Tá roinnt ama agam in am an Rialtais.
Universities Bill, 1996: Second Stage (Resumed).
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Tá áthas orm deis a ghlacadh labhairt ar an mBille seo agus by mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Rialtas as am an Rialtais a chur ar fáil dom.
I have listened to people working in universities speak on this Bill and they hold strong and opposing views. There are those who object to increased State involvement in the running of universities and refer to the pristine Newman ideal of unfettered institutions of education where the information and knowledge they deal with is pure and untainted by considerations of short-term expedience and even political expedience. To that extent they are espousing an ideal which many of us would share. The universities, largely on account of the shortage of public funding, have been tempted and swayed and have given in to the temptation of funding from the private sector. In many ways, this explains much of the growth in aspects of university life.
The phenomenal growth in the University of Limerick is, in itself, a good thing but much of the funding for that institution comes from big business. It is fair to assume that big business sees universities as part of its agenda which, while it may have many noble aspirations, is primarily a profit making exercise. Universities are becoming part of that agenda and we should take a realistic look at the life and development of universities in that context.
I mentioned the idea of a university as outlined by Newman. However, universities as we know them have become bogged down in the same type of nation-state view of life that seems to preoccupy this House and other parliaments. On Vincent Browne's RTÉ programme last night, Terry Prone referred to politicians as people who primarily follow ideas. It can be politically suicidal, however, to go out on a limb and promote ideas that have not been tried and tested. Universities play an important role in that regard, testing the waters for the world of politics. We must recognise that universities provide important research facilities for politicians. Their independence must be protected and I hope that will reassure some people in the university world that the State is not trying to suck them into some type of political tool-making exercise.
As a Green Party representative I welcome the research work that has been done in universities. Many issues which are, or ought to be, politically urgent were not even given the time of day 20 years ago. In the 1970s the ozone layer was busily being destroyed by our ignorant activities as human beings, not to mention nation states. The issue could not be mentioned in any parliament then because it would not have been given any credence. Thanks to university research, however, the ozone layer was identified as requiring an urgent remedy. The remedy was provided but the results will not be seen for some decades owing to the long-term gestation of the problem.
The purpose of this Bill is to redress the imbalance between the overt involvement of the private sector in university life and the responsibility of the State to maintain some type of equity and social equality in the involvement of people in third level education. It is timely that today's Education and Living supplement inThe Irish Times provides a breakdown of figures for those participating in higher education. It points out that for all the talk of free fees, making progress and enhancing opportunities for attending universities, we are still stuck in a deep rut of inequality when it comes to participation in third level education. According to the survey on the percentage of age cohort in full time studies in the Dublin area, Priorswood/Darndale, just outside my own constituency, has a 3.6 per cent involvement in university degree courses, whereas the figure for Rathmines/Terenure is 46.5 per cent and Clontarf/Marino, 30.2 per cent. These are 1993 figures and clearly there is still huge inequality. I presume the figures are the most up-to-date available given that they are published in today's newspaper.
There is no doubt that much of the State's involvement in universities has not brought about the equality we aspire to. Apart from reforming universities, a great deal of work needs to be done relating to huge social problems and the creation of ghettos in society. Those problems will not be dealt with by this Bill but the legislation has an important role to play in bringing us closer to some type of social equity regarding people's involvement in university life.
Some people see this Bill as interfering in universities while others see it as a necessary rebalancing of the existing interference which is dominated by private investment. The State also provides considerable moneys to universities so it is fair that it should have some involvement in their development and progress. Having said that, the Bill is full of inconsistencies and shortcomings. The perspective of such shortcomings depends on which university one attends or is involved with. Both DCU and the University of Limerick are still outside the Pale when it comes, for instance, to Seanad representation. The Dublin Institute of Technology has been making strenuous representations to Members of the House highlighting the inconsistency of not having degree-awarding status as other colleges do whose qualifications are similarly recognised by outside agencies. I share the Dublin Institute of Technology's view that it ought to have degree-awarding status. I hope the Minister will have time to table amendments on Committee Stage allowing the Dublin Institute of Technology to assume its rightful place as a degree-awarding institution.
The Bill provides for students to be represented on governing authorities. It is important to understand, however, that because students must study to qualify, they have particular difficulties above and beyond those of other governing authority members. It is reasonable to have alternative student members on such bodies allowing students the flexibility of participating to the maximum extent. An alternative member could thus attend when the official member is not available. That would ensure fair play and representation for students on such bodies. That worked very well at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation where I was a member and my colleague, Vincent McDowell, was an alternative member. I do not see why it could not work in the case of university authorities, particularly in the context of student representation.
I received numerous representations regarding the Dublin Institute of Technology from students, their parents and people with a broad view of education who are concerned about inconsistency, which is a mild word, or hypocrisy, which is more politically charged. These people make the point that the Dublin Institute of Technology deserves degree-awarding status. I am involved with the Dublin Institute of Technology through a number of acquaintances and I do not know why such status could not be conferred. A letter I received highlights the importance of this issue:
Tá mé ag scríobh chugat roimh an bplé sa Dáil ar an mBille thuas chun do thacaíocht a lorg i leith moltaí an ghrúpa ath-bhreithnithe idirnáisiúnta ar Institiúid Teicneolaíocht Átha Cliath agus chun go gcuirfear an Dublin Institute of Technology in áireamh sa Bhille. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go gcuirfeadh an tAire na moltaí seo i bhfeidhm. Ní gá dom a rá leat an cháil atá ar an Institiúid mar lárionad oideachasúil sa tír seo ón 19ú aois ar aghaidh. Cheana féin tá cúrsaí céime agus iarchéime á reachtáil ag an Institiúid agus ba chóir go n-aithneófaí seo trí status ollscoile a bhronnadh ar an Institiúid. Tá mé cinnte go mbeadh tú féin i bhfábhar na moltaí seo.
Tá sé an-soiléir go bhfuil na moltaí seo ciallmhar agus ba bhreá liom a fháil amach ón Aire an bhfuil sé i gceist aici aontú leo agus tacaíocht a thabhairt don DTI sa tslí sin.
Chomh maith, tá sé an-tábhachtach nach ndéanann muid dearmad ar ról Ollscoil Náisiúnta na hÉireann i saol na tíre ó thaobh saol Gaeilge chomh maith le saol Béarla. Tá an-chuid baint ag an Institiúid phríomháideach nó ag comhlachtaí príomháideache se saol ollscoile agus tá baol ann go mbeadh laghdú ar chaighdeán na Gaeilge agus i ról na Gaeilge sna hollscoileanna. Is féidir linn leasuithe a chur isteach sa Bhille seo a ládróidh saol agus ról na Gaeilge agus sa tír i gcoitinne. Sá Pháipéir Uainne Oideachais a foilsíodh i 1992, bhí cúram faoi leith ar an Údarás um Ard Oideachais i leith na n-aidhmeanna náisiúnta an Ghaeilge a athbheochan agus cultúr náisiúnta a chaomhnú agus a fhorbairt. Bhí sé i gceist go ndéanfaidh gach ollscoil tríú leibhéal polasaí soléir a fhorbairt faoi chur chun cinn, faoi fhorbairt agus faoi úsáid na Gaeilge i measc fhoirne agus mac léinn na háite agus go soláthródh sé tuairisc ar an dul chun cinn gach bliain. Níl fhios agam go bhfuil sé sin ag titim amach ach ba cheart go dtharlódh sé. Tá ról tábhachtach ag an earnáil oideachais tríú leibhéal i gcoitinne agus ag na hollscoileanna go háirithe maidir leis an ngné seo.
