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Joint Committee on Education and Skills debate -
Thursday, 5 Dec 2019

Universities Act 1997 (Section 54(3)) (University Authorisation) Order 2019: Motion

We are now in public session. I remind members and witnesses to please turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode because they interfere with the sound system and make it very difficult for parliamentary reporters; people who are listening in or web streaming would be adversely affected also.

No. 7 on the agenda is engagement with the Minister for Education and Skills to consider the motion on the Universities Act 1997 (section 54(3)) (University Authorisation) Order 2019. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills with special responsibility for Higher Education, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor to the meeting. The Minister is accompanied by officials but, procedurally, they are not witnesses so will not be able to address the meeting.

The format of the meeting is that I will invite the Minister to make a brief opening statement, which will then be followed by engagement with members of the committee. As the Minister will be aware the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting. Before we begin, I remind Members 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 an exciting day for the the RCSI; we are setting a precedent here at this committee meeting where, following the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Act 2019, this is the first time that the legal process can be enacted where an education provider that is not financially supported by the State may seek university status. As members of the committee will know, for almost 250 years, the RCSI has played a very key role in Irish surgical and medical education and it is internationally recognised, with students coming from over 40 countries studying many different disciplines in the health and medical matters. It is a very good day for them, we would hope.

I call on the Minister to make her opening statement.

I thank the Chair for the invitation, which we appreciate. I am pleased to present the draft Ministerial order entitled Universities Act 1997 (Section 54(3)) (University Authorisation) Order 2019, to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, with a view to its approval by resolution of each House of the Oireachtas. This order will, if approved, authorise the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to use in respect of itself, the description "university" in the State and to style itself accordingly. Having visited the RCSI on a number of occasions and engaged with the staff and students there, and having consulted with the Higher Education Authority and the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, I am aware of the RCSI’s unique contribution to medical and health sciences education, across a wide number of disciplines, and its ongoing positive contributions to the higher education system, to the Irish health system, and indeed to wider Irish society.

For some 235 years now, the RCSI has played a key role in Irish surgical and medical education in this country. It is a highly progressive institution incorporating state-of-the-art technology and employing teaching methods of the highest quality and excellence. As well as its Irish undergraduates, students from over 40 countries receive their medical education at the RCSI, and in associated training hospitals in disciplines such as surgery, medicine, nursing, radiology, pharmacology, anaesthesiology, physiotherapy and dentistry.

The RCSI is held in high international regard. Nationally it is one of a limited number of higher Education Institutions, all of them universities, which hold designated awarding powers to a level 10 doctoral degree under the National Framework of Qualifications. That said, the title of “university” is highly prized and rightly so. Its integrity, in the context of safeguarding the reputation for excellence that attaches to the Irish higher education system, must be protected. As such, this authorisation is neither easily obtained nor lightly granted. In 2015 the RCSI obtained permission to describe itself as a university outside the State in certain prescribed circumstances. The draft order before the committee today will, if passed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas, enable the use of the university description in the State also.

In July this year, with thanks to this committee's informed assistance and support, I piloted the then Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2019 through its legislative passage, including its amendment of the Universities Act 1997. Now duly enacted this legislation provides for the first time a legal process whereby an education provider that does not derive their primary income from the Exchequer may seek authorisation from the Minister for Education and Skills to describe itself as a university. This legislative process has provided an equitable pathway for eligible educational providers such as the RCSI to seek to so describe themselves - but only subject to compliance with an extensive set of rigorous conditions. These conditions are modelled in large measure on those in the Technological Universities Act 2018. They encompass requirements relating to an educational provider’s research record, scope of programme provision and intensity, student access, staff qualifications, staff and student opportunities, governance and financial capability, as well as its wider collaborative international, professional, stakeholder and community links, and its contribution to the promotion of the economic, cultural, social and scientific development of the State.

The RCSI is the first educational provider to apply under the new legislative provision and this application has been rigorously scrutinised and examined. I have been advised by both the Higher Education Authority and Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland in considering this application. I am satisfied that the RCSI complies with the conditions prescribed in the Universities Act 1997 as amended. As such, I am proposing to grant the RCSI the first university authorisation order in the State. I hereby commend the draft order to the committee seeking its approval.

