Last night I welcomed the fact the Institutes of Technology Bill has finally been introduced in the House. The legislation is generally welcomed by staff, students and members of governing bodies in the institutes of technology around the country. I also paid tribute to those who have developed the institutes to their current position. Institutes of technology have been very responsive to needs in their respective areas and have provided vital opportunities for students who might otherwise not have an opportunity to continue to third level. I also pay tribute to vocational education committees which allowed the institutes of technology sufficient flexibility to grow organically and develop in the manner they have.
It is important to take this opportunity to raise some questions regarding the legislation. The opportunities offered by the decision to bring the institutes of technology within the remit of the Higher Education Authority must be taken. The Labour Party by and large supports the legislation although I will raise one or two concerns about the Bill. My party and, I am sure, the Minister want it implemented as soon as possible and the colleges hope it will be passed in both Houses before the summer recess. As such, the Labour Party will facilitate the passage of the Bill in whatever way it can.
The first points I wish to make concern regional opportunities the institutes of technology provide and can continue to provide under their changing roles. They are uniquely situated to work with local communities and business organisations as well as collaborating with other educational institutions in their regions. They will have more opportunities to do so in future.
I recently participated in a forum at the Limerick Institute of Technology, which was organised by the institute's director, MariaHinfelaar. She invited representative stakeholders to discuss the needs of the region and how the institute of technology might be able to facilitate development issues across a variety of spheres. It was a most constructive meeting and I have no doubt that such events occur in other parts of the country as well. The institutes of technology have seized such opportunities in the past and will do so in the future.
In her speech, the Minister mentioned the strategic innovation fund which also provides collaborative opportunities. She referred specifically to "stronger inter-institutional collaboration in the development and delivery of programmes". I realise that there is a willingness to do that. Now that third level institutions are all under the aegis of the Higher Education Authority, it will facilitate universities and institutes of technology in working together.
There are more opportunities to bring people in from the workplace to work with local communities as well as providing second-chance opportunities for adults. All such opportunities should be grasped and the move towards modularisation will assist that process. However, the issue of fees for part-time students needs to be examined. The cost of going to college is a real issue for many part-time students and while the matter is not dealt with directly in this legislation, it needs to be addressed.
Elsewhere in her speech, the Minister mentioned the continuing growth in participation in third level education. She referred to the national admission rate of 55% in 2004, which was up from 44% in 1998. I have no doubt that is directly linked to the fact that tuition fees no longer apply to third level institutions. I know there is a cost involved but we should look at the obstacles facing some people who would otherwise like to participate in full-time third level education. Currently, they can only do so as part-time students so I hope that matter will be examined.
I will now refer to some of the issues that have been raised with me by staff and directors of the institutes of technology. By and large, there is a welcome for this legislation but some questions have been posed by those involved in the institutes. As regards the transition process, they have been micro-managed by the Department up to now but will soon be moving to a much freer system wherein they will have more control over their budgets. That is good but people are seeking more information about the overall timescale involved and practical issues such as when budgets will be determined. Will budgets be related to numbers in the institutions or to the cost base? Up to now, the budgets have been fixed to incremental increases. Will that system change or will the budgetary process continue as before? I do not know the answers to those questions but I would be interested to hear them from the Minister.
I was also asked whether some of the expert staff in the Department will continue to work on issues such as human resources and pensions, the normal budgeting matters that ITs had been doing with departmental staff. Will those matters now be taken over completely by the institutes and the HEA and, if not, how will the transition work?
Concerns have been raised by staff about section 13 and in particular the tenure of academic and other staff. This matter has been raised by the Teachers Union of Ireland. Up to now, if one worked in an institute of technology, the Minister had the final say if there was a question of someone being dismissed. As I understand it, that provision will be removed under the terms of the Bill. There is some concern about that. To some extent, it will bring matters in line with the Universities Act but university staff have security of tenure which, it appears, will not be available to staff in institutes of technology under this legislation. Current staff will not be affected but future staff may be. Will the Minister take these concerns on board? As I understand it, the conditions will not be as good as, or similar to, those in the university sector. The Minister should negotiate with representatives of workers in the institutes of technology to ensure that issue is addressed.
As for the strategic innovation fund, staff in universities and institutes of technology have raised the question of valuing different faculties and not simply valuing those that bring in the most students or attract the highest level of research grants. This matter has been raised particularly as it pertains to the humanities area. As Deputy Enright said in yesterday's debate, a variety of areas are dealt with in institutes of technology and, in some respects, their curriculum is broader than that of the university sector.
I am concerned about trades, for example, and other aspects of what is done in institutes of technology that have practical applications for the workplace and are much needed in the economy. In some cases, equipment may take up a lot of space and, therefore, one may not be able to fit as many students in a room as certain other disciplines. This issue arose a few years ago but it is one about which we need to be concerned to ensure that these important areas are not squeezed out by those which better fit the description of what attracts funding. That point must be borne in mind because we want to ensure that we value all the different disciplines and that we keep space for all of them. The institutes of technology have been practical in responding to the existing requirements in providing training and education for a variety of skills.