Cuir i gcás múineadh na Gaeilge ar an dara leibhéal, tá ról ag na hollscoileanna maidir le muineadh agus forbairt na Gaeilge, oiliúnt múinteoirí agus oideachas tríú leibhéal trí mheán na Gaeilge. Braithim, áfach, go bhféadfaí ról na n-ollscoileanna a mhéadú agus a chur chun cinn na Gaeilge a threisiú, agus na hachmhainn a bheith ann chuige agus struchtúr reachtúil oiriúineach a bheith ann mar thacaíocht. Is sa chómhtéacs seo gur gá dúinn roinnt leasuithe a chur isteach sa Bhille atá i gceist anseo. Cuir i gcás, tá seans againn roinnt mhaith de na leasuithe a chur isteach a chinnteoidh go mbeidh gníomhaíocht shoiléar ón Stáit i leith na Gaeilge, rud nach bhfuil de dhíth ar an mBéarla, go mbeadh ionadaíocht ag pobal na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta ar údarás na n-ollscoileanna. Chabhródh an chomhairle a bheith ar fáil trí ionadaíocht den chineál seo leis na hollscoileanna a dhualgas reachtúil i leith na Gaeilge a chomhlíonadh agus go mbeadh ar na hollscoileanna a gcuram réimse iomlán seirbhísí a chur ar fáil trí Ghaeilge a thabhairt san áireamh agus iad ag earcú foirne. Dar liom gur cheart go mbeadh ar na hollscoileanna comhionannas teanga a chur i bhfeidhm agus iad ar freastal ar mhic léinn agus ar an bpobal go ginearálta, go mbeadh dualgas ar gach ollscoil cúram a dhéanamh don oideachas trí mheán na Gaeilge agus leagan Gaeilge dá n-ainm a bheith in úsáid ag na hollscoileanna a bheadh mar chomh-ollscoil na Gaeilge. Cén fath nach bhfuil "Ollscoil Náisiúnta na hÉireann Corcaigh", "Ollscoil Náisiúnta na hÉireann Baile Átha Cliath" agus "Ollscoil Náisiúnta na hÉireann na Gaillimhe" scríofa san Dara Sceideal?
I ndáiríre tá an-chuid maith sa Bhille seo ach ba mhór an trua dá ligimís don Bhille seo dul ar aghaidh gan roinnt mhaith leasaithe a dhéanamh a thabharfadh isteach seansanna an Gaeilge a threisiú agus seansanna cothrom na féinne a thabhairt d'ár bpobal uilig.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Many Members wish to contribute and I regret that the Second Stage debate is due to conclude this evening. I hope considerable time will be made available for debate on Committee Stage. The Minister has stated she will be generous about discussion on amendments. It is apparent that the Bill requires amendment.
With no sense of elitism, I can state that I am the product of two universities, UCD, when it was based at Earlsfort Terrace, and Maynooth College. I entered UCD at 17 years of age and studied for three years. Nine years later, at the age of 29, I attended Maynooth College as the first outside student to pursue a HDip. In between, I married, gave birth and developed in personal terms. It would be wrong to look back through rose tinted glasses but I remember with great accuracy and precision the three years I spent studying for a BA in Earlsfort Terrace. We never had enough money to do what we wanted at that time and we were extremely cavalier in our approach to our studies, as is the wont of almost every student. That has not changed since the first students entered Trinity College 400 years ago.
My most striking memories of student life in UCD are of certain lecturers, tutors and knowledge imparted and gained, not merely in study halls or tutorial rooms but through the atmosphere and character of the old buildings at Earlsfort Terrace. The knowledge I gained has stayed with me and provided a ballast and buttress against life's vicissitudes. Nine years later I attended Maynooth College as a mature student seeking to further increase my capabilities and professional qualifications. I was glad to study under the late Brother Ó Suilleabháin who was head of education in the college at that time. He imbued mature students with the sense that they could, with their teaching qualifications, gain and impart much in a pedagogical situation and from teaching in the classroom.
When I left the Department of Education five years ago this legislation was a gleam in my eye — I had one meeting with the relevant group. It was decided that the 1908 Act needed to be updated and I had the honour in 1989, on the day the general election was called, of introducing two Bills dealing with Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, I stated clearly at the time that these two Bills would need to be recited, so to speak, in any new legislation dealing with universities. I am honoured to have been the first Minister in the history of the State to introduce legislation dealing with universities.
The Bill proposes to establish the constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland and St. Patrick's College, Maynooth as constituent universities of the National University of Ireland, to provide a revised composition of governing authorities of universities and to provide structures for accountability and transparency in the affairs of universities. These aims seem simple at first but, having read the explanatory memorandum, the Bill and the Minister's speech in detail, they are absurd. This is clumsy and confused legislation. The Government had an opportunity in the Bill to trace in historical terms how the universities had come into being and to set out in philosophical and practical terms where they should go in the future. This is intrusive, prescriptive and heavy-handed legislation through which the Minister seems intent on leaving her imprint on every aspect of university life.
The rights of employment are subject to strictures which run counter to practically all employment legislation and certainly run counter to natural justice. In essence, the Minister is proposing the establishment of a State controlled university where academic freedom and creativity of thought will be stifled through excessive rules and regulations, ministerial rights of dismissal, arbitrary rights to override university charters, guidelines on practically everything that stirs in a university and the threat of publication inIris Oifigiúil for some unspecified misdemeanour. This is a far cry from Newman's idea of a university. In his essay “Christianity and Scientific Investigation” he states:
Great minds need elbow-room, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought. And so indeed do lesser minds, and all minds.
The Bill will not give anybody the type of elbow-room to which he referred because everyone will be circumscribed, allotted a place, time and sum of money and told what they may say and what rules they must obey.
I do not know the author of this over-intrusive legislation. I worked in the Department of Education for almost five years and I cannot recall any official who was imbued with these ideas or who would put them into print. I believe there was an outside influence on the legislation. They are not the Minister's ideas but, as the person who introduced the Bill, she must stand over them. I shall not name the person who I think had a major input into the legislation but he is from the south and has very definite ideas on many matters in the area of education.
The legislation is noteworthy for the pedestrian approach it adopts to a very noble idea, its remarkable lack of recognition and generosity towards the achievements of universities and its overweening assumption that universities should be peopled with subdued and subservient minds. Those of us who attended university have stories about what we did there, while one political journalist has written in very telling terms about his time at university. Be that as it may, we all have clear ideas of what should happen in universities. When reading about the 1908 Act I was struck by the liberality of thought and the freedom of expression at that time. It was part of an English idea on how to pacify the native Irish. Giving them universities and the right to formulate their own ideas was an attempt to kill home rule by kindness. That period was notable for its achievements and the 1908 Act was a notable achievement in its own right.
In his essay "Discipline of Mind" Newman stated:
You have come, not merely to be taught, but to learn. You have come to exert your minds. You have come to make what you hear your own, by putting out your hand, as it were, to grasp it and appropriate it. You do not come merely to hear a lecture, or to read a book, but you come for that kind of instruction which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you.
