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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Jun 1999

Vol. 506 No. 2

Regional Technical Colleges (Amendment) Bill, 1999: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Last year the Government agreed to the planning, building and funding of an institute of technology at Blanchardstown in Dublin. This represented the realisation of a plan which had seen many false dawns, much inflated rhetoric and no real commitment. The institute is now one of the largest building projects in the country and its first students will be enrolled this September. Applications have been strong and the institute already has in place a group of highly qualified and motivated staff.

To facilitate the establishment of the institute, a company entitled Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown Limited was incorporated under the Companies Acts on 11 December 1998. The company is and was intended to be merely a device whereby the institute could be given legal personality pending the enactment of appropriate legislation.

The general aim of this Bill is to provide for the dissolution of the company known as the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown Limited, and the establishment of the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, on a statutory basis. It will place the institute within the institute of technology sector and provide for the application to it of the legislation which governs institutes of technology, the Regional Technical Colleges Acts, 1992 and 1994. The main provisions of the Bill are the dissolution of the company entitled Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown Limited; the establishment of the institute within the Regional Technical Colleges Acts framework; and the appointment of the governing body of the institute.

Early in 1998 I set up an establishment board under the chairmanship of Mr. Donal Connell, the general manager of 3 COM Technologies and vice president of the 3 COM Corporation. When I appointed the board I gave it the task of completing strategic planning for the new institute and making arrangements for the commencement of courses. I pay tribute to the work of the members of the board who are drawn from both the private and public sectors and who have given freely of their time since their appointment. To facilitate the establishment of the institute, a company entitled Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown Limited, was incorporated under the Companies Acts on 11 December 1998. The members of the establishment board were appointed as the members and directors of the company.

Following this, the institute was designated by the Ministers for Education and Science and Finance under section 20 of the NCEA Act, 1979, on 15 December 1998 and has received NCEA approval for the following new courses: national certificate in engineering-electronics and com puter engineering; national certificate in computing-information technology; national certificate in business studies; national diploma in business studies-information technology and French; and national diploma in business studies - information technology and German. Because of its crucial role in extending opportunity and meeting the needs of this region, the institute, like other institutes, will offer apprenticeship courses. An advance building is being provided on the site to accommodate 450 students and the institute plans to offer about 250 places on the courses beginning in September 1999. A standard prospectus is available and was sent to all second level schools.

While it was not possible to have the institute included in the CAO Handbook for 1999-2000 applications for its courses in September 1999 are being handled by the CAO. School leavers and mature students seeking third-level places for 1999-2000 were able to specify courses in the institute in their list of choices when filling in their CAO applications before 1 February 1999.

The institute has filled senior management posts of registrar, secretary-financial controller, head of development, head of school of informatics and engineering, and head of school of business and languages. The institute is also currently engaged in filling other academic, administrative and support posts and these appointments will be made in the lead-in to the commencement of courses in September 1999. The need to expand educational opportunity has been central to my policies as Minister for Education and Science and I have viewed the establishment of a third level institution in Blanchardstown as a crucial element of this.

On 30 September 1998, I announced formally that the Government allocated £20 million to fund the capital costs of the first phase of the institute. The new campus will have 900 full-time student places in this phase of development which is scheduled to be ready for occupation for the academic year 2001-2002.

This Bill is the final part of this initial process to formally establish the institute under the regional technical colleges Acts. The amendment to the regional technical colleges Acts is required to ensure that the institute will have the same powers and functions and the same management and governance arrangements as the existing institutes of technology.

It is not often that a Minister for Education and Science gets the opportunity to launch a project capable of changing the educational and social landscape so dramatically. The new institute in Blanchardstown is one of those projects. An investment of this size cannot be undertaken lightly. It requires considerable planning and deliberation and must justify itself in the face of many competing demands.

The Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown will be a landmark. Physically, it will offer a modern, accessible campus, set on some 60 acres at Blanchardstown Road North. It will have state-of-the-art computer and electronic laboratories and modern well-designed lecture theatres equipped with the latest audio-visual teaching aids. It will be able to offer students a welcoming and supportive academic and social environment through a fully resourced library with on-line facilities, restaurant and a range of student support facilities including its own playing fields. The institute has the capacity to become a new focal point for north west Dublin.

The institute will be a landmark in other ways. It will join former regional technical colleges, now institutes of technology as part of the national provision for third level technological education. This sector has rightly earned public esteem by making and continuing to make a significant contribution to our economic success. As the newest member of the group, I want Blanchardstown Institute of Technology to make its presence felt right from the start. In particular, I expect it to be courageous and innovative in its approach to access, to second-chance education and to life-long learning.