I thank the Minister. I would like to welcome non-members of the committee here - Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, Senator James Reilly and Senator Gabrielle McFadden. Members will appreciate that I will go to the members of the committee first, and then if they wish to ask any questions they are absolutely welcome to do so at that point.

I call Deputy Thomas Byrne

I thank the Chair.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the committee today, and for considering this matter. It is something I have been discussing with her for a number of years, and I am glad to see this coming to fruition in the Dail. While the RCSI was founded by charter in 1784, we do not do royal charters in this country anymore. We have a democratic process in the Houses of the Oireachtas, and that is something worth reflecting on. We are here granting the status if that is what the Oireachtas wishes to do on the Minister of State's recommendation. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I fully support her proposal in this regard.

Like a number of members of this committee of all parties, I have visited the RCSI in the recent past. It is a wonderful institution in the heart of Dublin, which operates, in a quiet manner in some respects, but in the same way in terms of mission, of fees, and of quality assurance as the other universities in this State. On that basis and on the basis of the considerations of the Minister of State, it deserves its status. The country is lucky to have an institution of the calibre of the RCSI serving our students, and international students, while also being at the cutting edge of medical technology, research and medical training.

When we visited the RCSI, we saw what was on offer there in terms of medical training. As someone who is not medically qualified, it was fabulous to see the facilities, and the thought and research that goes into providing the training for doctors. One can only assume that through institutions such as the RCSI and other third level institutions, the country will be a better place for it. The university designation is, in some respects, honorific, but, in others, it has status and, unquestionably the RCSI deserves, and is entitled, to have the status of university. It is an honour for the country as well to have the RCSI.

It is worth acknowledging that the physical location of the college played a very big part in the 1916 Rising. Countess Markievicz was there. Phillip Clarke, who was born eight miles from where I live was killed on the steps of the college in 1916, and every year I remember him in Slane together with his relations. The RCSI is doing its job now for its students and for the country, and it is welcome that this has happened. It has taken time; as the Minister of State said, it is not a status that is easily granted, as this does not happen automatically. Unlike in America, a university simply cannot be opened. It is not the case here, as in the UK 20, 30 years ago that a raft of colleges can be instantly turned into universities without any consideration. There is a process to go through, and that process has been gone through and I fully believe that RCSI has demonstrated that it is entitled to the designation of university and I certainly hope that members will support that.

I agree with a great deal of what Deputy Byrne said, but we will not adopt the same position. Undoubtedly the RCSI is an excellent institution that is a university in all but name. It offers a high standard of education and is of great value to all of its students.

Our issue with the RCSI is not its campus in Dublin; it is its campus in Bahrain. This has been raised in these Houses on various occasions since 2011, and unfortunately the college has never responded satisfactorily. There is a major issue, in which former students of the campus who have treated victims of the Bahraini regime's security service have been tortured, imprisoned, arrested and persecuted. At no stage has the RCSI come out to condemn that or made a statement against that, and that is unacceptable. The failure to condemn these human rights violations reflects poorly on the college, and particularly that campus in Bahrain. If that campus is to gain further legitimacy by the granting of university status, there is an obligation on the RCSI's administrators to make it plain where they stand on these human rights abuses. We in the Oireachtas have an obligation to encourage them, and to persuade them to try and take a stronger position on these human rights abuses.

I believe the Government has in the past made statements condemning some of the human rights issues and it is aware of these problems. This issue needs to be addressed and until it is. we are not satisfied to support the granting of university status, not for any educational reason in Ireland - it is a university in all but name - but for the college's failure to tackle the human rights abuse suffered by their own former students in Bahrain.

It is great to see the Minister of State, she is always welcome. She stated:

That said, the title of "university" is highly prized and rightly so. Its integrity, in the context of safeguarding the reputation for excellence that attaches to the Irish higher education system, must be protected.

I agree with her. When it comes to integrity, we need to listen to what Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, but, more importantly, perhaps we need to listen to Ceartas, Irish Lawyers for Human Rights, who have called on the Irish Medical Council not to approve the RCSI's Bahrain campus re-accreditation because of the widespread abuses carried out by one of the most evil regimes in the world.