That is the essence of the lecture halls of a university. He goes on to say:
The result is a formation of mind — that is, a habit of order and systems, a habit of referring every accession of knowledge to what we already know,...
Students who read these essays during their university days may not have thought much about them or have felt they were beyond them, were esoteric and too academic. However, when one reads them now they are very true. He also states:
...in all learning, you must not trust to books, but only make use of them; not hang like a dead weight upon your teacher, but catch some of his life; handle what is given you, not as a formula, but as a pattern to copy and as a capital to improve;...
These fine ideas are as relevant now as when Newman wrote them 100 years ago. The test of good literature is whether it can still strike a chord many years after it was written.
The Minister did not recognise the universities' fine record in raising money for research and development. Trinity College, UCD, UCC, UCG, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth and the two new universities have increased the amount of money raised for research and development. When I was Minister for Health I visited Trinity College where I was told about scientific research that was being carried out there. The results of this research will enable people who are going blind from an obscure disease to keep their sight for longer.
Freedom of expression, the right to publicly disagree with the establishment and the right to be out of step with the status quo are the hallmarks of a university whose foundation is proper teaching. Freedom of expression was shown in the writings of Clonmacnoise and in universities such as Trinity College which was established 400 years ago. Lecturers, professors and students should have the right to state their point of view. Freedom of expression is so great it can lead to the overthrow of totalitarian regimes such as those in the former Czechoslovakia and in Hungary. Poets, scholars, teachers and students should be able to express their points of view in the comfort and safety of university halls.
Apart from Adjournment debates and parliamentary questions, I have not spoken on education matters since I left the Department of Education. This Bill is misguided and it seems strange that amendments must be made to it.
Should it not be sent back to the drawing board? My party leader and Deputy Martin issued a statement today about the Dublin Institute of Technology and Deputy Martin will table amendments in this regard. I ask the Minister to consider giving the Dublin Institute of Technology university status because of its scientific and other achievements.
I always thought that if a former Minister spoke on a relevant matter, his or her views should be considered. I ask the Minister to go back to the drawing board with this legislation which should include what other minds, greater than those in this House, believe should constitute a university. This Bill gives us an opportunity to enhance our vision for the future and to build on what has been achieved in the past.
Like the previous speaker, I am also concerned about the draconian nature of this Bill. If the Minister accepts the many proposed amendments, it will completely change this Bill. The Minister must examine the Bill with her advisers. The previous speaker, a former Minister for Education, believes this legislation did not emanate from the Department of Education. However, the Minister must accept responsibility for it. This Bill finds no favour anywhere, but least of all in the universities which the Minister is trying to improve.
This Bill is part of an overdue process of reevaluating the role and status of third level education. The most recent markers of this process were the Green Paper on education and the proposals for university legislation which the Minister published in November 1995. I am amazed at how little of the Green Paper or of the Minister's proposals is reflected in it. Gone are the principles in the Minister's proposals which set out "the right of a university to regulate its affairs in accordance with its ethos and traditions". Instead, a set of draconian powers have been given to the Minister to suspend university charters and governing bodies and to lay aside existing contracts of employment if the Minister sees fit to do so for so-called stated reasons.
It is little wonder that this Bill has attracted widespread criticism from all quarters, including the Higher Education Authority which is the Minister's advisory body. I want to consider some of those objections and how they reflect the concerns that if this Bill is enacted into law the integrity of universities will be compromised by the long shadow of Government.
As regards the provisions which will affect Trinity College, the Bill is both sloppily drafted and seeks to turn back over 400 years of university life as if that life and the contribution of Trinity College to the broader life of our nation is in some way backward or irrelevant. Section 16 (1) (b), for example, lists the functions of the governing authority. It states: "to appoint the chief officer and such other employees as it thinks necessary for the purposes of the university". This is a sweeping provision which denies individuals the right to any say in the election of the provost, unless they are members of the college board.
In one legislative swoop, the Minister proposes to challenge the position of the existing trustees of Trinity College and to replace them, without consultation or regard to their existing legal status and responsibilities, by a regime that is better suited to a semi-State body. I am not surprised that, even on the basis of that one clause, the fellows of Trinity may take legal advice because it not only undermines existing legal conventions but is one of many that offends Trinity's great history and integrity. To use the Minister's words, it offends "the ethos" and "traditions" of a great university.
Similar points could be made about constituent universities of the NUI. When the Minister introduced the Bill four weeks ago she told RTÉ its provisions were inspired in part by the senate of the NUI. She stated, "I have given them what they asked for". With respect, she was very selective in adopting its proposals. I support, in particular, its proposal to establish Maynooth college as a constituent university of the NUI. Fianna Fáil has a long-standing commitment in that regard. In its proposals the NUI outlined the importance of autonomy and academic freedom. It stated that the additional controls are inappropriate and that the Minister's mission statement was an excessively narrow view of the place of a university in a modern and enlightened democratic society. It also stated that the vital role of a university as an independent and political voice is not recognised and that universities need to have freedom to deploy and redeploy their resources as they see fit. Those proposals are glaringly absent from the Bill.
Rather than providing for those noble objectives, the Bill contains clauses that undermine university independence and provide for the dismissal of the Provost of Trinity and other university presidents. They also provide for side tracking university charters if they conflict with Government policy. This type of arbitrary power is unacceptable to Members on this side.
The Minister said she wants universities to be accountable for the public money they expend. I have no difficulty with that, but one would assume from the Government that universities are irresponsible and unaccountable. The Minister must know that under existing legislation our universities are accountable. Their accountability is spelt out in detail under the existing provisions of the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971 and the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act, 1993. The Minister's proposals are based on a distorted view of the State's allocation of public moneys to the running cost of universities. Little or no account is taken of the independent financial input the universities make to educational development and the broader economic and cultural life of the nation. The Bill goes even further and proposes to bring the private endowment of colleges and universities under the rubric of the HEA. Why should private moneys be accountable in this way? As this is unacceptable, I will suggest to Deputy Martin that sections 22(4) and 35(1) should be amended accordingly.
I also believe the clauses that repeat the powers of the Higher Education Authority and the Comptroller and Auditor General should be repealed. Why has the Minister included them in the Bill? She wants to parachute the Departments of Education and Finance and the Government into the universities, despite the proven regimes of answerability and accountability already in place. This is a dangerous road on which to embark. The Bill, as currently drafted, could leave the universities and their staff vulnerable to the whims of those in power. While this may be fanciful to some, the law is the law and this Bill, if enacted, poses such a threat to academic freedom that, irrespective of the Minister's intentions, the integrity and independence of universities will be severely compromised and undermined.
One way of getting around this would be to enshrine in the Bill a clause that would protect academic freedom and the right of each university to regulate its affairs in accordance with its ethos and traditions. This was included in the Minister's original proposals published last November but, for some strange reason, it was excluded from the Bill. Those principles should be reinstated.
The Minister is proposing a draconian role for herself that would not have been out of place in Eastern Europe 30 years ago, a point made by the President of University College Cork in his conferring speech on 17 October last. This kind of over-intrusion by Government has not proved to be durable or desirable. In this case, it implies that over-intrusion by Government is necessary because the universities have not been doing a good job. I reject that assumption because of the proven educational records of various colleges and universities and their broader contribution to social, economic and cultural life.
