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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Jun 1999

Vol. 506 No. 3

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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Bill. As the House will know, there was a major black spot on the north side of the city in that it did not have an institute of technology. While we are well endowed with DCU, the absence of a regional college of technology severely damaged participation in third level, particularly in working class areas of the north-west of the city. The Blanchardstown Institute of Technology will change that. It is important that the opportunity afforded by the establishment of this institute is seen as an innovative approach to participation in third level education of those who traditionally have not gone on to third level.

Thankfully 60 per cent of the cohort now go on to third level and, if we include PLCs, there is about 80 per cent participation among students who sit the leaving certificate. However, there is still a huge gap to be bridged in that the level of participation is as low as 5 per cent in some communities. There are serious issues to be addressed on the north side of the city in areas such as Darndale, parts of Coolock, Mulhuddart and in many of the newly developing areas.

The Blanchardstown Institute of Technology must not be a replica of the Regional Technical Colleges and institutes of technology that already exist. If we apply the same model, we will have the same outcome. It is disappointing that the Bill does not contain an innovative legislative framework for this institute. It will take on board the same functions, objectives, regulation system and so on as applies to the other institutes. We expected this institute to strike out in a new direction and the Minister to amplify some of the objectives in the existing institute of technology legislation to cater for the new mandate of the Blanchardstown institute.

There is no doubt financial support will have to be addressed in a more innovative way. The Minister and Minister of State have acknowledged that as regards participation by mature students and those from non-traditional backgrounds in third level education, it is not enough to introduce the grants scheme and leave it at that. We must develop programmes of financial, curricular and academic support for students to ensure they get into college and, more importantly, do not drop out after a certain period.

As I said last night, the drop out from college is a black hole about which we know very little. It would be interesting to discover if it is more concentrated among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I fear it is and it is disappointing that the Minister has not given hard information to enable us analyse the drop out rate which, at 35 per cent, is a serious problem. Too often it is seen as a problem in just financial terms because the State spends £10,000 per year and does not get any "product" at the end of it, but the loss to the students who participated in the full expectation of success and had their hopes dashed is more important. We need to analyse the background to the high level of drop out and use the Blanchardstown institute as a model to ensure those mistakes do not occur again.

I am pleased the Minister recognised the great opportunity afforded by the institute for participating with information technology companies. The arrival of IBM, which is a major company not only in terms of employment but in terms of bringing a campus of activities to that area of the city, opens up the opportunity for a fruitful partnership between the institute and the industry in general. Other colleges, particularly in Tallaght, are to be commended on the more flexible approach they have taken to developing programmes suitable to industry and to students who have job commitments. It is disappointing that the Department's thinking is way behind in many ways. It still refuses to recognise part-time study as being on a par with full-time study. It is crucial that we recognise part-time study as being the way of the future and not allow it to remain the Cinderella of education. If what Ministers say about lifelong learning is to become more than rhetoric, there must be suitable packages to support part-time study.

Colleges have been equally slow to offer more flexible courses. Deputy Higgins would be critical of modularisation and bringing education down from its lofty objectives, but access is crucial. Modular delivery of education which allows people to get recognition for what they do in part-time courses is crucial to giving access. I recognise Deputy Higgins's concern to ensure the broader needs of education are not lost in the process. However, it is crucial that institutes such as Blanchardstown are innovative in developing programmes people can access, using the scope of information technology to foster distance learning where possible. I sound a word of caution about distance learning. The evidence is that it is often disadvantaged students who find it most difficult to participate in distance learning because it presupposes a very high level of familiarity with the support structures of education. The institute must ensure there is a very supportive environment as well as offering the opportunity for distance learning. It is more than just developing programmes and hoping people avail of them. It must develop structures with an element of outreach and support to achieve participation.

There is pressure regarding the need to encourage a high level of participation and achieve quality outcomes. For example, a college in the Thames Valley in the UK was a flagship in terms of the achievement of much wider participation in disadvantaged communities. It was seen as an innovative college in that regard, but it has recently run into difficulties and I understand the board has been threatened with dismissal because the college is not achieving certain academic and quality standards. It will take careful management in terms of ensuring the maintenance of the highest standards while at the same time achieving wide access and participation. They are by no means in conflict; they can be achieved together, but a conscious decision must be made at the outset that both will be run in tandem.

