Technological Universities Bill 2015: Report Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 904 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan] While the Minister of State has argued that this can all be done afterwards, staff fear they will be sidelined once the legislation has been passed. The statements by the Minister and Minister of State have not given them any confidence in that regard.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I do not agree with the analysis provided by the Minister of State. He indicated that the 30-day process could not be opened up to all stakeholders. We are discussing a key stakeholder, namely, academic staff. The Minister of State's position is that the House should pass the legislation and the various issues can be dealt with subsequently. Once passed, the Bill becomes law. Section 17(2) states: "A notice under subsection (1) shall state that the applicant colleges may make representations to the Minister in relation to the proposed decision not later than 30 days after service of the notice." Nowhere in the legislation is it stated that representatives of staff may make such representations. As such, passing the legislation would effectively silence the voices of the very people who have been asked to deliver a new, high-quality educational service.

Staff in the institutes of technology must work under extreme conditions. As I indicated yesterday, the budget for the institutes of technology sector has been reduced by €190 million, while the number of lecturers has fallen by 10% and student numbers have increased by 35%. In addition, the Bill provides that technological universities will have budget overruns deducted from their budget for the following year. While an option to apply to the Higher Education Authority for a supplementary budget is provided, the legislation prescribes that each institute must not exceed its annual budget.

The Bill also provides that technological universities may set their own registration fees for students, which gives rise to a potential scenario in which different technological universities would apply different registration fees, albeit subject to the approval of the Minister.

Once the Bill has been passed, it will not be possible to address many of the issues Deputies have raised. It is disingenuous, therefore, to claim that all of the issues can be resolved and ask Deputies to pass the legislation. To do so would prevent many of the issues from being resolved.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue It is crucial that the Government work with staff representatives and trade unions from the outset when it proposes reform. We have seen the impact of its failure to do so when it proposed other reform measures, specifically reform of the junior certificate examination, when it did not work with all stakeholders and failed from the outset to engage with them and ensure they had an input in the process. Stakeholders must be comfortable with the reform's objectives. It would be a mistake to pass this Bill before the general election without allowing sufficient time to ensure the outstanding concerns of trade union representatives are addressed. The Government must learn lessons and engage further with the relevant trade unions to try to ensure everyone is comfortable with the legislation.

On the amendments, it would be appropriate to make clear in the Bill that the voices of trade union and staff representatives should be heard and that they are able to make representations. I ask the Minister of State to accept the amendments.

Deputy Damien English: Information on Damien English Zoom on Damien English To respond to some of the comments made by the Deputies, particularly with regard to reform of the junior certificate examination, engagement and consultation do not mean solving everyone's problem or ensuring all stakeholders get everything they want. There was significant engagement and discussion with all stakeholders in recent years on junior certificate reform. The majority of them agreed with the reform, although some did not. At some stage, a decision must be made to move on. Consultation does not mean that every problem is resolved. One does one's best to hear everyone out and have a fair process.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide the legal framework for consortiums of institutes of technology to be granted technological university status. Many issues remain to be discussed, and there are appropriate forums for doing so, but not all of these issues should be addressed in legislation. We will tease them out in this debate, on which we will not impose a guillotine. Deputies are giving the impression that the Bill is being rammed through when that is not the case. Further debate is scheduled on three days next week, if it becomes necessary and the Dáil is still sitting. There will be time to tease out the amendments.

We do not deem the amendments in this group to be appropriate. They are not the way to do business in these matters. We have gone to great lengths to engage in consultation in recent years and the consultation process continues. It is not the case that it is game over, as it were, because this is a long process. The purpose of the legislation is to advance the process to the next stage, and in some cases there is a strong demand that we do so. Most people are in favour of the idea or concept behind the Bill. If we do not enact this legislation, people will conclude that technological universities will never be established and there will not be any consultation or progress. These proposals will benefit most, if not all, of the stakeholders concerned. While I accept that issues arise, the purpose of consultation is to address outstanding issues. Ample mechanisms are in place to do so at the appropriate time and place. Not everything must be dealt with in the legislation.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien Will the Minister of State outline what opportunities for further engagement will be available once the legislation has been passed? It is unclear how the outstanding issues will be addressed once the legislation has been passed because the section states clearly that only applicant colleges can make representations to the Minister on the proposed decision and they must do so not later than 30 days after the proposed decision has been made. It does not state that members of staff can make representations, nor can I find any other reference in the Bill to allowing recognised trade unions representing staff members to make representations to the Minister. Despite this, the Minister of State argues that Deputies should pass the legislation and the outstanding issues can be dealt with subsequently.

I am seriously concerned about the manner in which the Bill is being proposed. I do not have a problem with the introduction of technological universities, as I believe they will transform the quality of education in the regions. However, this will only come about if all the stakeholders buy into the process. We are trying to deal with a process that was flawed from the outset, while pursuing the common goal of achieving technological university status for institutes of technology.

Under this proposal, institutes of technology will be forced to merge without any guarantee of securing technological university status. Furthermore, the Bill does not provide any guarantees on course provision before technological university status is granted, nor is there a guarantee in place that the process will be adequately funded. There is no guarantee that agreement will be obtained from all the stakeholders before technological university status is granted. Notwithstanding all of these flaws, the institutes of technology must agree to merge before technological university status can be secured. The Government is putting the horse before the cart. Agreement should be found among all the stakeholders, and if that is not possible, the Government should at least enable stakeholders to make representations to the Minister. The failure to do so is wrong because it disenfranchises a key stakeholder in the process, namely, the staff who will be asked to operate the terms of the legislation and, to use the words of the Minister, give technological universities the capacity to compete at an international level.

Debate adjourned.

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