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

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

This Bill is primarily about the establishment, on a statutory basis, of the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown. I welcome the measure and I wish the new institute every success. I specifically want to address a provision in section 11. That deals with the establishment of the Dún Laoghaire Vocational Education Committee and the County Dublin Vocational Education Committee, following the current round of local elections.

As a member of the existing Dún Laoghaire VEC, I am aware of the discussions the VEC has had with the Minister for Education and Science and his officials regarding this matter over the course of the past year. The problem that arises goes back to the breaking up of the old Dublin County Council and the establishment of three new councils in Dublin – Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

I recall the debate on the legislation at that time when I proposed specific amendments so that vocational education committees should be established to correspond to the new county councils. At that time I was told it was the Government's intention to introduce separate vocational education legislation which would provide for the reorganisation of the vocational education system. I was also told that the situation of the vocational education committees in Dublin would be addressed in that context. That did not happen, however, and, following the 1999 local elections, we now find ourselves in a situation where before the publication of section 11 of this Bill there was literally no statutory provision for the appointment of the Dún Laoghaire VEC or the County Dublin VEC.

I understand that in this Bill the Minister is proposing that the currently elected Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will appoint the Dún Laoghaire VEC. It is also proposed that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council will jointly appoint an enlarged 16-member County Dublin VEC. I understand that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will appoint two members, with seven each being appointed by the other two county councils.

This is a stop-gap measure. Over the course of the past year or two the case has been put to the Minister that he should at least have provided for the establishment of a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown VEC before the 1999 local elections and before the appointment of new vocational education committees. This would have corresponded to the existing Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county area. I am extremely disappointed that he has not done so.

I want to explain the kind of difficulties that will now arise from the arrangement which is proposed in the Bill. That is, the appointment by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council of a VEC which will have responsibility for only about half of its administrative area. In addition, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will appoint only a minority of members on the County Dublin VEC which will be responsible for the remainder of the area.

Dún Laoghaire VEC, which is to be appointed under this arrangement, will correspond in area only to the old Dún Laoghaire borough. The boundary of that borough is now quite outdated. Areas which are naturally contiguous to Dún Laoghaire and part of the wider Dún Laoghaire area are excluded from it. I am referring to areas such as Shankill and Cabinteely as well as parts of Ballybrack, Sallynoggin and Glenageary, all of which consider themselves to be part of the wider Dún Laoghaire area.

The two VEC schools in Dundrum and the one in Stillorgan, which are part of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county area, will remain part of the Dublin County VEC, even though they are part and parcel of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county. The non-school services provided by the VEC, such as the youth service and adult education, will, strictly speaking, only be provided to those within the Dún Laoghaire borough area by the Dún Laoghaire VEC. I understand, however, that some practical arrangements have been entered into by both vocational education committees whereby some of those services in the old county area will be provided by the Dún Laoghaire VEC.

A student living in Shankill, for example, who wishes to apply for a scholarship, will have to apply to the Dublin County VEC. If that student wants to see a VEC officer to pursue the scholarship application, he or she will have to travel to Tallaght to do so, rather than to the county town of Dún Laoghaire where the VEC is located. There are all kinds of practical reasons why the arrangement that is being proposed in the Bill is quite unsatisfactory. As we are dealing with Second Stage of this Bill, I ask the Minister to reconsider his position on establishing a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown VEC. I do not know his timetabling arrangements for the Bill, but the annual general meeting of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, to which I am pleased to have been re-elected, will take place this day week and there is not, therefore, a great deal of time for this matter to be dealt with.

I presume Committee Stage of this Bill will be taken between now and then. I ask the Minister to amend the provisions of the Bill to establish a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown VEC. I appreciate that the establishment of separate vocational education committees corresponding to the Fingal County Council and the South Dublin County Council may be a different matter and there may be other matters that must be considered in that context, and I am not making a case in that regard. As I understand it, there are, however, no practical reasons a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown VEC cannot be established and this Bill amended this week before the AGM of the county council next Thursday so that the county council, when it meets, will be in a position to appoint a VEC for the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area.

There is also another reason the timing of this Bill is coincidental. The current chief executive officer of the VEC is due to retire shortly and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his many years of outstanding work for the people of Dún Laoghaire and the successive vocational education committees he has served. The establishment of a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown VEC would coincide with the appointment of a new VEC by the county council and also with the appointment of a new chief executive officer by the Local Appointments Commission. I ask the Minister to provide for that as it is important to avoid the confusion I described.