This relates to the issue of resourcing. There is nothing in the Minister's speech or in the Bill to suggest that innovative funding mechanisms will exist for the new institute in Blanchardstown. It appears the institute is being asked to pour its new wine into the same old skins which the Department offers to all institutes of technology. There is a need for innovative thinking from the Department regarding its funding mechanisms and I am interested to hear the Minister's views on that aspect because his speech was remarkably light in terms of concrete evidence of new policy support mechanisms from the Department for the new institute. He used rhetoric regarding what he wants it to do, but there will be a need for a partnership which will involve resourcing between the Department and the Minister and the authorities of the new college. It is important not to pass the legislation in the expectation that the new institute can be run identically to all the other institutes of technology if it has to take on a more challenging role.

I welcome the establishment of the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown. In constituency terms, I would have preferred it to be located further east where it might have been of greater benefit to people in my area. This issue was much fought over in the past and many people advocated Finglas as a more suitable location. However, those debates are long over and the introduction of the Bill is welcome.

I raised the issue of the participation of parents and teachers in vocational education committees. The Bill provides for a change in the mechanisms of appointment in respect of the vocational education committees in the South Dublin, Fingal and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council areas. It is extraordinary the Minister did not use the Bill to ensure that parents and teachers are represented from the outset on the new vocational education committees which will be formed soon, following the election of the new county councils. I ask the Minister to outline the agreements he has entered into with the different councils and the appointing bodies for the vocational education committees to ensure that parents and teachers will be represented from the outset.

The legislation governing the appointment of such persons to vocational education committees will not be published until later in the year. There is a need to put in place an agreement, if it is not already in place, to ensure reasonable arrangements are made now so parents and teachers can participate from the outset and the appointments made on a pro tem basis will not be in conflict with any subsequent legal requirements the Minister may develop later in the year. This is a good time to ensure that everybody knows what the ground rules will be later in the year and that if parents and teachers are appointed on a pro tem basis, it will not necessitate a rerunning of elections when the Minister publishes the legislation. There must be a reasonable indication of what will be required for selection now and there is a need to ensure that those involved in the selection process on a pro tem basis make the correct arrangements.

I ask the Minister to outline whether all vocational education committees intend to appoint parent and teacher representatives from the outset. Has he received any indication in that regard? It is important that these arrangements are put in place. Section 11 contains a legislative vehicle where, by amendment, a minimalist requirement on a pro tem basis on all vocational education committees can be signalled in terms of how this area should be handled until the full legislation is introduced.

I thank the Minister for introducing the legislation and congratulate those who put such enormous effort into getting the project to this stage. They are recruiting rapidly and are very much involved in the difficult process of getting a college off the ground. I express the appreciation of this side of the House for the efforts which are being made to make the project a reality. The college will open up new avenues for many people who did not have such opportunities in the past. It will forge productive alliances with industry and the community in ensuring that education becomes a lifelong learning experience for an increasing number of people.

However, I would like more of the footprints of the Minister of State on the Bill in terms of his adult education remit. It appears the legislation is drawn from the word processor of the Department of Education and Science dating back many years and it reflects no new thinking on the part of the Minister of State or others involved in those areas.

I join the Minister, the Minister of State and Deputy Richard Bruton in wishing the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, every success. There should be no doubt that everybody wishes the new institute a successful launch and future. The only issue which divides us is how the vision will be constructed under which the new institute will deliver on its obvious promise and the expectations of the people in the area.

The Minister was cross in his introduction of the Bill, which is short, minimalist and technical. Therefore, whatever contributions we wish to make will probably be made on Committee Stage in terms of adjusting the nuts and bolts of the legislation. However, the Minister said some people had used every opportunity to knock the new institute. I do not know to whom the Minister was referring; I have been the spokesperson for only a short time.

The Minister said that some people have over the past year sought every opportunity to question this project and seek short-term publicity by misrepresenting or ignoring the level of commitment and dynamism behind the project. He said the bottom line is that they had 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 never appeared. This was perhaps what one might call a post-election flourish informing the Minister's rhetoric. He can be assured that we all wish the new institute well, but some of us have questions about how it will fill the space in education in Blanchardstown, I also agree with Deputy Bruton that, in light of the well meant and thoughtful contributions by the Minister of State on adult, continuing and life long education, this was an opportunity to do more. To illustrate that, when I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht we allocated funding for a number of capital projects under the community development incentive scheme to build theatres and multi-purpose arts centres in Longford, Letterkenny, Sligo, Tallaght, Portlaoise, Cork, Limerick, etc. We deliberately allocated funding for Blanchardstown and the theatre cum arts project is an important part of the infrastructure in the area. For that reason – I say this in a non-partisan and constructive way – if there is to be a great deal of artistic and creative activity, from both the formal creative and artistic sector and the voluntary sector, it would be useful to have this as another source from which to draw strength for the new institute.

