Apart from ending a sentence with a preposition, the fact is that the practice of establishing things without statutory authority and allowing them to continue for years before the necessary statutory instruments are enacted was pioneered, was followed and was condoned by successive Fianna Fáil Governments. This practice has already been referred to in the course of this debate especially in relation to the NCEA. I am glad of the Minister's assurance about a timetable for the NCEA, because one would have thought that the graduates of that institution would be grandfathers by the time the thing finally arrived. I do not say that this is altogether a bad thing. It is much better that we should have had the NCEA even on a non-statutory basis than that we should not have had it. But there is no call for the Minister to make this point about this amending legislation in the light of the record of his party in this area.
The reference in the Minister's speech to the regional technical colleges somewhat misrepresents the situation. The Minister said:
The inclusion of the regional technical colleges for the purpose of tenure of higher education grants is also a commendable development for many reasons.
So far as degree level courses are concerned the regional technical colleges have always been included under the terms of the original Act. There is nothing particularly new about this Bill in relation to their inclusion for degree level course purposes. Section 1, the definition section, in the original Act says that grants would be tenable for courses at
... any other institution of higher education for the time being approved by the Minister for the purposes of this Act, either generally or in relation to any particular grant or class of grants under section 2 of this Act, in so far as that institution provides courses which in the opinion of the Minister are equivalent to university degree courses.
If any Minister decided after the passage of the 1968 Act to recognise a degree course in a third-level college such as a regional technical college, he did not need this amending legislation.
There is one development in this Bill to which the Minister did not refer in his opening speech, and I would be grateful if he would refer to it when concluding. There is a major change in principle between the provisions of the 1968 Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act and this Bill in relation to universities. In the 1968 Act an approved institution means:
... a university or university college in respect of its courses which are of degree standard,
The present legislation reads:
"approved institution" means a university, university college, or other institution of higher education in so far as it provides a course or courses of not less than two years duration, being a course or courses of which the Minister approves for the time being, for the purposes of section 2 of this Act.
The logic of that is that under the 1968 Act universities were automatically included in respect of any courses which they can which they declared to be of degree standard. The implication in this Bill is that the Minister will have to make a positive administrative decision in respect of every university degree course which he wishes to designate for grant purposes. Is that an accurate interpretation of the Bill? Does the Minister intend to automatically designate every course which every university says is of degree level, or will he reserve the right not to designate such courses in any particular situation? I do not know if the Minister will be attending the annual dinner of the Irish Federation of University Teachers this Saturday, but I shall be there and I shall be canvassing opinion on this proposition. If the Minister would like the result of such a mini-survey I will give it to him in due course.
A third reason why the Bill as introduced is inadequate to some extent is that it does not effectively deal with the problems of the students at diploma and to some extent at degree level in the institutions concerned. The size of this problem was graphically illustrated by the Chairman of the Higher Education Authority, Mr. Seán O'Connor, when he spoke at the conference on the financing of higher education last September. Mr. O'Connor said that at present there were approximately 33,000 full-time higher education places in the Republic and that to achieve parity of participation with our European neighbours we would require not 60,000 places but between 70,000 and 90,000 places over the next five to ten years.
Another way of looking at the problem is to look at the participation rates for third level education in various countries in the western world. The Irish participation rate in 1975 was 7.9 per cent, by far the lowest participation rate of any of the major countries, including countries which are about the same size and have more or less the same population as ourselves. The next lowest participation rate, that of Austria, was double the Irish rate. The highest participation rate, that of Denmark, a country with virtually the same population as us, was almost three times that of Ireland. That is the size of the problem. The problem will not be met purely by housekeeping legislation of this kind, however necessary it may be.
The numbers of students in different categories of third level institutions have shown very interesting changes over the last four or five years. In 1973 there were 20,500 students in our universities and in 1977 there were just under 22,000, a rise of only 2,000. In the regional technical colleges, where as the Minister says courses are generally of shorter duration, there were 1,200 students in 1973 and 3,500 in 1977. The expansion is taking place in the regional colleges not least because the savage realities of the employment situation are forcing more and more students and their parents into an acceptance of the fact that by and large many of the courses in these institutions provide a better chance for employment than many of the courses in what were traditionally more prestigious university institutions.