Universities serve the country well. They have not waited for Government handouts to diversify and develop. They have led the way through the courageous vision of their leaders and they certainly do not need to be led by Government. The Minister would be better advised to work in partnership with our universities — administration, staff and students — to benefit from what they can offer in the future. Instead she has chosen to confront them without just cause or good sense. She has also chosen to ignore the terms and conditions of employment of the existing staff. From my reading of the Bill, not only will the concept of holding office be set aside even for existing staff but it explicitly sets out to change those terms and conditions.
The clauses that govern the right to dismiss and suspend are also broad. The Bill also allows for changes in the operation of some superannuation schemes. Those changes are not only arbitrary and introduced in a non-consultative manner, but if they are not radically altered the Minister will sow the seeds for the disintegration of our universities. If the Bill is not withdrawn it will be a retrograde step for third level education. That is why some five weeks ago members of the Fianna Fáil Front Bench decided that on return to Government this Bill would be repealed. While the Minister has tabled a generous number of amendments, the Bill is beyond repair. It is broken down and cannot be restarted or repaired. It has already attracted more than 53 amendments from the Minister's advisory body, the HEA.
The Minister should take the hint, return to the drawing board and, following consultation with all involved, return to the House with a new Bill.
As Deputy Andrews stated, Fianna Fáil has decided the legislation is beyond amendment and on return to Government we will rescind it.
We have a number of reasons for opposing the Bill. It provides for an excessive and dangerous level of Government control and interference in NUI constituent universities. It threatens the academic freedom of universities which is vital to their continued development as centres of independent and critical thinking. The Bill severely undermines the security of all university staff by proposing to create arbitrary powers for their suspension and dismissal, to retrospectively override existing employment contracts and to repeal existing protective legislation. It represents a dangerous precedent which undermines the security of all workers and must be opposed on that basis.
The Bill fails to recognise the vital educational role played by the Dublin Institute of Technology since the 19th century by excluding it from its proposals, even though the international review group recommended that it should be allowed to make its own degree awards from 1998. The Bill also fails to address the need to provide for intensive training in foreign languages, in particular business language, in third level institutions. As such, the Bill lacks vision and fails to provide for the future.
On the question of Government control and interference, the ministerial paper "Position Paper on Proposals for University Legislation" published in November 1995 recognised that the principle of the right of a university to regulate its affairs in accordance with its ethos and traditions is of central importance, as is the expression of academic, operational and management freedom, consistent with the effective and efficient use of resources and accountability. At first the Minister recognised the value of protecting and encouraging the diversity which exists among our universities. However, in the past year the Minister has retreated from her original position and now seeks to impose a stifling conformity on university governance by omitting this provision from the Bill. More alarmingly, the Minister also proposes to entrench the role of the Higher Education Authority by significantly increasing its powers.
The Minister endeavours to force through such measures in the name of transparency and accountability. However, public review of university accounts and university governance is already provided for in the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971 and the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act, 1993. The Higher Education Authority wields considerable power over the development of university curricula and the university campus, staff salaries, numbers, structure, and student entry requirements. In section 33 of the Universities Bill the Minister proposes that the Higher Education Authority be afforded the power to formulate "guidelines" for universities. The Minister also reserves the power to publish the Higher Education Authority report if any university fails to act on Higher Education Authority guidelines.
The principal danger of such a provision, which would undoubtedly increase Government control and interference, lies in its opacity. The Minister has deliberately neglected to clearly define the nature and legal basis of Higher Education Authority guidelines, thus leaving the door open for the possibility of making implementation of Higher Education Authority guidelines legally or financially binding by linking implementation to the provision of State funding. The Bill also proposes to alter the role of the visitorial system so that the Minister would operate, to quote Deputy Martin, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education, as a "modern inspector general, sent out to do the work of an autocratic Tsar". The irony is that the HEA, to which the Minister wishes to give this extra power and on whose behalf the Minister says she is operating, has disowned the Minister on this issue. It has said it does not want these powers, it does not know what the Minister is doing and it has proposed various amendments to the Bill.
In section 28 of the Bill the Minister reserves the power to supersede university charters and internal university statutes where they may contradict the proposed Act. The Bill also provides for a reduction in academic representation on each university governing body to between one third and two fifths — Trinity College and Maynooth College are noted exceptions to this provision. The governing body is afforded the power to veto the election of any representative if he or she is a student or employee of the university. The Bill also proposes that internal governors can be appointed by the governing body "as it thinks fit". In view of the fact that the Minister has herself seen fit to radically reduce academic representation on governing bodies, the implications of these provisions for the freedom and independence of our universities cannot be underestimated. Surely it is essential that the independence and freedom of action of universities is sacrosanct.
Similar arbitrary and far reaching powers are afforded to the Minister and the Government in relation to the terms and conditions of employment of university staff. Section 22 (5) allows that a "university may suspend or dismiss an employee". The Bill also allows the Minister to reserve the power to supersede internal university statutes where they may contradict the proposed Act. In recognition of this power, the Bill states that all statutes which are deemed to be in conflict with the proposed Act are hereby repealed.
All university staff are demoted from the position of officer, as provided in existing contracts, to employee. Thus, protection afforded to university staff as officers under the Irish Universities Act, 1908 and the 1991 Act is summarily withdrawn. The Bill undermines the security of all university staff by proposing to create arbitrary powers for their suspension and dismissal and to repeal existing protective legislation. The proposed Act provides the Government with the unprecedented power to retrospectively override existing employment contracts. The proposals contained in the Universities Bill clearly undermine the security of all employees.
The Minister undertakes these changes in pursuit of her stated desire to enhance, modernise and consolidate the vital training and educational role of our universities. However, the Minister's stated objective flies in the face of the Government's action, or inaction, to date. Nowhere can this lack of interest be more clearly witnessed than with regard to funding. The Government has committed a mere 0.52 per cent of Structural Funds — £36.5 million from a total of £7 billion — to university development.
In spite of the severe lack of Government support our universities have expanded greatly in the past 15 years, making a nonsense of the Minister's claim that a radical overhaul of third level education is essential to bring our universities up to standard and exposing the Government's true intention to increase its power and control over the education system. Fianna Fáil undertakes to repeal this legislation on return to Government.
The universities have not been sitting around awaiting support from the Government. They have been out in the field raising funds internationally. They have developed the concept of commercial industrial business parks, such as the superb Plassey park at Limerick University. The same concept has been used at UCD and elsewhere. The dynamic of learning leading to investment and job creation exists already within the spheres of influence of the universities. This Bill will introduce the dead hand of Government bureaucracy to university initiatives and goes against the whole trend, which is why Fianna Fáil is committed to repealing it. Universities have played a vital role in Irish intellectual, social and political life for hundreds of years. On return to Government, Fianna Fáil undertakes to support and enhance that role rather than diminish it. Support must involve more than simple thanks for a job well done. It must involve more than thelaissez faire policy pursued by the current Government prior to the introduction of this draconian Bill.
Holes have appeared in third level education curricula from time to time. In the late 1970s engineering graduates were in short supply in Ireland and a concentrated effort was made involving co-operation between the Government and third level institutions in order to successfully bridge the supply and demand gap. More recently, the demand for qualified computer programmers and other IT consultants has been addressed by our universities and institutions such as the Dublin Institute of Technology. In recognition of the great contribution to the educational needs of the country made by the Dublin Institute of Technology since the 19th century, Fianna Fáil proposes that the institute should be afforded university status.