Section 11 deals specifically with the County Dublin and Dún Laoghaire vocational education committees. The range of services provided by the Dún Laoghaire VEC are impressive. There are currently approximately 1,600 students in three colleges, the college in Sallynoggin, the senior college in Dún Laoghaire and the college in Cumberland Street, the majority of whom are pursuing PLC courses. There is a large demand for places in the three schools and a large number of applications have been submitted. In each case there is scope for expansion of the physical facilities that are available to the schools.

The VEC put a proposal to the Minister and his Department recently that the old Town Hall in Blackrock should be reconverted into a senior college in Blackrock to cater for a total of 600 students. A range of computer courses are currently being provided in part of the Town Hall building. That proposal was put to the Minister, with the agreement of the county council, which owns the building, and it is prepared to make the building available to the VEC if the Department of Education and Science puts up the necessary funding for its renovation to make it suitable for an educational building. The estimated cost involved is approximately £1.5 million. That building would cater for approximately 600 students in an area where there is a sizeable computer and software industry. It is important to provide such an educational facility, which could provide graduates for that industry and meet the big demand for such course places.

This proposal is supported by the local community in Blackrock and, in particular, by the Blackrock Chamber of Commerce, which has played a lead role in pressing for the establishment of a specific college based in Blackrock Town Hall. While this does not come under the Minister's specific remit as Minister for Education and Science, I am sure he would be interested to know that such a proposal would also have the added advantage of protecting a fine building and would ensure that part of the building that is in a state of semi-dereliction would be brought into active use as a building, and that would be a matter of great pride for the local community.

Similarly, the senior college based in Dún Laoghaire at Eblana Avenue has made an application to the Department for an extension of its facility in Eblana Avenue to cater for a further 200 students. The senior college in Dún Laoghaire is currently renting seven rooms across the road in the old Christian Brothers school. The senior college has a site and it is possible to extend the existing VEC building at Eblana Avenue to cater for a further 200 students. It would save the VEC the expense of having to rent accommodation. Apart from the educational advantage of providing additional places and the advantage to the school from a development point of view, it would also be welcomed in the town of Dún Laoghaire. It would contribute to the general upgrading of the town centre, some of which is now under way as a result of other developments which are taking place. This would make a welcome addition to the life of the centre of the town. I ask the Minister to give favourable and speedy consideration to these proposals.

I am very much aware the Minister is on record as stating he is anxious to increase the number of places that are available for third level students and, in particular, for the post-leaving certification sector. These are specific proposals in an area where there is a high demand for college places and where there would be a good return on investment educationally and physically. I urge the Minister to give it early and urgent consideration.

The VEC in Dún Laoghaire predominantly deals with the post-leaving certificate sector. In many ways the schools in Dún Laoghaire VEC were pioneers in developing post leaving certifi cate courses and have done so with great enthusiasm, enterprise and efficiency. Great credit is due to the management and staff of those schools for the development of those courses. I must, however, express some personal regret that by and large the second level element of the VEC's role in Dún Laoghaire has virtually petered out at this stage. There are now only a very small number of second level students within the VEC schools in Dún Laoghaire.

That pattern is not unique. Many VEC schools are continuing to develop as PLC colleges and the second level dimension of those schools has been gradually eroded, but that is no fault of the schools. To some extent there has been a drift from second level schooling away from many of the VEC schools. A strategic decision will have to be taken at some point as to whether specific vocational education committees or VEC schools will be involved in second level education. It is undesirable that vocational education committees are involved in second level education but fighting a losing battle to retain student numbers and maintain their presence in the second level sphere. Some thought needs to be given to that area. If it is the view that VEC schools should continue to be involved in second level education, they must be provided with the assistance to enable them to do so. Account will have to be taken of the intake of students to those schools, the educational levels of attainment of those students and the difficulty that poses for many of the schools. If this issue is not addressed, in four or five years' time, a demand may develop for the provision of the kind of second level education which is being, and has been, provided very well by many VEC schools but which is now gradually being lost to the second level education system. Before we reach the stage of having to reinvent the wheel in a few years' time, somebody needs to examine the existing wheel to determine what needs to be done to ensure its retention or disengagement from second level education, if that is the intention.

It is not desirable to allow the drift, which appears to be taking place, to continue. Many schools involved in second level education at VEC level are unsure about their future in that area. From a policy point of view, the Department and the vocational education committees concerned need to clarify this for schools so they can proceed with a degree of confidence in what they are doing.

This Bill gives us an opportunity to focus on the educational needs of regional technical colleges in the greater Dublin area and, more importantly in my case, in the area outside the capital which extends into neighbouring constituencies. This debate provides an opportunity to Members to refer to the educational needs in their respective regions, needs which are changing dramatically and which must provide for the competition likely to arise in the marketplace for future third level graduates. We are fortunate at present that there are ample opportunities for our population although there is no guarantee this will be the case in the future. However, it is timely to reflect on what is happening in the educational arena and how we are responding. For example, to what extent are we responding to those students who do not excel academically and how are we ensuring they manage when they go on to third level? Have we made adequate provision for them to be able to compete in that arena?