The Bahraini regime rules with an iron fist. As my colleague said, many former medical students have been arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, for simply doing what was demanded of them through their hippocratic oath, yet Bahrain continues to violate their medical neutrality and the RCSI has refused to condemn the regime for this. Ceartas have plainly stated that RCSI Bahrain has "an education programme integrated with health systems connected to torture, discriminatory conduct in the provision of healthcare and employment of medical staff, and consistent violation of the rights to freedom of expression". That is too serious to ignore. I am glad the Minister of State mentioned that "the application has been rigorously scrutinised and examined". In that regard, perhaps she could tell us what the response from the RCSI has been to its silence to date, and its complicity through its silence in some of the most horrific human rights abuses happening in the world today.

I concur with much of what Deputy Byrne said on this. It is an very historic and important day and, as the Minister of State said, this accolade is not easily handed out and a great deal of thought and consideration was given to it. I congratulate all associated with the RCSI on the work that has gone into this, to bring us to where we are today. I compliment them on that, and I am happy to support the Minister of State's proposal as outlined in the draft order.

I apologise for being late; I was speaking in the Chamber on homelessness.

There is certainly an issue regarding Bahrain and human rights, but we are dealing with the status of the RCSI in Ireland, and I have no reason to object to the status being granted. It has, rightly, gone through a rigorous examination, as the Minister of State said. The granting of university status should not happen without that kind of rigorous examination. We need to speak out on Bahrain, but that is primarily the duty of the Government and of those of us in Opposition parties. I have worn many hats at this stage, but when I was in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I brought it up on a visit to the Middle East on behalf of the Government at the time. That constantly needs to be raised by the Government and by other members of parliament here and in other countries because there no doubt that there are significant and very worrying violations of human rights, which involve medical personnel, including, I am sure, medical personnel associated with the RCSI. It is serious, and I urge that the RCSI to take whatever opportunities it gets to raise these issues. However, that it is not a reason to prevent the college from gaining the status of a university in Ireland, if it has been rigorously examined and reached that standard. I am not inclined to stop that. It is an important day for the college. It has the right to be called a university outside Ireland, and this order will grant that right within the country.

We need to separate the two issues, although the human rights issue is serious and needs constantly to be brought to the attention of the authorities in Bahrain and of anybody else who influences what happens there. Umbrella organisations in countries in the Middle East can exert significant influence but we also need to do that as a country.

I welcome the Minister of State and her officials to the meeting on this historic day. I support her comments on the granting of university status to the RCSI.

I welcome the Minister of State and her officials. We had a great deal of discussion in the Seanad about the future of the RCSI and its university status. I will support the order because so many students from abroad and Irish students benefit from the standard of education at the RCSI. Deputy O'Sullivan is correct that we must separate the two issues she outlined.

I am delighted to attend the meeting and thank the committee for the opportunity to support the order. While I do not have a vote, I am sure my colleagues will support it. The institution of the RCSI, as was pointed out, has given an education to men and women from Ireland and throughout the world. In my time as Minister for Health, I was struck by the influence it has in so many places because of the goodwill for the college through its graduates spread throughout the world.

I trained at the RCSI and was never trained to be anything other than a caring doctor who sought to heal wounds, relieve pain and preserve pain. As was noted by other speakers, that the RCSI is considered a university everywhere else outside this jurisdiction is a contradiction that strikes people, and it is damaging to the college in respect of its ability to influence countries that are not aware of its status. China, in particular, wonders why it is considered a university everywhere else but Ireland.

The arguments raised by Sinn Féin regarding serious issues in Bahrain are somewhat skewed and do not bear relevance, given that the college already has university status outside of these shores. The order is about conferring university status here in recognition of the college's tremendous work, including the pro bono work it has done throughout the world, in sub-Saharan Africa and various other places. In my contribution in the Seanad, I itemised all such work and I have no intention of reiterating them now.

I thank the Minister of State for showing the leadership she has on the matter, and the Department, the Chairman and the committee for their support. It is a proud and good day for the RCSI and its graduates, who are spread throughout the world. It is timely and appropriate.

I am glad the Senator, as a graduate, had the opportunity to speak on the matter. It struck me earlier that a number of RCSI graduates serve within Leinster House.

They include Senator Swanick, from the Chairman's party.