While the third level sector is being realigned, we should examine the various opportunities available. I refer to the further education sector, which other speakers have raised, along with the implications of the McIver report. As institutes of technology will now come within the ambit of the Higher Education Authority, it will define further the role of further education and the need for it to be structured properly. Staff and students who work in the sector should have reasonable opportunities and proper facilities, so I call on the Minister to implement the McIver report in this regard.
There is an opportunity to link a variety of levels, thus providing opportunities to those who have not taken the traditional route through primary and secondary education to third level. People who wish to study at third level should be facilitated to do so and the national qualifications framework will help in that regard.
Students need guidance at second and third level. Traditionally, there has been quite a high drop-out rate in institutes of technology. One of the reasons for that is that people sometimes pursue courses to which they are unsuited. They may have got their fourth or fifth choice on the CAO, but they did not research the course properly and after the first term, they realise they are in the wrong course. Students often find themselves on the wrong course. I spoke recently to leaving certificate students who felt strongly that they should be told the exact implications of the choices they make on their CAO forms.
When many students get to third level, they discover in their first term that they are not really where they want to be. Sometimes they can transfer but as they lose their grants if they do not transfer before a certain date in November, it can be financially impossible for them to transfer if they have left it too late. We must work out an easier system for students and inform them of it, so, if they have difficulties, they can decide the course is not for them and make use of other opportunities. The institutes of technology in particular provide a good opportunity for students to move on, for example, from certificate to diploma to degree courses, which is positive. However, there is a real problem with some students who may not be aware of what is available and with regard to overworked guidance staff in institutes of technology who need an improved level of staffing and support.
In general, the question of staffing is important. As we move towards increased rewards for research in third level institutions, we must make sure that the balance between time for teaching and time for research is maintained, that we value teaching as much as research and that we do not put too much pressure on staff. This area needs to be monitored, which is primarily a role for the Higher Education Authority but also includes policy issues, which are matters for the Minister for Education and Science. In many ways developments at third level are very exciting, and the fact that institutes will be under the same umbrella as universities will provide many opportunities. However, the area needs to be monitored to ensure too many pressures and difficulties do not arise.
By and large, institutes of technology have been able to develop but some have been held back by physical problems. There was a hold-up in capital funds to third level, although that has been relieved to an extent and some institutes are benefiting. It is important to make sure that the institutes have the appropriate facilities.
The Joint Committee on Education and Science recently discussed the changes in the EU granting system for research, which poses problems for third level institutions with regard to how they audit their accounts and allocate funding for teaching, research and so on. This will probably be an issue for the institutes of technology also and I hope whatever assistance they require will be provided by the Department of Education and Science.
The question of Seanad votes for graduates is one that might be appropriate in this context. With the institutes of technology and the universities all under the umbrella of the Higher Education Authority, it becomes increasingly anomalous that only NUI and TCD graduates have votes in the Seanad. This issue has been around for a long time but nothing has been done to deal with it. The introduction of the Bill is a good time for it to be revived. There is no reason graduates of other universities and institutes of technology should not be afforded a voice in the Seanad given that NUI and TCD graduates have such a voice. I realise broader issues arise with regard to reform of the Seanad and how Senators are and should be elected but while we have the current system, we should have equality. I am not sure the Minister has a role in this regard but the issue should be raised and should be one to which the Government pays attention.
I support Deputy Enright on several issues she raised earlier in the debate, in particular with regard to clarity of roles for the governing body and the director. The matter is fairly clear in the Bill but there may be some doubt as to the exact roles of the two different bodies. Deputy Enright noted that the directors of the institutes cannot discuss or criticise policy in the context of, for example, coming before the Joint Committee on Education and Science. While this restriction is contained in other legislation, it would be healthy if people could raise issues related to their own experience. Deputy Enright also referred to governing bodies being able to appoint their own chair, which is a more democratic way to proceed. Perhaps the Minister could examine these issues. I congratulate the recently appointed chairperson of the Limerick Institute of Technology, which is in my home area.
There are great opportunities for all of the institutes of technology to contribute in perhaps a clearer way than in the past, and with more flexibility in responding to local needs. They have been proactive in how they have taken opportunities in the past, although sometimes with certain restrictions.
I welcome the Bill. I ask the Minister to consider the specific issues I raised with regard to the transition from one system to another, in particular with regard to security of tenure for staff. The Bill could be used as a starting point for creating greater opportunities for people to participate in third level education given that the institutes of technology have a unique role. This role can be developed and can bring more people into the knowledge economy, which is necessary if we are to meet the economic and social goals such as those in the Lisbon Agenda and pronounced by a variety of bodies, including Forfás, the ESRI and others. We have unique opportunities to bring more people into the education sector. We should grasp those opportunities and if there are obstacles in the way, they should be cleared.
We need to have more interdepartmental joined-up thinking in terms of creating opportunities, particularly for adults. I hope the Minister will discuss this with her colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Bodies sometimes operate through parallel systems. A person could do a course through FÁS and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and another through the Department of Education and Science. The system often does not come together in ways that work for the individual trying to develop himself or herself. The Minister should consider this issue. I welcome the Bill.