The number of opportunities which arise for students with a technical qualification is far greater than some years ago, and this will continue to be an area of great attraction. It will provide ready access to employment for the foreseeable future. Substantial training is being carried out within industry and regional technical college courses are also preparing students for employment. A great deal needs to be examined in this area in terms of assessing the needs of the various industries being established throughout the country with a view to giving students a high level of competence to cope with competition. It will also give them a much greater chance of gaining access to that employment in the first instance, rather than spending a long period in training. Instead, the firms involved will be able to give a greater preference to those with a propensity to work in technical areas and they will be given a head start.

I wish to deal with current educational needs as opposed to those of a few years ago. There is a need for greater liaison between universities and regional colleges and a great deal of work is taking place in that area. In Maynooth we are fortunate to have a national university which is now responding to the technical requirements obvious to everybody. I do not know if the education system responded quickly enough in that area. For the past five or six years, industry has been identifying technical needs which have not necessarily been responded to in the shortest possible time. If we do not make a reasonably dramatic response to the technical needs of industry, unfortunately it will not invest here.

We have been fortunate to inherit a great legacy of investment in education and investors saw this country as a place where they could be assured of high calibre graduates from second and third level. However, as time goes on the standard and degree of competition gets higher. If we want to continue to attract the type of investment we have been fortunate enough to attract in the past few years, we must double our investment in education. The background to this is important. In the past 20 years this country operated on a budget deficit. We now have a budget surplus and it is imperative we recognise that what was sufficient to meet requirements in those days is not sufficient to meet requirements in this era. We need to consider investment in education in a vastly different light. If we do not do that, our population will be disheartened because we will be seen as not responding quickly enough and those who consider this country as a base for investment will see it as an indication that we are not as serious as we should be.

Our educational needs will change dramatically. The Minister must accept that there must be a greater bias towards technical qualifications and on-course training. Most institutes of technology are conversant with this issue and are establishing contacts with industry. However, the degree to which this has happened so far is minuscule compared to what will be required in the future. A greater emphasis will have to be placed on meeting the requirements of industry. That does not necessarily mean that academic subjects will go by the wayside. An academic grounding will remain a necessity but it should be recognised that, if we are to achieve the degree of employment necessary in the future, we must invest accordingly.

Our population is increasing, in complete contradiction of the experts' gloom and doom predictions five or ten years ago that all our schools would be closed by now and our population would be further reduced in line with European trends. They forgot we have always exported our new generations and never had to cater for them ourselves until now. In the past four or five years that population has not emigrated but has made a very valuable contribution to our economy because it has had the necessary technical skills and competence to gain employment at home. I know it is a hackneyed expression, but since I entered the Dáil, which was not today or yesterday, we have heard that our greatest investment is our young people. That was all very well, but we did not have them at home. However, they are here now and, as a result, we must provide for them and their descendants. A population cycle occurs over a very short period – services usually need to be duplicated every 15 or 20 years.

I hope we will have an opportunity to look back over what we have done and assess the situation. I saw a prediction that our population is likely to reach 4.2 million by 2004; in fact, it could be even greater. In that environment it will be necessary to redouble our efforts. The 35,000 people who would have left the country every year and are now remaining here will give rise to an accumulated increased demand. We are all grateful for the improvements in our economy, which could continue to grow for quite some time into the future. However, we must recognise the need to provide the structures and parameters required for a good grounding in academic and technical education.

There has been a great deal of growth in my constituency in recent years. Many of our secondary schools have been accommodated in prefab accommodation over the past 15 or 16 years. Fortunately, times have changed. Students, parents and teachers should not be expected to accept that standard of accommodation today. Unfortunately, we still have a few prefabs. I hope measures will be put in place to deal with that problem as quickly as possible.

I request the Minister to take on board the ever growing needs of that increasing population. It is a hugely important and pertinent issue. It would be wrong and frivolous of me not to draw attention to it because the population growth in County Kildare is a microcosm of the national population growth. The structural problems arising in Kildare will be replicated throughout the country over the next few years.

We have not yet come to grips with the necessity to ensure that second level students have an equal opportunity to enter third level institutions. I do not know how the Minister can address that, other than by providing remedial education, reducing pupil-teacher ratios and ensuring a good quality of life is available to families, regardless of their address and environment, although that is a matter for other Departments. We must tackle the issue on a number of levels to ensure that every child has the opportunity to progress from primary to secondary level and on to third level. We should look at the reasons that prevent some children from achieving their best.

