National College of Art and Design: Chairperson Designate

I welcome Dr. Richard Thorn, chairman designate of the governing body of the NCAD. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to engage with him about his experience and background, his vision and priorities in the short to medium term, and about any challenges facing the organisation. I invite him to make a brief opening statement, as brief as possible, which will be followed by an engagement with the members of the committee.

Before we begin, I am obliged to draw to his attention the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise the witness that any opening statement that he makes to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

It is not the function of the committee to approve or reject Dr. Thorn's nomination. This meeting is not an interview process for the incoming chairperson. It is merely an opportunity for the committee to engage in public session with the person nominated by the Government. I call on Dr. Thorn to make his opening statement.

Dr. Richard Thorn

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to attend this meeting. I thank them for putting me on first as I have a domestic matter to attend, my daughter is receiving some awards from Rathmines College in the next couple of hours.

I welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee to deal with queries it may have about my background and the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, itself. I spent almost 40 years working mainly in education, in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. I have occupied public roles, in that I was president of IT Sligo, but I have also worked in, governed, reviewed or investigated secondary, further and higher education institutions within the State and voluntary sectors and I have worked within for-profit and not-for-profit educational institutions. In my personal life, I have led and governed charitable and sports bodies. I am a science graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a management graduate of the Institute of Public Administration.

The National College of Art and Design is one of the oldest education institutions in the State. It traces its origin back as far as 1746. Its present structure and designation date back to 1971 when it was established as the National College of Art and Design by an Act of the Oireachtas. That Act very clearly lays the responsibility for management and oversight on An Bord, which is appointed by the Minister. The NCAD is located in Thomas Street in the heart of the historic Liberties in Dublin, as most members will know.

The college is a systemically critical component of the creative arts provision in Dublin and nationally. While much of the headline activity in higher education in recent years in Ireland has been around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, it is increasingly realised that STEAM, the creative nexus between arts, on the one hand, and science and engineering, on the other, is even more important if global challenges - ageing, energy and climate change, to name but a few - are to be addressed. The NCAD has a vital role to play in helping to address those challenges. Creative arts education provides students with the ability to look at these problems afresh and to contribute unique insights to their solution. The Creative Ireland initiative has refocused attention on the value of the arts in Irish life to personal and community development and to our global reputation, and the NCAD will play its part in realising the benefits of this focus on the creative arts.

The challenges faced generally in the higher education sector over the past ten years were specifically manifest in the NCAD. In this college, difficulties in balancing budgets were compounded by technical problems in preparing financial statements. I acknowledge the very important work done by the previous board under the leadership of Professor Niamh Brennan. The board, with the support of the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority and the staff and students of the college, managed to get many of these problems under control. I believe that this year will see the preparation and finalisation of accounts brought back in line with what is required of public sector bodies.

While the preparation of financial statements is under control, much work remains to underpin the important work done by the previous board. As chairperson designate, I will be bringing to the next board meeting in June four objectives to be achieved within the board's three-year term of office. Given that these should be approved by the board, I offer them to the committee at this stage as my own views on appropriate objectives.

First, the college is running a deficit, and it should be the intention of the board, in conjunction with the director, Professor Glennie, and her staff, to ensure that there is a balanced budget, working towards an annual surplus of 6%, by 2021. Second, the weaknesses in the underpinning financial and HR management systems need to be addressed and an organisational development plan needs to be put in place and implemented. Third, it must be ensured that the NCAD continues to be compliant with the code of practice for State bodies and operates to the highest levels of corporate and academic governance.

Fourth, the college should be operating a strategic plan that outlines a clear strategic direction for it. This will take into account the future position of the NCAD within the higher education landscape and will have identified the strategic partnerships that best support the agreed direction. It will have addressed the educational and philosophical tension that exists between holding on to all that is good about its current curriculum, with its emphasis on making and doing, and embracing what is new and valuable and losing that which could be lost without loss.

Once again, I thank members for the opportunity to appear before them as chairperson designate. Our board has met twice to date, the most recent meeting being this afternoon. I am excited about the prospect of working over the next three years with such a talented group of individuals, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the work of the board. I would welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee in the future to brief it on progress at the NCAD.

I thank Dr. Thorn. Have the members any questions?

I formally welcome Dr. Thorn to our committee. I know him from Sligo as he was president of the institute of technology for many years.

I have a couple of questions. Why does Dr. Thorn believe he is qualified to be the chairman of the NCAD? In his opening statement, he outlined the challenges faced by the college in recent years. What will be his priorities in the short term to overcome these? I acknowledge there are many challenges, as outlined in Dr. Thorn's statement. The fourth objective in his opening statement seemed to refer to entering into interinstitutional relationships in the higher education sector. Will he expand on that?

The NCAD is part of a larger higher education sector that has been under pressure for some years. Dr. Thorn has outlined that. What does he believe should be the priority of the sector as a whole?

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin took the Chair.

Dr. Richard Thorn

I might come back to the Deputy to make sure I have the order right. On my background, I have 40 years' experience in the education system. Thirty of the 40 have been in leadership and governance roles. A very high proportion of the time was either leading or governing on many boards. I believe the opportunities I have been given in the past couple of years, in particular, including the UL investigation I undertook last year and the recently completed statutory investigation into Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, have been like a finishing school for identifying what is good and not so good in governance. If I do not know where the bodies are buried, I know how to find them. If I do not know how to find them, I know when to ask. I would like to believe that has given me the sort of rounding off necessary. I hope that answers the question.