The Minister listed what the institute would do to provide opportunities, which was welcome, and including its contribution to specialist higher education for leading edge industries in the region, including upgrading specialist skills to higher technical and technological levels; providing continuing education and meeting the needs of mature students; providing in-service courses; retraining and updating of skills in third level education; meeting special needs arising from educational disadvantage or disability and apprentice education and liaison with FÁS. I would also have provided opportunities for linking informal creativity to the educational structure.

If there is to be a multi-purpose arts centre with a performance space – not just what we are used to, a formal theatre with a proscenium arch, but also interactive spaces for different formal and informal uses – it will provide opportunity for dance and movement, the visual arts, aural presentations, etc. These are creative aspects which have informed the best of the audio-visual, information technology and creative design sectors. The new people in computer aided design have strong backgrounds in basic art and architectural training, and there are also people from good informal training backgrounds.

I have no hesitation in saying the modular approach is worthwhile in constructing informal bridges and links and creating the flexibility through which people who have not gained access through previous methods can do so. I am also in favour of the modular approach for in-service and continuing education. I have doubts about the approach in the mainstream, core education structure because I see a problem with the syllabus. We can debate this matter because it varies from subject to subject and even between different aspects of one subject. Some subjects lend themselves to modular presentation, others involve the cumulative build up of a critical faculty. For theoretical innovation to be possible a different type of training is required.

Some may ask what this has to do with Blanchardstown IT but that highlights the flaw in much of what is said about institutes of technology in general and Blanchardstown IT in particular. People are inclined to sell these institutes of technology as if something less is good enough for Blanchardstown, whereas I strongly feel the opposite – something new and exciting, which will combine things in an entirely fresh way, is possible in the new institute. It is, therefore, important to establish this as a fact on Second Stage. It is not that, at the beginning, there was a shortage of skills and a need to upgrade specialist skills, etc., but, unfortunately, that is how it is being presented.

I hope the Minister will accept the following constructively. In my brief time as Labour spokesperson on Education, I have found him to be high on energy but short on vision, as can be seen from his contribution. The Department is congratulating itself because this is the lead project of the year which we must finish in two to three years, but so what? We can applaud its administrative ability but we are talking about education.

How does this institute fit into the educational needs and future of Blanchardstown? I have nothing against it meeting the skills shortage, helping to upgrade skills and prepare for new ones, but it is much more visionary to ask what are the needs of Blanchardstown as an extended group of communities in terms of life long and second chance education, from pre-school through to retired people. Given those needs and human curiosities, let us do all the functional and useful things but let us also locate the institute in the creative educational needs of the region.

I do not want to use the language of "we delivered", for which I have no time – milk is delivered. What is the meaning of the phrases, "we offered" and "we delivered"? We are talking about State moneys and expenditure. For example, I allocated money for the theatre and I am sure it will be delivered by my successor and at least five other Ministers at one stage or another. We fall over each other with that kind of language; it means nothing. For the record, Blanchardstown IT was a Labour project in Government, I am happy it has reached this stage and I congratulate those responsible for the legislation. In fairness to the Minister, he may be referring to the fact that when Blanchardstown was planned 25 years ago an educational facility of this kind was envisaged but it did not happen until now. We all are glad that it is happening.

I hope there is a vision behind the Government's opportunity on education. Should we get another chance to discuss it, we should ask what it tells us when there are low participation rates in third level education in areas not too distant from third level institutions. What are the nature of the gaps which stand between these areas of huge population expansion and participation in third level education? I was a third level teacher for over 20 years; my previous remarks on this may have upset some people but it is true that much of the third level ethos is not welcoming to people from certain backgrounds.

The Minister will have to think strongly about what happens during the first year of third level education to people from many different socio-economic backgrounds, who feel a great sense of strangeness and alienation in an institutional setting for which they get little preparation and from which they get little assistance when they experience problems of adaptation. When students passed the hurdle of first year they felt much more secure and part of the system but there was under-provision for the first year. The amount of counselling available in third level is crazy. I believe it is built on a class assumption, which is that students come from well heeled classes that are reproducing themselves and that this is unnecessary. However, it is necessary, though I know there are specific exceptions. There are good libraries which spend perhaps two months showing third level students how to use the library and access information. That is precisely what is needed. Students must be shown how to feel at home in third level institutions.