Yes, Deputy Jack Chambers also studied there, as well as some former Members.

I spoke at length in the Seanad on the matter. I have always considered it bizarre that the RCSI could call itself a university abroad but not at home. For almost a quarter of a millennium, the RCSI has been a leader in the field of medical education. It is a fantastic organisation and today is an historic day. I commend the Minister of State on her leadership in the matter. She worked tirelessly to get us to where we are today, and I commend her on that. In her work on technological universities, she has also done a great deal for higher education.

It is clear the RCSI satisfies the criteria to become a university, as set out in the legislation. It had tacit recognition as a college of the National University of Ireland, which, along with the wider public, I represent, and it was recognised abroad as a university. In welcoming the fact that we are moving forward in the implementation of the legislation, I underscore the points made by the Minister of State to the effect that it is not to be done lightly and that it will come with responsibilities. It is important that we are clear that to become a university is not simply a badge of honour but rather comes with additional responsibility, given that we, as a State, will give it the status of a university.

The concerns about international campuses and the campus re-accreditation in Bahrain are valid and need to be examined. Such campuses already use the title of university. In giving the title of university to the entire RCSI, we will not need to separate the two campuses but instead integrate them more closely. In achieving the title of university and holding the title on its four campuses, I hope it will be an opportunity for an intensification of scrutiny and shared responsibility on the four campuses, with joined-up consideration. The Minister of State might comment on those issues and how they will be addressed.

Another responsibility in the important step forward for the RCSI relates to matters such as the Athena SWAN, on which most recognised universities in Ireland are now stepping forward in the advancement of gender equality on their campuses, as a priority in all parts of the organisation of universities. It might be useful to hear to what extent that will be considered. I acknowledge that the RCSI has engaged with a couple of access programmes, including the Traveller access programme, as part of a new focus on research, which I applaud. Nevertheless, I hope there will be a stepping up on the other aspect the Minister of State mentioned, namely, economic, social and cultural advancement. The RCSI engaged on commemorative work on 1916 and in a new set of forums, including an interesting recent lecture on health equality.

The order is a step change, not simply a recognition of the work. With that step change of becoming a university, there will come new opportunities and responsibilities for the RCSI. I am not a voting member of the committee but attend as someone who has great interest in the matter. As the Minister of State will recall, I debated the legislation at length with her. I will not query that now because the legislation has been passed and I look forward to its application. We are looking to the next stage of the debate. We should avoid anomalies in the future. I hope it will not be the case that a college will be considered a university abroad but not here. Unfortunately, in certain parts of the world, including the US, there have been many cases of companies and so on that have presented themselves as universities or colleges, which has had a detrimental effect. It is appropriate that we keep a strong oversight and control over those that are accredited as universities. Given that the pressure point of funding does not apply in this case, the pressure point of standards must be used.

I am a witness to the process rather than a voting member of the committee. I look forward to the RCSI's next chapter and hope it will address the concerns that were raised. I also look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

To clarify, there will be no votes on the order.

The committee is required to consider this but not to vote on it. I would like to make a point as Chair of the committee. It is always important to raise issues of human rights and abuse of human rights, and that got an airing here today, but I certainly would not conflate the two issues. What the Minister is doing is the right thing to do, and the committee, the Oireachtas and the country should be very proud that today we are conferring university status on the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI. I ask the Minister to respond to the comments.

I thank the Chairman and members. I really want to say thank you to Deputy Thomas Byrne. We have worked on this to try to make sure we have the best legislation today. I also want to thank, in particular, Senator Reilly, who put so much work into this, and Deputies McLoughlin and Ó Laoghaire and Senators Gallagher, Byrne, McFadden and Gavan. I thank members for asking questions and the chance to respond. I welcome Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's comments as well as those of Senator Higgins. I will respond to their queries first because the others are more complex.

They asked me about diversity in RCSI.

Athena SWAN, in particular.

The universities legislation requires RCSI to promote critical and free inquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate and, in a wider society, that it respects the diversity of values, beliefs and traditions in Irish society. In 2015, RCSI partnered with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, LFHE, and committed to supporting female staff to join the leadership programme, and to date a significant number of staff members have completed an in-house leadership development programme.