I see the new institute as a model for the future in many respects. It will help to meet the skills needs of emerging industries. It will also devote itself to improving the level of participation in third level education and training in north west Dublin. This is an area with one of the lowest participation rates in the country, a situation which we cannot allow to continue. The institute will only have achieved its mission if it succeeds in making a significant impact on the level of participation in the region.

As it develops, the institute will provide a flexible education and training framework responsive to economic and social needs both locally and nationally. The emphasis will be on: specialist higher education for leading edge industries in the region; upgrading specialist skills to higher technical-technological levels; continuing education and the needs of mature students; in-service courses, retraining and up-dating of skills in third-level education; special needs arising from educational disadvantage or disability; apprentice education in liaison with FÁS.

The institute must adopt marketing, admissions and student support policies to ensure that a high proportion of its students are non-standard entrants. This means applicants, including mature applicants, who meet the entry requirements other than by way of the leaving certificate examination, students with disabilities and students from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.

The second part of its remit is equally important, namely, helping to meet the skills needs of emerging industries. In this respect, an institute of technology in Blanchardstown will have a distinct advantage. Some commentators have started to compare the greater Blanchardstown area with Silicon Valley. Without doubt, the concentration and growth of high-technology industry in the region over the past five years or so has been spectacular. There are great oppor tunities for the new institute to forge links with these companies, to establish innovative models of co-operation and to mutually benefit from the synergy between industry and education.

The institute of technology, Blanchardstown can offer what industry wants – talented, hard-working people equipped with cutting-edge skills. I have no doubt that business and industry will support the institute in whatever way it can, including providing input to course development, offering co-operative education opportunities and sharing resources.

The location of the new institute will lend itself to precisely this kind of interaction. The institute will be located on Blanchardstown Road North. It will be established in conjunction with a new business park that is being, developed as a joint venture by Fingal County Council and IDA Ireland. I see the institute as a flagship, operating right at the heart of a network of business parks and clusters of industry.

Planning permission for the provision of internal roads and services and for the widening of the adjoining public road has been received from Fingal County Council and work has commenced on a temporary access road to the advance building. The design team for the new institute has been appointed and architectural planning is advancing with a view to completion of the new campus in time for the 2001-2002 academic year.

The design and construction of a long-term purpose-built campus necessarily takes considerable time and the target completion date of autumn 2001 seems a long way off. This is why preparations are under way to provide a system-built advance building on the site which will be ready to receive students in September 1999. Section 11 of the Bill is essentially a technical provision to ensure that any legal doubts about the constitution of vocational education committees in the Dublin-Dún Laoghaire area are clarified.

The Vocational Education Act, 1930, provides that every county borough and every county shall be a vocational education area and each such area shall have a vocational education committee. Until the Local Government (Dublin) Act, 1993, came into effect, there were three vocational education committees for the Dublin-Dún Laoghaire area corresponding with the three local authorities – Dublin city, Dublin county and Dún Laoghaire. The 1993 Act altered the local authority structure for the county and Dún Laoghaire by creating in this area three new local authorities – South County Dublin, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown In the normal course, given the provisions of the 1930 Act, this would automatically have precipitated the establishment of three new vocational education areas with committees. However, section 19, of the 1993 Act did not change the status quo as it existed before commencement of that Act. In other words, both the committees and the vocational education areas of County Dublin VEC and the Borough of Dún Laoghaire VEC were unaltered. Accord ingly, as the law stands, while County Dublin VEC and Dún Laoghaire VEC, as statutory corporate bodies, remain in place, the law does not provide a mechanism to appoint members to the committees after the local elections. Section 11 deals with this issue.

As to the long-term structure of vocational education in the Dublin-Dún Laoghaire area, it is my intention to engage in consultation with the interested parties on this matter as part of the preparation of the Vocational Education (Amendment) Bill which I intend to publish later this year. In the meantime section 11 will retain the status quo and allow for those consultations to take place without affecting the effective operation of the committees concerned.

We have come a long way since a regional college was first mooted for Blanchardstown. Much has been done, and it is now the largest single third level project in the country by some distance. Much remains to be done to meet the schedule of commencing courses next September. I am confident that what needs to be done can and will be done.

Some people have, over the last year, sought every opportunity to question this project, to seek out short-term publicity by misrepresenting or ignoring the level of commitment and dynamism behind the project. The bottom line is that we have delivered the funding and support which was missing when Blanchardstown was fast entering mythology as one of those projects which was promised at election time but would never appear.

I pay a warm tribute to my officials and the incredible work of the acting director and his staff. The commitment of the establishment board has also been exemplary even though it has involved a major imposition on the time of very busy people. The enthusiastic reaction of the local community and the support already evident in the number of applications for enrolment this year, show that Blanchardstown has a great future ahead of it.