It is interesting that the Dublin Institute of Technology is not included in the Bill. This reflects the continued neglect of its strength as an educational institution. In December 1995 the Minister for Education established an international group which, having assessed the work of the institute, recommended that it should be allowed to award its own degrees from 1998. The Dublin Institute of Technology rightly feels that this recommendation is an endorsement of its reputation as a leading and progressive institute operating at degree and postgraduate levels and that this should be acknowledged with elevation to university status. The institute has been contributing to our educational needs since the 19th century and is widely recognised as being of university status and standard. It has endeavoured to be practical and progressive in its approach to education. I know the institute and its president firmly intend to continue as a unique multilevel university institution. The students attending that institute rightly deserve the same status as a university, namely its own degree qualifications as recommended.
Regarding the role of third level education and its relevance to the needs of our expanding economy, I return to the point I made about engineering graduates. In the late 1970s there was a shortage of engineering graduates and because of that the efforts of the IDA in attracting industry was badly hampered. At that stage a concentrated effort was made between the Government, universities, other third level colleges and the IDA to ensure an increasing number of electronic engineering graduates came on stream and places were provided to meet that need. That has proven to be very successful. A similar situation arises where, on the brink of economic and monetary union and during Ireland's fifth EU Presidency, we are experiencing a severe shortage of modern language graduates. I take this opportunity to warmly welcome the announcement today that Hertz Corporation will move to Swords and I hope its project will be very successful. Many other companies have changed their decision to invest here and have invested elsewhere because of a lack of modern language graduates. We need, in particular, intensive business language training at third level, at university or through the regional technical colleges. That is an urgent need in our export driven economy, in our electronics industry and particularly in the telemarketing area which includes information technology.
I heard that Delta Airlines changed its mind about investing here because there are not sufficient people available in the workplace with modern language skills. Telemarketing means people can make a telephone call in Germany, France or Italy to make a reservation with, say, Delta Airlines and that call can be answered in their native language through the International Financial Services Centre here. To attract that type of investment a sufficient number of our workforce require continental language skills. It is vital that the Minister comes to grips with that by establishing a task force made up of officials from the Department, the IDA, the universities and other third level colleges to make a concentrated effort to ensure this opportunity to create very good employment is grasped and not lost to other parts of the world. I appeal to the Minister not to put this matter on the long finger but to address it with the greatest possible speed.
We must be visionary and vigilant to address the appearance of such educational black spots before a crisis point is reached. We must undertake to work in close partnership with our universities to reach a fuller understanding of their needs to build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.
The Bill is full of ideological baggage but lacks vision. Because of that and the massive Government interference it proposes in the universities sector, I call on each Member to oppose it. Regarding this commitment and those concerned about this subject, the Minister might force this Bill through with the Government's temporary voting strength in this House, but she does not have a mandate to do that. Fianna Fáil undertakes to repeal this legislation on return to Government.
This is a very controversial Bill and the Minister has been quite ill at ease with the response to it. Its general tenor radically undermines the whole philosophy of university education. Those inside and outside university life have been appalled and dismayed by the main proposals of this ill-advised and ill-thought out Bill. The Minister and the Government have failed to understand theraison d'être of a university and the need for independence of thought of such an institution from the arms of Government. Surely this should be the basic tenet of any democracy. As President Mary Robinson on the occasion of the award to her of an honorary degree in Poland so eloquently stated:
... we will need, above all, the support of certain lasting values which the university more than any other institution in society is committed to uphold and promote — the free interplay of argument and discussion; a critical approach to the orthodoxy of the times; a passion for truth; and freedom to express the ideas which emerge from the restless questioning surge of the human intellect.
... what society most needs, whether it realises it or not, is a continuous, constructive but critical judgment from within... In society's own interest, we ask for the freedom to be critical in analysis, dispassionate in the search for knowledge but passionate in its defence.
The underlying philosophy of the Bill effects the transfer to State agencies of powers at present vested in the universities in a manner and to an extent which is wholly inappropriate in a democracy. This Bill, as proposed, would result in a much greater bureaucratic interference by Government in the day to day workings of the university. There is no respect for the ethos, traditions or the academic operational and management freedom of the university. Why is there such a discrepancy between the Minister's original position paper and the Bill? Will we see yet another U-turn by the Minister on this matter? Perhaps, if we do, it may be far more welcome than what is before us today.
Any Bill on university life should recognise that a university strives for academic excellence to advance knowledge, to promote the cultural and social life of society, to disseminate the outcomes of its research in the general community and to regulate its own affairs in accordance with its ethos.
The Minister does not seem to understand the supreme importance of these basic tenets and seems to infer, through this Bill, that our universities are not making efficient use of resources and are not accountable to the public for the use of public funds. She has not recognised that our universities have begun to adapt to change and to growing needs in the areas of fundraising and the use of technology.
The Minister has denied any democratic approach regarding internal governors who are to be "appointed" by the governing authority "as it thinks fit" and not elected by the relevant committees. As my party's spokesperson on Education, Deputy Martin, said, this is nothing less than dictatorship. The Minister has not taken account of the protective legislation on the Statute Book.
The publication of this Bill has demonstrated a Stalinist way of thinking which would seem to be the prevalent approach being taken by the Labour Party on this sensitive issue. This will be resisted by Fianna Fáil which, as my colleagues have said repeatedly, is committed to repealing the Bill if passed into law in its present form.
Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt anseo anocht ar ócáid ina bhfuil Bille Ollscoile á phlé don chéad uair le blianta fada i dTithe an Oireachtais. Creidim go bhfuil tábhacht ar leith ag baint leis an mBille seo mar go dtugann sé deis don Aire seo agus don Rialtas seo rudaí tábhachtacha a dhéanamh chomh fada is a bhaineann sé le neamhspleachas na n-ollscoileanna. Creidim gurb é dáiríre atá á dhéanamh ag an Aire seo agus ag an Rialtas ná srian thar fóir a chur leis an neamhspleachas sin agus gan aon chúis leis seachas ídéalachas Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre.
Six weeks ago the Minister told us this Bill represented the most radical assessment of our universities since the Irish Universities Act was passed in 1908. One could forgive her for patting herself on the back if this was the case, if the Bill embodied a thoughtful consideration of the role of our universities in society and if it was the result of full consultation with the heads, staff and students of our universities. Everybody interested in its fate knows the Minister's flowing introduction was not a tribute to work well done, that it was instead little short of a crude ego trip.
We now know the real offering of this Bill is not to be found in the Minister's speech but in a statement she gave outside the House the previous day when she realised it was so flawed that it was in need of generous amendment. These are her words, not mine. This partly explains why she has been so reluctant to find a debating slot to discuss her so-called radical proposals.
I can appreciate the Minister's reticence to come openly before the House and her desire to keep a low profile. The Higher Education Authority was so unhappy with what she offered that it leaked a devastating criticism of her and proposed 55 amendments to what she is trying to push through the House.
The heads of our universities have also been highly critical. I understand the Minister is trying to buy them off before she sums up later this evening and to salvage the Bill on Committee Stage but as she tries to save face, would it not be wiser, more responsible and more open, accountable and transparent to realise what is obvious to all, that the problems with the Bill are so basic that a mere cut and paste job will not suffice or are we back to where we were a few weeks ago when a Minister's incompetence is to be glossed over by ignoring ministerial responsibility for what in this case is legislation which has gone seriously wrong?
