I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. There is a certain sense of déjà vu about some of the contributions to date. I was not in the House when the original Dublin Institute of Technology Bill was debated. However, I was a member of the City of Dublin VEC and was chairman of the governing body of the DIT at that time.
I compliment Deputy Burton on her, as usual, coherent and incisive contribution to the debate. There are two areas where I disagree with her, which will come as no great surprise. I am an unreconstructed opponent of the abolition of third level fees, but I will argue my point in that regard later. The other issue is the binary system. I do not want us to go down the road taken by the United Kingdom, where it has been an enormous mistake.
There is no doubt that the landscape of further and higher education has been dramatically transformed in recent years. As Deputy Burton and others have said, the institutes of technology and their precursors, the regional technical colleges, played no small part in that. We should pay tribute to the contribution of those who ran the RTCs in the days when money was not plentiful. They built them up and managed to transform the local economies which they served. As Deputy Burton and others stated, without them places such as the hinterlands of Tralee, Athlone, Sligo, Letterkenny and elsewhere would not have been able to benefit from the opportunities provided by a growing economy. The vocational education committees were very vilified organisations. However, their chief executive officers and members were a bunch of adventurers because they were willing to try out educational opportunities and provide them at a time when the universities were not prepared to do so. Maynooth and others provided outreach courses in adult education, but that was the height of it. The VECs and regional technical colleges certainly did and built up a very high level of participation in higher and third level education, which few enough people probably envisaged.
I remember when the Bill was originally drafted. Many of the staff and academics in Dublin Institute of Technology and the institutes of technology could not wait to get out of the clutch of the City of Dublin VEC and other VECs because they felt they needed a more enabling and freer environment. The VECs also recognised that. The ITs have grown and developed and the contribution they have made has been phenomenal.
The part which the European Social Fund played can never be underestimated. When the opportunity of that funding was presented, very good use was made of it. We are now at a time when the Government is anxious to provide greater autonomy, flexibility, access to funding and other assistance which is necessary for the ITs to develop further. When this legislation is passed and DIT and the ITs are within the ambit of the HEA, they will begin to develop and grow even further.
I wish to put down this caveat, and Deputy Burton made a similar suggestion. The ITs must be very careful when they are within the HEA that they are not shouldered out of the rich pickings which the university sector is a past master at getting for itself. Perhaps reform of the HEA might be prudent to ensure parity of esteem and equality. The lure of potential funding is great and I hope it is not the only reason the ITs and DIT want to come within the ambit of the HEA. While they will thrive, they will also experience a sharp learning curve and will need to be very careful.
While I hope the binary system will continue, its preservation faces danger. I am not hugely wedded to a unitary system of education. However, I believe the traditional university sector and the newer providers of higher education have served this country well. Others mentioned hands-on research, the provision of smaller class groups and the possibility of having a wider range of courses. Deputy Burton is correct to state that Cork, Waterford and all other institutes of technology are great examples of what can be achieved by that type of innovative approach.
The academic councils which have emerged in the IT sector have shown what is possible. If one looks across the water and examines what the polytechnics did prior to becoming universities, one sees they did a much better job of reflecting the needs of their regions than they do now. They are hidebound by procedure and I am not certain that the issue of reflecting the needs of their communities, and they can speak for themselves, is adequately addressed.
The other danger in abandoning the binary system is the tendency towards upward academic drift. A great deal of research evidence shows this. I strongly support research-based activity, such as more masters and doctorates, in the IT sector. However, I am also concerned that those at the lower end of the academic stream, such as apprenticeship, certificate and diploma education, will not get the same prominence and attention in a single system. That danger exists within the HEA.
My principal experience is through the DIT. I was always very conscious that the DIT provided a platform for apprenticeship education for one and two-year diplomas and for part-time education. I always felt it was great that one could become an architect in Bolton Street by studying on a part-time basis. One could move from being a carpenter through the apprenticeship school and the FÁS system into full-time education if one chose to do so.
I am concerned that area of education may not be given the concentration it deserves. Areas of this country, including parts of Dublin, have a low level of third level participation. In my humble opinion, one of the great ways to attract people into mainstream third level education is to provide this ladder of opportunity. I acknowledge that HETAC and FETAC do a very good job in developing that ladder of opportunity. However, it is in its early stages and while the vertical trip can be done reasonably well, I am not sure it is possible to enter on different stages of the ladder.
I give credit to the VECs for identifying the emerging further education sector as an area of educational need. However, there is a need to link it more closely with mainstream third level education. When we tried to get funding for non-mainstream courses in the DIT from the Department, all sorts of questions were raised and hurdles presented as to whether a course could be validated or met the needs of specific sections of the community. A certain level of experimentation is required to allow the further education sector to develop. The next area on which we must concentrate is validating the further education sector as the entry point for many people who otherwise find entry to third level quite difficult.
Regarding the origins of the report, people in Government know if the OECD is asked to carry out a report, it will be carried out. In some respects perhaps its findings are those it has been hinted we would like to see as outcomes of the report. Nonetheless, that is where we are at. The report is good and the reasons for moving in the direction we have taken are worthwhile and valid.