In 2016, RCSI launched the Emily Winifred Dixon prize, which recognises women who have made an outstanding contribution to the field. One of those people who has won that prize is Professor Louise Richardson, of whom many members will know. She is the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. Former President of Ireland, Dr. Mary Robinson, also received the Emily Winifred Dixon prize. In October 2018, RCSI was awarded an Athena SWAN bronze award in recognition of positive gender practice, providing equal opportunities for success for all people. I understand it is working towards that silver award.

As mentioned, it also participates in the higher education admissions route, supporting socio-economically disadvantaged students, and it provides a number of access scholarships for CAO school leaving applicants. I had the great pleasure of meeting one family from the Traveller community, a family member who is a graduate of RCSI, with another brother training as a medical doctor and a sister training as a nurse. These scholarships will provide reduced entry points, financial support, and opportunities for students who might otherwise be unable to attend third level.

Students from 30 countries study and train at RCSI, and this is evidence of the diversity of the institution. The other point I wanted to make was that there will be university designation across all the campuses, and there will be a consistent approach, which I would expect from RCSI, of the highest educational and ethical standards across the universities. I am going to leave that topic and turn to the piece on Bahrain, if the committee does not mind.

What I would like to highlight is that RCSI can already use the title university outside of the State for specified purposes under the existing 2015 legislation. Therefore, the draft order before the committee today has no impact on RCSI using the university title outside the State. As Deputy Jan O'Sullivan said, higher educational institutions, HEIs, are independent, autonomous bodies with responsibilities to governing bodies, as well as to staff, students, and wider stakeholders. This is also true in large measure to those HEIs which do not receive primary funding from the State, but which may receive university authorisation under this process.

RCSI has informed me about its Bahrain campus, and its work in that region. RCSI has placed a strong emphasis on the ethos and the standards of its Bahrain campus, where it provides quality medical and nursing training in a non-sectarian environment, and where it instills high ethical standards of medical practice in its students and in its graduates. RCSI advocates on behalf of medical personnel in treating all patients regardless of their backgrounds. RCSI has publicly stressed that the well-being of its Bahrain staff and students, and their freedom to work and learn in safety, is paramount. RCSI believes that by continuing to educate 1,400 students of all religious and cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic groups in Bahrain, as well as instilling adherence to the highest ethical standards of medical practice, it can most effectively contribute to just outcomes and to community reconciliation. The RCSI medical programme has been validated by the Irish Medical Council, IMC, following an inspection visit to Bahrain. A notable graduate of RCSI is Nada Haffadh, who became Bahrain's first female minister, after being appointed health minister in 2004.

I heard what was said today. It was alleged that the hospitals in Bahrain, where RCSI Bahrain medical and nursing students have their clinical training, were connected to torture and discriminatory conduct in the provision of healthcare. There is no evidence to back up this assertion. The RCSI medical programme has been validated by the Irish Medical Council, following an inspection to Bahrain. The Irish Medical Council accreditation report is a publicly available document. I can read out some of its findings, if the committee would like to hear those, but the IMC accreditation team commended RCSI Bahrain, and the teaching hospital, which is the subject of the unproven allegations, for their attention to students and to their professional and ethical development. In particular, the report noted that students at clinical sites, that is, associated teaching hospitals, understood that they could raise concerns regarding professionalism observed at clinical sites, knew who they should contact and were confident that their concerns would be treated seriously and appropriately. Furthermore, a stand-alone module on human rights has been introduced to the curriculum, with assessment explicitly linked to student progress. A range of external sources are explicitly identified as being referenced in teaching professionalism, in ethics and in human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Bill of Human Rights and the report of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry.

I will leave it at that.

On a point of clarity-----

No, I will not allow any member to reply. The Senator had the opportunity to raise his views.

Yes, but the Minister of State quoted me-----

I would like to thank the Minister of State for her attendance and her valuable contribution.

It was actually Ceartas that stated-----

I am not allowing the Senator to comment again.

I am simply correcting the record.

If the Senator wishes to find another forum I have no doubt that he will do it.

Irish human rights lawyers made those allegations.

I will not allow the Senator to do that. I would like to thank the Minister of State and her officials for their attendance and their valuable contributions. We did an important piece of work today.