The proof of that, if proof is needed, is contained in a paper on engineering education which was read by a former member of the staff of the NCEA in Belfast in September. In the course of that paper he pointed out, in relation to engineering awards, that in general the holders of these awards were securing employment which was directly related to their fields of study and that national certificates and diplomas in engineering were regarded by students and employers as ends in themselves and not merely as stepping stones on the road to higher rewards.
We are dealing with the enormous pressure on third level places in the regional technical colleges at a time when the arts faculties in virtually all our universities have empty places this autumn. We should be doing more to try to turn around the pattern of participation in third-level education. It is a matter for regret that the Bill makes no significant attempt, nor any attempt at all beyond legalising a certain situation, to do this thing. The Bill does not make any attempt to cope with some of the anomalies in the grant system which have been referred to before now and which the Minister must be familiar with. It is a simple obvious and antisocial fact that as between two children who are entitled to admission for a particular course—for example in a regional technical college—one with lower academic qualifications will be able to take up a place on that course for the simple reason that his parents can afford to pay while another student whose academic qualifications are higher but below the level on which a higher education grant becomes payable may find himself unable to continue his studies because of this basic anomaly in the grants system.
I should like to deal with a number of other anomalies, and they do not all concern the regional technical colleges. In the course of his speech the Minister stated:
The relevant provision in the published grants schemes is that the candidate must have obtained grade C or a higher grade in higher or common level papers in four or more subjects or, alternatively, have obtained grade C or a higher grade in higher or common level papers in Irish and in two other subjects or in mathematics and in two other subjects.
Have we heard anything from the Minister since he took office about the disgraceful anomaly whereby the universities treat all the common level papers, with one exception, music, as papers which are not fit for the award of honours points for their points entrance system? The Minister may not have direct control over this but he has substantial indirect control and influence. I would like to see a positive statement of policy from him on this matter.
In relation to the scholarship schemes referred to by the Minister today. I should like to ask him whether it is the case, as has been alleged to me to be the case of one local authority, the North Tipparary Vocational Education Committee, that they have not been allocated enough funds by the Department to allow them to award first-year scholarships this year. They have to effectively allocate all their resource allocation from the Department to the continuation of scholarships which are already in train. If the Department are going to rely to this extent on the scholarship scheme as an alternative to the higher grants scheme they will have to ensure that it is adequately financed at all levels.
There is one special category of student to which I should like to draw the Minister's attention. One of the basic ideas behind the foundation of the regional technical college system, and the foundation of the NCEA, was to create a system whereby students, virtually regardless of where they entered the third-level educational system, would be able to transfer between courses and levels until they found one which was appropriate to their own intellectual, academic, practical or technological abilities. There is a real problem in relation to students who may, at the age of 15, 16 or 17, have gone into apprenticeships or trade or technical-type courses and who discover at the age of 20 when they achieve the level of qualification appropriate to that course that they are unable for very real financial reasons to transfer into continuation courses for which they feel suited and in which intellectually they are entitled to take part. For young people of that age the choice—when I explain what the choice is the House will see that it is not a choice at all—is between a wage of £50 per week which they will get if they abandon their education and go out into employment or a maximum grant of £500 per year. That is not a choice for these people. There are very few of them and their loss to the educational system is a loss to the country, our economy and, of course, a personal loss to the people concerned.
The Minister should look as favourably as he can at this special category of students in need. The problem to which this Bill seems at first reading to address itself is not one with which it really copes, and that is the problem of devising now, after a decade of experience, a radical alternative to the present system of student financing. The Minister has already informed me in the course of a reply to a Dail question that such a study is under way and has virtually been completed by the HEA. If we give this Bill a relatively speedy passage, as I imagine we will, it is not because we believe that it will make any difference to the problems I have spoken about. It is in the hope that this radical overhaul and reappraisal of the system which is due after a decade will be carried out by the Minister and will have action taken on it by him in the period of his administration.