There have been numerous requests for a regional college in north Kildare. We have brought that to the attention of the Minister and his predecessors on several occasions. We have not yet achieved the distinction of a positive response but we hope that will be the case at some stage in the not too distant future.

Some people suggest this need can be met by other institutions on the periphery of the area, such as those in Blanchardstown, Carlow, Athlone and Navan. That is not necessarily the case. The regional colleges should be located in the areas in which there has been investment in industries which require high quality technical education, having regard to population trends. It is not a sufficient response to say that adequate means are being provided to institutions in other locations to meet the educational needs of the region. One might conclude the area's needs are being met when one looks at a graph on paper. However, an area's needs are met when an institution is located in that area which can meet the educational requirements of that area which result from the type of growth there. The industrial sector will then have an opportunity to liaise directly with the educationalists and they can co-operate to provide for these needs.

We have not had a positive response so far. The Minister must take on board the views expressed by many educationalists in Kildare in recent years in regard to the future technical needs arising from the investment in that area. When that is done and the area has a regional college, we will have provided for our students a variety of educational options which will provide long-term benefits for the whole education system and the region. A regional college would be a long-term investment in the education system. It would be of tremendous value to the region and would provide a variety of educational options for students.

To a large extent we provided for educational needs in the past and we did reasonably well. Before that, however, year in year out our people had to emigrate without the benefit of an education to equip them for the life ahead and consequently many had to take menial jobs. We have the opportunity now to invest in education and we should not fail to provide for it in the future. We have been fortunate to come of age at a time when information technology became readily available. We should ensure that we do not miss that opportunity. We should provide for the projected population in the next 20 years and should not have difficulty in so doing in the present economic climate. If we do that we will have invested well, however, if we fail to do that, future generations will judge us.

I have outlined the position in the region I represent. The Department of Education and Science has an ongoing method of assessing educational need, however, it does not respond as quickly as I would like it to respond. I would not like the Minister to get the impression that everything is rosy in the garden, because it is not, in particular the provision for second level education. County Kildare is experiencing a dramatic population increase and has a huge requirement in terms of second level education which ultimately will lead to a demand for third level places.

This Bill represents a major stage in the development of an institution which will make a major contribution to developing and supporting educational opportunity in Dublin and the country as a whole. As has been outlined, the institute is already operating and its first intake of students will be on site next September. The Bill will allow the institute to operate on the same statutory basis as other institutes and this will enable the institute to develop fully over the coming years. I acknowledge the very positive support for the institute expressed by Deputies from all sides, particularly recognition of the excellent work carried out by the establishment board's acting director and all the staff working on the project. They have achieved an immense amount in a short period and they will be remembered in the history of higher education for the vision and ability they have brought to realising the ambitious objectives set for them. It was unfortunate that Deputy Higgins on behalf of the Labour Party made a number of comments on the Government's performance in relation to the institute in Blanchardstown, which was somewhat unfair. It took this Government to establish what is now the largest third level building project in the country which is informed by a truly progressive approach to expanding access.

At the change of Government, there was rhetoric on the Blanchardstown institute of technology but no money was allocated, there was no serious planning, no site was purchased, no building designed, no staff recruited, no courses developed and no community outreach plan for the institute. The rhetoric had been there for a long time, but this Government provided the funding of £20 million, the critical factor. People can rubbish £20 million as if it was nothing but it was provided for an area that sorely needed such an institute. I am a little disappointed at the absurd attacks by the Labour Party on the progress of the institute. At one stage it attacked us in relation to the staff who were not physically working in Blanchardstown because of shortage of accommodation, but we eventually got accommodation. That kind of nit-picking is unfair and unjustified.

Blanchardstown institute of technology will be a great educational institution and it will be an example to everyone on how one can genuinely commit to expanding access and opportunity to high quality higher education.

I take on board the comments made by other Deputies. Let me assure Deputy Durkan that investment in capital projects for primary and second level schools in County Kildare is at an unprecedented high level. His constituency colleague, Deputy McCreevy, Minister for Finance, also has a keen interest in the educational needs of County Kildare.

As it should be.

The overall capital expenditure for primary schools throughout the country has been at a record high. It increased from £27 million in 1997 to £60 million.

It needs to be—

I take on board the Deputy's concerns in that regard. I agree with him on the need to modernise school buildings.

Deputy Gilmore raised the question of Dún Laoghaire VEC. I will endeavour to see if we can work something out before Committee Stage. It is a a stop gap measure because I inherited a situation that was less than satisfactory because of the inadequacies of previous legislation. We intend to introduce a VEC Bill which would put everything on a proper footing within the next six to nine months.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Tuesday, 22 June 1999, subject to the agreement of the Whips.