It may be that the Minister will prevail on university heads, the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Finance to salvage something of this Bill but even if she succeeds in buying them off, it is far from a responsible and positive assessment of our universities. It is exactly the opposite. It has neither purpose nor vision. The Minister now knows this.
What makes this all the more unfortunate is that the Minister's position paper on proposals for university legislation, published in November 1995, brought together the views and considerations of a number of people and institutions involved in third level education. These included the senate of the NUI which proposed that its constituent colleges should be accorded university status. Fianna Fáil has long supported this view and welcomes in particular the designation of Maynooth as a separate university. This has been its long-established policy.
The Minister knows that most of what the NUI, the existing universities and others proposed in connection with the proposals made last November has been ignored in this Bill. She is making too much of very little. That is one of the problems with it. It promised much. Contrary to what we now know to be the case, it was presented as something which had widespread support.
On 30 July when the Minister made her first statement on the occasion of the circulation of the Bill she thanked "the staff of the universities through their associations", students and graduates for their contributions. She also acknowledged the contributions of Senators to the debate in December 1995 on the proposals made the previous month.
Behind all this rhetoric we should note that the Minister had not met any staff or student association in more than a year. I was privileged to be present when the Irish Federation of University Teachers made a presentation to the Select Committee on Social Affairs. When I asked whether it had sought a meeting with the Minister and whether she had responded, I was appalled and shocked to learn that, despite several requests, it had not managed to meet her. On 7 November the clerk of the committee wrote to the Minister on the chairman's instructions, on foot of a Fianna Fáil proposal. On 13 November IFOUT wrote to the committee thanking it for its representations which had directly resulted in the Minister asking for a meeting on 19 November. As for listening to what Senators had to say, the reality was best revealed when Senator Shane Ross resigned from the Fine Gael Party in protest against the Bill.
There are other inconsistencies in how the Minister proposes to address the organisation, staffing and management of the universities. There is the issue of how this Bill proposes to deal with university staff. To say that what the Bill proposes under this heading is arbitrary and illegal is an understatement. The level of public concern at the Bill's dismissal of existing terms and conditions of employment as well as existing pension schemes is reflected in the large volume of letters I and others have received in recent months.
The Bill is in contravention of labour law in that it arbitrarily proposes to break contracts and put in place a less favourable set of conditions for future staff. This is unacceptable. On Committee Stage, on the assumption I will still be able to recognise the Bill, Fianna Fáil will propose that existing contracts should not be interfered with and that, in respect of present and future staff, the provisions of section 40 (3) should be applied to everybody.
Section 40 (2) states that staff "shall not, while in the service of the University, receive less remuneration or be subject to less beneficial conditions of service than the remuneration at the level to which he or she was entitled and conditions of service to which he or she was subject". That provision applies only to staff at Maynooth, and while I welcome the protection it gives to those staff, I cannot understand why it has not been extended to the staff of every university. It is one thing for the Minister to ignore existing contracts but it is illogical and immoral to apply the law differently within the same sector.
There are inconsistencies in the way the Bill proposes to deal with university governance. The Minister said last July that the structures would provide for "broader representation on governing authorities". She did not tell us that, according to the terms of section 14 (2) (b) (ii) and (iii) of the Bill the academic representatives should be appointed by the governing authority, that under subsection (4) employee representatives should be appointed by the governing authority and that under subsection (5) student representatives should be appointed by the governing authority. Nowhere in the Bill are there provisions for the democratic process of electing representatives. Even in section 14 (4) the existing provision whereby graduates elect their representatives is not carried over into this Bill.
On the other side, chief officers as well as the Minister are given wide powers to appoint members. The Minister goes further and reserves to herself the power to suspend the governing authority, the President of an NUI, DCU and UL, and the provost of Trinity College Dublin, and to suspend university charters and statutes if, to use her words, for stated reasons she deems this to be an appropriate course of action. Under the Bill the Minister may act if university statutes are in conflict with the Bill. That is an appalling affront to university independence. I thought that State control over universities had fallen with the Berlin Wall, but I am appalled it is beginning to re-emerge in the Labour Party, albeit for stated reasons.
All these powers are draconian. They are too vague and arbitrary to put them into law as a code by which to regulate universities. The draconian theme runs through the Bill. It is a Bill that confronts, not a Bill that seeks co-operation or that will inspire university staff to build on their proven commitment and contribution to the life of the nation. The heavy-handed and bureaucratically stifling nature of the detailed regulations set out in the Bill is puzzlingly at odds with all the earlier statements by the Minister and previous Ministers for Education on the need to guard the freedom of universities.
The excessively regulatory role proposed for the Higher Education Authority in particular gives great cause for concern. Everybody realises that universities are fully committed to the principles of public accountability and the effect of adherence thereto in respect of the use of public funds. Under the existing system universities are subject to the most stringent scrutiny of their stewardship in respect of public funds. Their accounts are audited by their own auditors and by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the results, together with annual reports, are available to the Minister, the Higher Education Authority and the general public. There is no evidence that their stewardship of public moneys has given cause for concern or serious complaint. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that the Bill seems pervasively suspicious of and frequently hostile to universities and that its provisions reflect a lack of trust in the universities' objectives, effectiveness and sense of responsibility. It is a highly restrictive regulatory instrument which reveals a profoundly mistaken understanding of the nature of a university as an independent voice in an open, democratic society.
The Bill seeks to control the routine, staffing, investment, budget management, planning and evaluation management of universities by legislative provisions which are similar to and occasionally more stringent than those applied to semi-State commercial bodies. It is unacceptable that provisions in the proposed legislation should alter without consent, diminish or constrain the rights, constitutional, statutory or contractual, currently enjoyed by university staff. Unless it is decided that the Bill be withdrawn for substantial redrafting and reintroduced at a later date, there is urgent need for substantial amendments to and deletions from the current Bill if it is not to do irreparable harm to universities, one of the success stories contributing to Ireland's international standing as a modern and developed State and a civilised society, as successive Taoisigh, Ministers for Education, Government representatives and distinguished commentators, Irish and others, have frequently declared. The most pressing need is for a declaration of principle at the outset which acknowledges the freedoms proper to universities in running their affairs and provides a framework within which all other provisions of the Bill would be interpreted and elaborated.
The Minister seems to have a problem with the Dublin Institute of Technology. Since publication of the Bill a cogent, persuasive case has been made by Dublin Institute of Technology, which does not deserve the dismissive attitude adopted by the Minister. The six colleges which make up the Dublin Institute of Technology have 13,500 full-time equivalent students, including about 4,500 who are involved in degree and post graduate courses. We all agree the Dublin Institute of Technology constitutes a significant part of our third level system. It deserves recognition for the vocational character of many of its courses, by which it maintains particularly close links with the public and private sectors.
Given that Dublin Institute of Technology students obtain degrees, its recognition as a full university is logical. University status for the Dublin Institute of Technology would accord with the recommendations of the international review group set up in 1995. There is no apparent reason the Minister has not acted on those recommendations and transferred the funding and oversight of the Dublin Institute of Technology from the Department of Education to the Higher Education Authority, as recommended by the review group. Fianna Fáil believes the real reason the Minister has refused university status to the Dublin Institute of Technology has more to do with concentrating power in her Department than doing what is best for universities and colleges. That is reflected in the Universities Bill which seeks to curb the natural and very important independence of universities by bringing them under the direct control of the Minister and the Higher Education Authority.
