duplication. If the Minister said today that is not the case, perhaps she could be clearer. My understanding is that it is one of the major concern. For instance, if Tralee and Cork both provide the same course and are merged into a technological university, specific campuses would focus on specific areas. Tralee might focus on catering, food and beverage courses and Cork might focus more on metalwork and engineering. Therefore, the courses which are currently provided in both institutes would be eradicated.

We would end up with campuses focusing on particular areas of excellence or expertise. If that is the case, the issue raised by Deputy O'Sullivan, namely, SUSI grants and the ability of students to travel comes into play. Those living in Cork can do practically every course they want in CIT, but under a merged entity, that is, a technological university, there is no guarantee that will remain the case. They may have to travel.

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