The Technological Universities Bill 2015 passed the Dáil at the end of January and is now going through the process to obtain Seanad approval. The Bill sets out the framework under which the Institutes of Technology around the country would be able to merge into larger ‘Technological Universities’. Original plans could see up to ten of the fourteen Institutes become involved in mergers.
It is the embodiment of years of attempted reform of the higher education sector in Ireland. The McCarthy Report in 2009 suggested dissolving both the Blanchardstown and Tallaght Institutes of Technology and incorporating them into the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) while merging institutes outside of Dublin in order to save money. The ‘National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030’, known as the Hunt Report, recommended amalgamating Institutes so they would be better able to achieve national targets and respond to ‘changed economic and social circumstances.’
The Bill went before the Seanad for the Second Stage on the 31st January, and before the Committee Stage on the 6th February, where Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, was present to discuss proposed amendments from Senators. While there is broad support to pass it, disputes over definitions threatened to derail the proceedings on several occasions. Here are some of the key issues raised during these discussions as Senators debated a number of amendments with the Minister.
The Definition of a University
The Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan moved amendment 7, which concerned the protection of the name of a technological university. The proposed amendment would stop the Minister from removing the ‘technological university’ name from an institution in the future. O’Sullivan noted ‘there are the rather perverse prohibitions on institutes such as the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland which are not able to refer to themselves in Ireland as universities but can do so abroad. Institute of Technology Carlow was redesignated as Austin Waldron RTC but then had to campaign to have it returned to a more neutral descriptive designation.’
David Norris expressed concern over the term ‘technological university’ being a combination of two institutions as they are ‘separate, distinct and equally valuable institutions. ‘As the name implies, universities have traditionally covered a very wide range of subjects, from music to the humanities, Latin, Greek, the classics, archaeology, architecture and medicine, whereas technological universities tend to concentrate on technical subjects. They started off as regional technical colleges and then became institutes of technology and are now to become technological universities.’
Norris cited correspondence from someone who teaches in an Institute and who is afraid that those who do not become technological universities ‘will be seen as second level and inferior to those that will engage in it.’
Norris observed how the ‘question then arises of who will go to the universities. He says he has seen more and more students go to universities not because it is the right choice but because it is expected, including by their parents. That reinforces the view that those that will remain as institutes of technology may be seen as second rate and that students may be drawn unnecessarily towards a university. Getting into university is seen as a badge of success or failure. If someone gets into university, he or she is seen as a success and if he or she does not, he or she is seen as a failure. That is not correct.’
He then asked ‘why not just call them Institutes? Many of them are actually not universities but some are. Some are very close to being universities, while others by their ethos and nature are just technical.’ Norris recognised that the name would not be changed at this stage, but felt it was important to raise the issue.
Fine Gael’s Paudie Coffey then spoke about having studied in the Waterford Regional Technical College when it evolved into the Waterford Institute of Technology. Coffey mentioned how regional technical colleges played a vital role in educating graduates with engineering and technical skills to ‘serve the construction and engineering industries and stakeholders in the various regions where they were established, as well as providing apprentices to the construction sector.’
He then offered an interesting observation about Waterford’s attempts to achieve university status. ‘I have suspicions – Senator Norris can call them conspiracy theories if he likes – that the third level funding cake in this country is of a certain size. If the cake has to be sliced up to include an additional university, then the slices become smaller for the rest of the universities. There is resistance to this. I saw that during the campaign for a university for the south east over the past 20 years.’ Coffey said he had concerns over ‘some aspects concerning eligibility criteria’ and believed it was ‘watering down the standards to bring up the lowest common denominator.’ The Chair thanked him for his contribution, but said most of it had nothing to do with the proposed amendment.
The next definition up for debate covered the purpose of technological universities. O’Sullivan’s amendment wanted to broaden their defined aims to include ‘promoting an entrepreneurial, creative and innovative ethos.’ The current section 9(1)(k)(iv)(I) states ‘promoting an entrepreneurial ethos.’ David Norris, Paul Gavan, Gerard Craughwell, and Alice Mary Higgins all voiced their support for it, with Norris suggesting his proposed amendment for the Report Stage would be even broader to encompass ‘promoting an ethos that supports entrepreneurship, creativity, autonomy, innovation and engaged citizenship.’