I have never been convinced that just because PhDs and high end research take place, a facility should become a university. Waterford and the DIT are campaigning for this. It is regrettable that not one of our existing universities is in the top end of the world class league. Why do we need to add to that sector a further group of struggling quasi-universities? I suggest to DIT and others that they wait for the situation to develop academically by way of course provision and through a track record. Within ten years it is very likely these institutes will become universities, if not in name, in all but name. MIT has managed to do a very good job on the world academic stage without being called a university. That is a note of caution.
With regard to Deputy Burton's point on participation in education, it is true there is an increasing level of participation in third level education. We can see it everywhere. We should identify the types of courses in which some of the new entrants are engaged. It is important to acknowledge that many of these are one and two year courses. Some are sub-degree courses. This is important, and it takes a generation for us to improve participation.
With regard to fees, I have always held the view that those in high income brackets, like ourselves, ought to pay for education. The resources which would be freed up by people like us and those more wealthy than us should be made available to provide supports for those at the entry points of third level education. I have stated repeatedly, here and elsewhere, that it is unfair that the son or daughter of a person working in a bar, for example, cannot get a maintenance grant, but the son or daughter of the person who owns the bar, as it is incorporated as a company, can get it. It is unfair and the issue must be examined. The Minister is considering it.
The coherence brought about by this move is important. It will not happen just because we wish it to. There was an article in yesterday's The Irish Times by the director of the institute in Dún Laoghaire which raised many of the issues raised by people here. We may not need to be all that worried about whether people know that the institutes exist. It may be a question of branding. As the problem exists, it may need to be considered, especially if awareness is as low as 35%.
There may be a need to examine where the lack of awareness comes from. There has been a tendency, although it may be changing, for career guidance counsellors in second level schools to put less emphasis on the opportunities available in the institutes of technology side of higher education. There is a tendency to advise students to go to one of the more traditional universities because of its reputation and links etc., as there is a notion the student will probably fare better.
The governing bodies of the institutes of technology must have a significant number of "heavy hitters" who are from the local industrial base. I commend the Minister on the welcome move of considering this. As far as I know, the vast majority of the chairs of the boards of the institutes are now drawn from the industrial sector. If people from the industrial hinterland are around, they will be able to do a number of things. It is a confidence building measure, which is important to any academic institution, and the governing body would be able to find ways of accessing research funds etc.
On the other hand there is an argument regarding whether the balance between private and public funding is right. It probably is not, but I am not sure how it could be redressed in the short term. Having strong people on the governing body will give some clout to the institutes of technology, which they need to establish themselves and attract funding.
The issue of drop-out rates has often been mentioned with regard to institutes of technology. It has been an unfair criticism. The resources which have been allocated for support services have never been the same as they have been in the broader third level sector. I was always critical that there was only a token medical service and student support service when I was associated with DIT. We were putting it together incrementally, and I know there is a better service there now. As a result, there is a better level of student retention in that sector. This must continue.
I have doubts with regard to linkages with second level schools. Working within the HEA sector, there is a danger such linkages would not be forged as well as I would like. I have a recollection of what occurred previous to the other institutes of technology Acts being enacted. I was a member of the academic council in DIT at the time, and we had developed a weighting of points scheme with the advice of a person who was an education officer in the City of Dublin VEC at the time, and he went on to work in the third level sector. I believed it to be a good scheme, as the weighting of points would top up a student's leaving certificate points, thereby giving assistance in getting into a course. That was dropped very quickly as soon as the institutes of technology were distanced from the VECs. I am concerned that such a sundering of the link between second and third levels might continue.
The investment in premises and plant will be necessary, although the institutes of technology have benefitted enormously in recent years from Government support. There is a multi-million euro package of capital investment in the institutes of technology, but they need more. For example, they are still lagging behind universities with regard to library and IT services.
There are innovative ways of trying to get funding, but sometimes the funding is limited to a number of years, or perhaps to a particularly enlightened chief executive of a large multinational company. When that person moves on to greater things, going back to the United States, for example, the funding is in jeopardy. This is a matter with which the institutes of technology should be careful, in order that they are not caught in a trap.
I strongly support the Bill, with the caveat that the HEA is not just a cosy club. There should be vibrant interaction between participants from the traditional sector and the new providers of further education. If it is possible to get that mix right, I have no doubt the growth of third level education can continue. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, made significant provision with the Minister for Education and Science in the recent budget for the research area. That must continue, as unless we have a new research and skills base, we will not be able to compete with the new arrivals in the area of the knowledge economy, which includes areas such as biotechnology.
I strongly commend the Minister's initiative in bringing this Bill forward. I wish the higher education sector well, and I wish increasing progress to the institutes of technology sector. If it can develop incrementally as well as it has since the regional technical colleges arrived in all towns on the backs of lorries — they were prefabricated buildings — there is a bright future for third level education and, more importantly, the consumers of third level education.