If participation rates at third level are improved by this, and they will be, we must not get the new institute labelled at anything less than its full potential. It should also be open to fuller versions into the future as it builds upon the strengths that it will establish in earlier years.

The business sector is loved by everybody. I respect it as well but perhaps I do not love it as much as those who are moved to ecstasy by mentioning it. That sector is continually telling us of its training needs. I know it has needs that are not in the general public. Irish middle management is one of the most poorly trained in the world. At conferences, it comes out with such a lot of guff that imitates and derives from the latest piece of rubbish published in America, that it would make one weep, given the absence of theoretical rigour in much of the work. The odd brilliant exception quickly moves into higher management or emi grates. Some managers are good but there is a big difference between being lucky at making money and being able to manage well, particularly when it comes to managing human institutions. Leaving that aside, it might be asked if the stakes are being upped all the time in terms of recruitment policies. Put bluntly, the bottom line is that the new institute must provide what is good for all the children of Blanchardstown and for all the adults in Blanchardstown who want to come back to education. It should supply the needs of industry incidentally. I have laboured this point and for that I am sorry.

I have listened with interest to the competing applications for the location of this institute in Blanchardstown or Finglas. The new institute will contribute to the participation possibilities of all the children in west Dublin and that is good. However, we are moving towards a point at which every child will have to have the opportunity of third level education. There is no longer anything exceptional about seeking third level education. As it becomes the normality of experience, it must become as full and creative as possible.

Lest it thinks I have shifted my eye off it, apart from the Department of Finance's opposition to many of my projects, including Teilifís na Gaeilge, my memory is of that Department arguing rather strongly against this project. I could be wrong but I do not think I am. I am speaking from memory and not breaching the Supreme Court ruling by referring to conversations I heard on the periphery of Cabinet meetings. There seemed to be great difficulty in getting that Department to agree to this college in west Dublin as it felt there were enough third level colleges there. We can debate that another day.

If the Minister for Education of the day wants to spend resources on this, the Department of Finance should walk away and get on with its own business, such as trying to get the projected income of the State correct. We will come to a point at some stage at which it will have to back off. For the record, my best memory is that that Department opposed this. If the Minister of State thinks this is an ancient, restrictive matter, my memory also suggests that the present Minister for Finance opposed this. However, that can be clarified later.

Some of the regional technical colleges that have now become institutes of technology have had the benefit of the same people not just on vocational education committees but on their boards of management for even longer than I was a university teacher. I know some of the same people have been chairpersons for 27 years. There is a great merit in retained wisdom but there is also some merit in occasionally allowing others to replace those who have been in place for quarter of a century. If this is the case, it emphasises the importance that attaches to the Minister giving some indication in the next two to three weeks of the composition of vocational education committees. I accept there will be changes, though I do not want to hear those today but it is very necessary that the Minister indicate to the various local authorities that a new composition is being envisaged so as to create flexibility, if not spaces, for parents, teachers and others on the vocational education committees. Those vocational education committees will nominate people to the boards of third level institutions in turn. It is very difficult to get anyone off a board and some people have clung with dedication to their positions on vocational education committees, which have put them on the boards of regional technical colleges, as they were, and they have in turn been put on selection committees and other bodies. I feel we are confident enough now to be able to dispense with much of this continuity and to open some windows for teachers, parents and those who, in raw innocence, might have energetic innovation to offer rather than the wisdom of a quarter of a century.

The Minister's reference to 60 acres struck me immediately. It means this is a generous campus in size and would have its own playing fields as well as indicating it would have its own library facilities from the beginning, which many of the regional technical colleges did not have, as well as a restaurant. It should not be the victim of generosity in breadth and planning in terms of what it invites the people of Blanchardstown to do and it should not be the victim of any snobbery either. It is true that when people came to see me in the past they would say "but that is the tech." Much of that mentality has thankfully gone and that is why I feel that rather than limiting ourselves to what is functionally needed by either industry or institutions at the moment, the Blanchardstown Institute of Technology should be broadly and generously conceived to be saying it will be doing new things in terms of recovering those who want to come back into the education system in a way that is not being done anywhere else. I could give an example of what I have in mind at a different level in relation to animation and audio work in the Ballyfermot college. It is not just among the best in Ireland; it is the best in Europe and among the best in the world simply as a result of brilliantly insightful people doing new things in an entirely new way. I hope that is what happens in Blanchardstown.