This Bill will place the new institute at Blanchardstown firmly within the "family" of institutes of technology. It is, therefore, an important Bill, which deserves wide support, and I commend it to the House.

I welcome this Bill. Anyone who has seen the growth in the west and north-west of the city will have identified the yawning gap which exists there. We have been very fortunate that industrial policy in recent years has opened up opportunities in the information technology sector. It is crucial that we exploit those opportunities to bring jobs to areas in the north-west of the city which have traditionally been disadvantaged. It is commendable that this college will get off the ground in the autumn. I do not understand why the Minister is so defensive in presenting this. He seeks to criticise his forebears and these short-term publicists about whom he is so worried. He should learn to put those con siderations aside and look at this issue on its merits.

We must question the success to date of the education system in addressing the needs of those from disadvantaged communities who wish to participate in third level education. I am disappointed the Minister is simply pouring this new institution into the well worn skins of the institutes of technology legislation instead of carving out a new model for Blanchardstown. He is committed to ensuring that this college is innovative, yet the legislation is a shell which says that the institute will be identical to all the other institutes of technology.

I would like to have seen a more serious effort to address the issues which prevent people from disadvantaged backgrounds from participating and to make this a model which will develop change in this area. To an extent the Oireachtas will float this institution with its best wishes but with no signposts directing the path it should take. The Minister and his successors will have the ability to point it in certain directions through the funding mechanisms but new thinking about how to succeed in encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go onto third level education is required.

There are extraordinarily low participation levels in areas such as Darndale, the north inner city, Mulhuddart and some areas around Blanchardstown. We cannot avoid the conclusion that many of the well-meaning efforts made in the past to encourage participation have not been successful. The White Paper on education set an increase in participation of 500 per year as a target. By now there should be 2,500 people from disadvantaged backgrounds in our third level system. The figures achieved in the intervening years are a far cry from that. It is welcome to see Blanchardstown opening to fill a gap which has kept participation well below national averages.

There is need for more innovation to support people participating in third level education. It is impressive that many partnership companies have taken a lead. Although they work with budgets which are a fraction of those available to the mainstream education sector through the Department, they have been more innovative and have stretched out the hand to those who would not normally participate. Many of the partnership companies, such as the North-South Partnership Company in my area, have introduced low cost schemes which have made a world of difference to participation. We should give mainstream recognition to those needs. These people are operating on a shoestring. More resources in that area and a mandate to develop innovative approaches would get much more from the system.

This Bill is technical in nature. We need to see new policy approaches which would have equal application in stretches of my own constituency, the Taoiseach's constituency and the west of Dublin. We want to see satellites develop from Blanchardstown to accommodate developments in Finglas, Darndale and other areas which need a similar approach. I hope Blanchardstown will be innovative in stretching out to reach other areas.

Any Bill dealing with an institute of technology would have to refer to the black hole which exists in third level education – the extraordinarily high drop-out rates we are experiencing in the institutes of technology. Drop-out rates are high internationally and rates of 20 per cent are not untypical. Anecdotal information, however, from the points commission suggests a considerably higher figure, some claiming a drop-out rate as high as 35 per cent. When in Opposition the Minister regarded this as a scandal which had to be addressed as a priority. It is strange that we have no better information two years later. We are still relying on patchy information about the level of drop-outs.

Why is this happening and what can be done about it? Blanchardstown should look at the causes of this from the outset. If people have come to third level through a non-traditional route, such as post leaving certificate course, there is a need for colleges to go the extra mile in terms of foundation and continuing support to ensure drop-out rates do not occur in those cases.

The Minister should ensure that the resourcing of a college such as Blanchardstown will not be on an automatic pupil-teacher ratio. If the Minister genuinely wants to make this a college which pushes the boat out and encourages participation, he must abandon the mechanistic approach to its funding and look at more flexible models of funding which allow it to do things in an innovative way. I was surprised the Minister did not mention that area in his speech. How is this college to develop into a model which does the sort of things he wishes it to do? There is no indication of strategy in legislation, policy or methods of funding which the Minister will adopt in relation to the new institute in Blanchardstown.

It is extraordinary that the Minister would come into the House with provisions to amend the appointment of vocational education committees but not to deal with the issue which has dogged him for so long – that parents and teachers have no legal right of representation on vocational education committees. We are putting in place legislation to provide underpinning for the vocational education committees involved but we still do not have the simple legislation which would grant parents and teachers the right to representation on all vocational education committees. Deputy Michael D. Higgins has consistently raised this issue. People are concerned that the newly elected local authorities will form committees without consultation and the Minister will have a hard job persuading those committees to accommodate the rights of parents. There is no statutory basis for elections for parents. There will be unnecessary complications in ensuring that, from the outset, parents and teachers are represented on new vocational committees.

Debate adjourned.