In his opening statement, Dr. Thorn outlined the NCAD's challenges in recent years. Perhaps he might expand on those?

Dr. Richard Thorn

The NCAD will not get its long-term budgeting right unless the underlying functions and processes of HR and finance are well and truly embedded and working seamlessly. From an operational perspective, the board must oversee the implementation of robust management processes within the organisation. That is on the functional side, if I can call it that.

On the educational side, the college has a very great reputation for producing graduates who can both think and do. That means they do an awful lot of hands-on activity but there is general recognition that they need to move in this regard and start to include digital technologies and embrace the digital world. That educational tension needs to be thought through.

The third question was on the interinstitutional relationships of the NCAD. There was a creative arts review in 2013. It covered creative arts provision in the Dublin area and it laid great emphasis on collaboration and co-operation between providers. It is safe to say that the ambition in this regard has not yet been realised and that there are still institutions operating quasi-independently. As I understand it, there is a review before the board of the HEA that will potentially re-articulate some ideas about mergers within the Dublin area. This has come up before. For example, the NCAD and the Institute of Art, Design and Technology have been referred to. Over a quite short period, the board will have to come to a position on what will be in the best interests of the NCAD.

What is the timeframe?

Dr. Richard Thorn

To be honest, I do not know. I am not sure it has been considered yet by the board of the HEA. It might well have been but the information has certainly not yet been published. I believe the review is called the Granville review but I am open to correction on that.

The final question is on the pressure that the higher education sector has been under. The headline figures are a 25% increase in students and an almost 50% decrease in the core grant. That puts any sector under pressure. The first of the main factors that have to be dealt with over the next couple of years within higher education is deciding from a political perspective what funding model will be used. We have had the Cassells report but I am agnostic about which part of it should be implemented. Something needs to happen, however, if higher education is to continue to grow and develop, particularly considering the anticipated numbers coming in.

Are there any other questions or comments?

I thank Dr. Thorn for his presentation. The key question of funding came through in the presentation. I was struck by Dr. Thorn's comment that he is "agnostic" with regard to the Cassells report. I must question this because I do not understand how he can be agnostic about it. There are three clear options here. Which one would Dr. Thorn prefer to see? Each one has different outcomes and very different consequences. Moving towards a student loan model, for example, which has never worked anywhere, would also be disastrous in terms of equality of access. It worries me when I hear someone saying that he is agnostic about it. I would like a bit more clarity on that please.

Dr. Richard Thorn

I am not in favour of what has happened in Australia, the United States of America and the UK. I am not in favour of the model that loads students with significant amounts of debt as they leave the education system. I am certainly not in favour of that. There are versions of the Cassells report that have been put on the table. The institutes of technology, for example, have suggested that the first three years up to level 7 should be funded by the State and thereafter, at level 8 and above, funding it should become the private responsibility. I believe that this bears thinking about. I am not in favour of a loan system such as in the UK and the United States of America, which probably suggests that I am in favour of the State putting a little bit more in. Ireland does underfund compared with our OECD colleagues.

It is very important that we hear this message from the witness, so I thank him.

Obviously, as a committee we are grappling with the report. We have looked for some further support from the Department on doing an economic review of the impact of the different scenarios and suggestions in Peter Cassells' report. We look forward to coming to a conclusion on that in the not too distant future.

I thank Deputy Byrne for agreeing to start the meeting and I apologise for being held up in the Chamber. I had the opportunity to read Dr. Thorn's opening statement and, from what I have heard, I understand there were plenty of excellent questions from my colleagues. I thank Dr. Thorn for coming before the committee. He has offered to come back in the future to speak about the ongoing work at the NCAD. We would be delighted to take Dr. Thorn up on that offer in the future. We wish him well in his role. It is a very important role and Dr. Thorn has rightly pointed out that the NCAD is one of the oldest institutions of education we have in the State. We have no doubt he will do a very good job in the role.

Dr. Richard Thorn

I thank the Chairman.

I support that. I believe Dr. Thorn will be as successful in this role as he was as president of the Institute of Technology Sligo, where he made a huge impression and worked very well with everybody in that area. I acknowledge the work he has done with the Institute of Technology Sligo in the past.

I thank Deputy McLoughlin. There are a number of other witnesses ready to join the committee now. I propose that the committee does not go into private session but goes straight into the public session meeting on the barriers to education facing vulnerable groups. I am sure that all members are aware there are a number of other meetings on today. The timing is unfortunate. The Seanad reform committee is having its second meeting and I am a member of that committee. I have excused myself from that meeting, but there are a number of other meetings going on. I know that Deputy O'Sullivan also has other committee meetings that she needs to attend. I apologise for the timing, but I propose that we go into public session and then go back into a private session afterwards.

Before we start the stakeholder session, I remind members who may not be able to stay for the full meeting about tomorrow's proposed visit to the Department of Education and Skills in Tullamore. We had agreed to accept the invitation of the Department when it was at this committee, especially with regard to the capital build programme. That will start at 10 a.m tomorrow. Brenda will accompany us but members will make their own way to Tullamore. We will meet there at between 9.30 a.m. and 10 a.m. It will be a two-hour engagement with the officials there. Four members have confirmed. If there are other members who are travelling and who have not yet told us, please let us know.

I give my apologies also. I am speaking on the next two Bills in the Seanad and I will have to leave the meeting shortly.

I appreciate that. We will now suspend for a few minutes to allow the next group of witnesses to take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 4.16 p.m. and resumed at 4.18 p.m.