Our party spokesperson has published 138 amendments to the Bill. It is probably the largest number of amendments ever produced by an Opposition spokesperson to a Bill which all of us expected would receive a very warm welcome. Our partners in Opposition may publish a similar number of amendments, not to talk about the number of so-called generous amendments the Minister will bring forward. Committee Stage debate on this Bill will be a matter of great interest to Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas as well as to students, parents of students, teachers and heads in third level institutions.
At the stroke of a pen the Minister has conjured a legal nightmare. She has affronted and insulted a great sector of Irish life by ignoring most of what they have to say and twisting the remainder to merge with some party manifesto. The Labour Party manifesto on higher education is arbitrary and cavalier. It has been worked out without consultation and without recognition of the legal rights of university staff and university statutes. The worst that can be said about the current position of the Bill is that the Minister should heed the deafening silences of the Labour, Fine Gael and Democratic Left backbenchers on the issue. The best that can be said is that before she returns to the back benches herself, she should scrap the Bill and return to the drawing board.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Foley.
That is agreed.
Initially I want to express my full support for the idea that the legislation governing our third level institutions, particularly the universities, is urgently in need of an overhaul and upgrade. As the Minister stated, there has been an increase in student numbers from approximately 10,000 in 1960 to approximately 50,000 today. This represents a staggering fivefold increase over a 35 year period. Therefore, when the Minister announced the proposal to draft the current legislation I looked forward to examining the Bill and making a constructive contribution to the debate. With the Minister's personal professional experience in the educational area, I thought the Bill would be an exciting and positive collection of proposed improvements and innovations. Unlike some commentators I also anticipated that a certain emphasis should be placed on the concept of accountability in the third level sector since Exchequer support for the universities alone amounts to approximately £220 million each year.
How does one react to what the Minister has brought before us in this Bill? Does it reflect a masterly assessment of the current state of development of our universities? Does it recognise the need to equip those institutions to fulfil their vital national role as we approach the 21st century? Has the Minister been inspired to see a clear way forward towards ensuring full accountability on the part of the universities while at the same time protecting their intellectual freedom? Has the Minister sought to address the serious side effects of the points system, and has she seen an opportunity to tackle the social scandal of appallingly low participation rates from the most economically deprived communities?
Sadly, the answer to each of these questions is negative to one degree or another. Rarely have I read such legislation which is so lacking in focus, purpose or meaning. It is difficult to believe that the Minister, with her wide educational experience, could have got this Bill so wrong. While we will probably never know the full truth in this regard, the Bill does not do justice to the Minister and she has a unique opportunity to show her political maturity and sense of responsibility by withdrawing it before this nonsense proceeds any further.
Before examining a number of sections of the Bill which are particularly appalling, I want to make some general comments regarding the lead-up to its presentation. In particular I want to make a point I have made a number of times before in this House as we consider major proposals across a wide range of ministries. It relates to the fact that so little meaningful preparatory work seems to be carried out before a Minister sets about designing a new Bill. In particular, scant regard seems to be paid to researching the matter in depth before attempting to identify the best way forward. In the context of this Bill, for example, is it not vital that we at least receive a detailed assessment of the role and operation of the Higher Education Authority before we commit ourselves to significant new universities legislation? In other words, will we ever audit the auditors?
This lack of assessment of the HEA's structure and operational performance is a major deficiency in the lead up to this Bill. Similarly, we should have comprehensive research information on the performance of each of our universities over the past decade and a detailed list of substantial problems encountered by each such institution. In this way we will be able to assess the major developmental challenges facing our third level institutions and be in a position to assess the level and quality of self-assessment in each institution. How otherwise are we to come to any meaningful evaluation of the overall performance of our third level institutions?
We have not had the benefit of a planned build-up to this vital legislation. We can only guess that this critical homework was not done by the Minister before she put pen to paper on this appalling Bill. I will now examine some of its details to highlight some of its many failings, large and small.
At an early stage in the Bill there is evidence of the core importance of the Higher Education Authority in the operation of the overall third level sector. Sections 8 and 9 outline its key advisory role in determining and assessing the merits of either incorporating an existing educational institution as part of a university or establishing additional universities. Yet the Minister has not given us any assessment of the performance of the Higher Education Authority or indicated her position in terms of carrying out such a process.
The objectives and functions of universities are outlined in sections 11 and 12. In many ways the aims outlined in section 11 are aspirational. For example, how precisely are the universities to "promote the official languages of the State, with special regard to the preservation and promotion of the Irish language and cultures"? The simple reality of modern university life is that there is an increasing division between the so-called traditional liberal disciplines and the more career oriented courses such as medicine, engineering, commerce and computer science.
Before leaving section 11 I note with great disappointment that the most important objective of any institution of State does not rate a mention by the Minister. This is the duty to cater equally for each citizen of the State. In other words, our universities must promote the most important goal of all, namely, the provision of social justice and the elimination of poverty and deprivation. For long enough our universities were the preserve of the social elite. As a Labour Minister for Education I am extremely disappointed that the Minister did not see fit to highlight such key duties of our universities.
The Bill really hits a low point when it comes to the various sections dealing with the governance of universities. The proposed balance on the various governing bodies is nothing short of disgraceful. For example, while only approximately one-third of the permanent staff of some universities are employed as academics, nevertheless such staff have a hugely disproportionate representation on the governing bodies. This provision is totally unjust to administrative, clerical, technical and maintenance staff.
The fact that the academic community of each university already has an academic council in which to air its views adds to the insult inherent in the Minister's proposals. As a former member of a governing body I am aware that the core issues for discussion at meetings are more focused on policy, direction and operational matters than on purely academic issues. Consequently, if the governing bodies are to adequately represent the interests of staff, some degree of proportional representation is essential if the Bill aspires to be democratic. Sadly, this is not the case in the current instance.
It must be particularly upsetting for the predominantly female clerical and secretarial staff of the universities to read section 14 (9) which states: "In performing its functions under this section a governing authority shall ensure that each sex is represented on the governing authority with such gender balance as may from time to time be determined or approved by the Minister". How shallow and nonsensical this subsection is seen to be when a key section of staff, largely female, is left to fight for a few meagre seats on the governing body. If the Minister decided to simply adopt basic democratic principles when setting out the representations on the various governing bodies she would not have to resort to empty posturing in terms of gender balance.
As if she had not already shown enough contempt for simple fairness and equality towards the colleges' non-academic staff, the Minister seriously compounds the problem when she further attempts to interfere with their basic democratic rights. For example, while it is proposed that graduates of the college should continue to have representation on the governing bodies through an electoral process, the Minister amazingly wants to prevent staff of the colleges taking part in this democratic process. One must ask whether the Minister is aware of the basic constitutional rights of each citizen of the State. To attempt to prevent individuals from putting themselves forward, often at great personal expense, as candidates for open election to governing bodies clearly shows a level of insanity which surfaces from time to time in the Bill. Such a proposal is an insult to all employees of universities, many of whom obtained their degrees through night study over many years.