O’Connor rejected their arguments on the basis the whole Bill covers the inclusion of a creative ethos for technological universities. Marie Louise O’Donnell supported the Minister’s view, before getting into an argument with O’Sullivan about it. Order was restored, and Norris pressed on with the issue by noting the section contained the sole use of the word ‘ethos’ within the Bill. He said the ‘whole range, direction and movement is towards entrepreneurship. It does not include creativity, autonomy, innovation or engaged citizenship. These things may be mentioned in other places in the Bill but this is the governing clause. It is where ethos comes in. It is important for that reason.’ After another back-and-forth over Seanad procedures, the amendment was put to a vote and lost.
Senators noted that the current draft of the Bill contains no definitive guarantee that students would be able to be a part of a technological university’s academic council or governance structure. The wording states ‘… shall provide for such number of students of the college, as it considers appropriate, to be members of the academic council.’
Alice Mary Higgins said this could lead to a scenario whereby a technological university could decide that it is appropriate to have no student representation on its council. Senators put forward two potential amendments. No. 19 would allow for at least two, but no more than four student members. No. 20 states that student membership cannot fall below one member.
O’Connor noted that section 16 of the Bill is in line with section 28(1)(c) of the Universities Act 1997 which provides that the composition of the academic council should include an ‘appropriate number of students.’ She suggested not altering the wording as this would ‘put technological universities in a different position from that of other universities.’
Norris told the Seanad that ‘we do not want to have a scenario where there is no student representation and I believe the Minister of State agrees with me on that point. A previous speaker referred to what the Minister envisages. What the Minister envisages does not matter a damn. What matters is what is in the legislation.’
Student or Students’ Union?
Sinn Féin’s Paul Gavin noted the original wording used ‘student union’ and called for it to be changed to ‘students’ union’. The Minister replied that the Bill was drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the government and contains the standardised legislative wording. ‘This definition mirrors the interpretation of the term “student union” as set out in section 3 of the Universities Act 1997.’
Higgins moved an amendment to add a statutory definition of students’ union into the Bill. It would be defined as an ‘autonomous body governed by students which promotes and represents the interests of students, both individual and collective.’ She stressed that ‘there is a danger under the current definition that a student union’s recognition and representation functions would derive from the recognition of its legitimacy by the institute or university rather than its own democratic mandate.’
Higgins noted that the proposed wording ‘or other representative body’ could allow the administration to recognise another body to avoid dealing with a legitimate students’ union. Gavan argued that the word ‘recognised’ was the problem, while Norris thought the proposed amendment was ‘so vague’ as it ‘means the authorities would have to recognise any group, however extraordinary, that sets itself up as long as it is an autonomous body governed by students and one that promotes and represents the interests of students.’
He suggested the two proposed amendments were very similar to the government’s proposed wording, but this was rejected by Higgins. Norris then said that while he would accept his colleague’s viewpoint, ‘a students’ union that is not autonomous or that is governed by the university, lecturers or some secret Wizard of Oz behind the scenes is not a concept that I buy. I have never seen it in operation, and I was in a university for a long time.’
Rónán Mullen said ‘the question of whether one would include the word ‘autonomous’ or talk about students’ unions as autonomous bodies appears to be an attempt to bolster a case that is a live issue in some universities and colleges in which students’ unions do not want to be interfered with unduly by university or college authorities.’ He said that this ‘building up of students’ unions as autonomous groups is, in some way, in furtherance of that particular agenda.’ His solution is that if students’ unions want total autonomy over their finances, then they should go and collect the money from students themselves.
O’Connor stated that the definition used in the Bill is the same as one from the Universities Act 1997, and cited section 16(2)(d)(iv) of the 1997 Act that Act states that in the composition of the governing authority there should be ‘students of the university who are elected officers of the Students Union or other student representative body in the university recognised by the governing authority.’
She argued that ‘the recognition by mutual parties must also prevent the unworkable and unwanted situation which could occur if there was a plethora of single-issue bodies purporting to represent student concerns. Even for a handful of students to require constant interaction by the technological university with such bodies would be to the detriment of the representation of all concerns of students by the recognised students’ union.’
O’Connor noted that the Bill referenced the potential for other student bodies, and gave an example of another students’ union for postgraduates. She highlighted that the proposed definition made no reference to either governance or accountability over the funding they receive from an institution, which would contradict the government’s aim of increasing the governance and accountability framework within higher education institutions, as another basis why she rejected the amendment. The debate was adjourned shortly afterwards.
Cian Carton – Editor