All third level institutions depend on the gift, quality and commitment of teaching. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that countries like Ireland sought to compare themselves in terms of research, publication and promotion models to other countries on the basis that what the other countries were doing had to inherently be the best. I see this as a post-colonial adjustment. No matter what one's profession or job is, and both are work, people recall the dedicated, gifted communicator who was able to listen and to communicate complex material with clarity. That is most important and I hope the Blanchardstown Institute of Technology is staffed by people like that. The Minister said that some of the senior staff have been appointed. I hope the institute recruits people such as those I have described, that the community responds to it and that it has a generous and broad future. I wish it well.

Adjustments to the structure and membership of the board of the institute and its relationship with the VEC can be made on Committee Stage. I welcome the fact that the Bill has reached this stage.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill by the Minister. It represents another stage on the way to the successful establishment of the new institute of technology in Blanchardstown. The measure is technical in character, converting the institution which has already been established into an institute of technology within the meaning of the regional technical colleges legislation.

I was fascinated by Deputy Higgins's outline of his philosophy of education. I detect a change from what I had understood was the general direction of Labour Party philosophy up to the last general election. I was delighted to hear Deputy Higgins extol the virtues of diversity of type in higher education institutions and the idea that such institutions should not be developed according to a rigid plan. I agree with his views regarding the development of a relationship between the new artistic centre in Blanchardstown and the institute of technology. This is a new idea which Deputy Higgins has introduced into today's debate and it presents an avenue which must be explored.

My single reservation regarding this project has been that in establishing an institute of technology within the meaning of the regional technical colleges legislation, we might impose too rigid a pattern on it. I realise that the educational bureaucrats like to pour the material of new institutions into a definite mould. Given the range of new investment in the Blanchardstown area and its unusual population profile with a concentration of young people, we are presented with an opportunity to establish something new. Whatever legal forms are followed, that is the Minister's underlying intention.

I welcome the fact that the Minister drew attention to the importance of second chance and adult education in the new institution. The institute will be situated in an area where there have been low participation rates in education and where there is now a great volume of inward investment, so that linkages can be established with the commercial sector for the enrichment of the institute.

It is my understanding that the last Government made a decision in principle to locate the institute in Blanchardstown rather than Finglas but the task of securing financial approval for the project was left to the current Government. I share Deputy Higgins's view that the Department of Finance expressed reservations about the development of the project, but it is to the Government's credit that it proceeded with it. While it has been recognised by all political interests for a number of years that this was a desirable project, the Minister is to be commended on expediting it. The Minister has brought the project forward so fast that when it was announced last year courses could not be prepared in time for the 1999 CAO handbook. Applications for the courses are being handled by the central applications office and I understand that the four additional courses for next September are already fully subscribed. This is remarkable when one considers that the courses were not even advertised in the CAO handbook. This should put to rest any doubts about the need for this institute.

The site for the institute is ample and is beside the location of much technological industry and also areas which have experienced some of the worst social problems of recent decades. The location seems to have been chosen during the interregnum between the last Administration and the present one, and it is the right location.

I wish the institute well and thank the Minister for the work he has done in bringing this project to fruition as quickly as possible. The Minister, the interim board and Mr. Ó Néill who acted as chief executive with the interim board, deserve tremendous praise for the speed and efficiency with which they proceeded with the project.

The legislation provides for the establishment of a board and for transitional arrangements before the board, within the meaning of the legislation, can be established. I have some reservations about the composition of boards established under the regional technical colleges legislation. The number of members appointed to the boards can make them unwieldy. Smaller boards might provide a more efficient management structure for the regional colleges. That is a small reservation compared to the general welcome which I extend to this measure. I am pleased the Government has allocated the necessary money to ensure that it will proceed as fast as possible.

The institute will be housed in temporary buildings for the time being. It is felt that, as the institute evolves, it can decide what are the appropriate buildings for its requirements. The original regional technical colleges which were established in the late 1960s were designed in the same format, rather like the old Board of Works or even older Commissioners of Education designs for primary schools. We have moved from that policy. Instead of putting up buildings and making people fit into them, we prefer to motivate people, establish courses in temporary buildings and allow people to decide what surroundings they prefer. This is an appropriate way to develop the physical shape of a third level institute. It is important that the size of the campus is ample. Many of our higher education institutions have not been so. Although in the heart of Dublin city, Trinity College has a variety of playing fields. Many institutions outside major urban centres do not have the same provision. The provision of ample physical space for the Blanchardstown institute is welcome. It is located in an area where land is very valuable. Fingal County Council, the Industrial Development Authority and the Minister for Education and Science worked together on the provision of the site and their co-operation and partnership is to be commended.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.