As if this was not enough by way of showing contempt for the many non-academic employees of our universities, the Minister further proposes that such college employees should be prevented from co-option to the governing bodies as a matter of right. This proposal is disgraceful and seems to be aimed at preventing independent minded and informed people in the universities making a vital contribution to the democratic operation of their institutions.
I can only repeat my total outrage at the Minister's grossly unbalanced proposals in relation to this most important aspect of the governance of our universities.
As if there might be some mistake in this regard, the Minister shows her lack of insight into the internal operation of our third level institutions when she addresses the issue of who should chair meetings of the governing authority. It is vital that the role of the chairperson and chief executive should be separated at all times. Our modern third level institutions are far too large — often comprising 20,000 or 30,000 students and staff — to allow a single individual to act as both chief executive and chairperson of the governing authority. However, the Minister has decided to allow such a practice to continue. Does she not have the slightest concept of what happens when such a concentration of power is allowed?
My eager anticipation of this Bill has turned into great disappointment at a major opportunity lost. When I consider the appalling inequality in participation rates at third level education across our community, my disappointment turns to anger. For example, even though the State's expenditureper capita on third level education far exceeds that at either primary or secondary level, the difference in participation rates between affluent and working class communities can vary as high as 20:1. Incredibly low levels of third level participation rates are evident, for example, in many areas of my constituency.
Two years ago, I played a leading role in persuading the Taoiseach at the time, Deputy Albert Reynolds, to provide State support for a £20 million extension of UCC to Our Lady's Hospital and its 50 acre site on the north side of Cork city. The proposal had a number of clear advantages. These included Government support, proximity to the existing campus, generous parking and developmental space, and a very affordable cost estimate of approximately £20 million from a highly respected Cork firm of quantity surveyors. Despite almost unanimous governing body support, the project was turned down by the Higher Education Authority with little or no explanation other than a brief statement suggesting a real cost in the region of £40 million. To this day I await clarification of the precise mechanism employed by the Higher Education Authority in coming to its decision. If the principles of openness, accountability and transparency have any value, surely such information should be readily available.
I thank my colleague for sharing his time with me.
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution on the Universities Bill, 1996. It provides for the designation of University College Cork, University College Dublin, University College Galway, and Maynooth as constituent universities of the National University of Ireland. It also marks the first overall legislative assessment of our universities since the Irish Universities Act, 1908. This is an opportunity for the House to consider the role of third level education in our changing society. Most of the universities predate the foundation of the State. Exceptions are the University of Limerick and Dublin City University, established by Fianna Fáil in 1989. These and other third level colleges, for example, the more recent regional technical colleges have served this country well. All third level institutes have responded to social change and have been willing to have due regard to the needs of citizens and the State.
The Bill before us proposes to lay aside university charters and to supersede existing contracts of employment. If the Bill, as drafted, is accepted it will set precedents that can be applied to both the organisations and the terms and conditions of employment that apply, regardless of existing agreements. It cannot avoid legal problems with regard to industrial relations.
Universities thrive on freedom. Many have attracted large-scale private research funds. Why the need for tighter State interference? It is accepted across a wide spectrum that we are getting good value for money from our universities and third level colleges. They have to meet the challenge of the marketplace, despite the large element of State funding which will never be sufficient for all they want to do. The people involved in our universities are best placed to judge what is required without further State involvement.
Financial autonomy is an integral part of the universities' independence. Structures are already in place for a supervisory role in ensuring that public moneys are spent to the best advantage and are properly accounted for. The Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act, 1993 and the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971 are tried and tested instruments of financial accountability. No Deputy in this House believes that universities should be exempt from public scrutiny, given that they qualify for public funding. The President and Provost is already the chief accounting officer, and the accounts are subject to scrutiny by the Dáil Committee of Public Accounts. The Higher Education Authority already exercises extensive controls on salaries, curriculum and development, student entry requirements, staff numbers and structures and campus developments. It is already entitled to any information or records it requires from the many universities, to attach whatever conditions it wants to university budgets and to demand that budgets be adhered to. As a result of this Bill, these powers will be duplicated.
The colleges have been most successful in drawing up and implementing unique financial packages which have been instrumental in securing sizeable contracts as well as private funding for new buildings and facilities. For this achievement they deserve our congratulations, and the Government should support them in their efforts. The Minister should encourage her colleague, the Minister for Finance, to consider giving tax concessions to benefactors who donate substantial sums to our colleges. In recent years, many individuals, companies and multinationals have contributed substantial sums as a result of appeals from the universities. This trend should be encouraged. Tax incentives would help to further increase donations.
I have received a number of representations from students in Kerry who attend institutes of technology. These institutes have been seeking full recognition for a number of years. I appeal to the Minister to seriously consider their position as they are giving a tremendous service, and the Minister now has the chance to give them the recognition they are seeking.
The Minister had the right idea when she decided to address the need for legislative change in the university sector. Demand for places continues to exceed supply, and there is a growing and widespread awareness that some degree of third level education is always necessary for a number of reasons. It provides those vital extra years of study which allows the student to come to terms with the increasingly complex issues which face young people as they make their way in the modern world. The maximum level of education also greatly adds to one's chances of gaining meaningful and secure employment. Thus the Minister had a free hand to contribute in a major way to the further development of our third level education provisions when she commenced work on her Bill.
There were only two major clouds on the horizon in the sector. The dominating influence of the points system continues, with its very serious negative side effects on second and third level education. The lack of research into how this appalling blight on many young people's education and lives can be substantially reduced is one of the great scandals of modern Irish education. I will cite two examples that illustrate the totally unacceptable face of this system. A student who is excellent at just one subject, say, English literature, and gets an A on the relevant honours leaving certificate paper may not gain a much desired place on a BA course because of his or her performance in other subjects. What a waste of talent.
A second side effect is the impact of the points system on the manner of teaching in second level schools. Who can deny that too great an emphasis is placed in the curriculum on subjects which are capable of being taught purely to maximise a student's points potential? As a result vitally important subjects such as art and music fall by the wayside in relative terms. Furthermore, minimal attention is paid to areas such as health, education, civics and preparation for life generally. While all students suffer from the current lack of balance in our second level curriculum which is, to a large extent, due to the unacceptably high influence of the points system, those young people who do not go on to third level, by choice or out of necessity, have every reason to complain. The system, which should be highly focused to ensure they receive a comprehensive preparation for life has instead placed great emphasis on a process which is ultimately of no value to them.
The second factor the Minister should keep in mind as she addresses the needs of the third level sector is resources or, perhaps more properly, the perceived lack of available extra resources. In this regard the Minister has to accept responsibility for her decision to abolish fees at third level irrespective of means. While the idea that education should be free at all stages has a large degree of merit, the Minister's decision has to be assessed in the light of the need to promote social equality and justice in our society. When making her very important decision in relation to third level fees, one has to wonder what the Minister's priorities were. Did she in some way feel this decision would be of some benefit to those families who are most economically deprived in our society? It would stretch credibility even beyond the ridiculous levels reached here last week to believe the Minister had any noble ideas of social justice in mind when abolishing fees. The simple fact is that when the Minister allocated extra resources to many deserving middle income parents struggling to give their children every possible educational opportunity, she also gave an unexpected financial bonus to those who are most well off in our society.
It is valid to suggest that education should be free irrespective of one's means. However, it must be equally stressed that such a position is only tenable if each sector of society has a realistic opportunity of availing of our third level education services.