General Scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021: Discussion

On behalf of the committee I welcome the following: Mr. Jim Miley, chief executive officer of the Irish Universities Association, IUA; Professor Diarmuid Hegarty, chair of the Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA; Dr. Joseph Ryan, chief executive officer of the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA; and Councillor Mary Hoade, President of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG.

The witnesses are here today to discuss the general scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021 as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Miley to make an opening statement, followed by Professor Hegarty, Dr. Ryan and Councillor Hoade. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member will have a five-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. I will be as lenient as possible but ask people for their forbearance on this and that members and witnesses remain within the five minutes.

As witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following this meeting. As the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from outside the parliamentary precincts they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses physically present do. Any member asking questions will be in the precincts of Leinster House. The witnesses have already been advised of this. If they think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter they may do so now but the meeting will begin shortly.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory with regard to an identifiable person or entity they will be directed by the Chair to discontinue their remarks. I ask them to comply with this as it is imperative that they do so.

I now invite Mr. Miley to make his opening statement followed by those of the other witnesses. As I outlined, each witness has three minutes.

Mr. Jim Miley

I thank the Chair and members of the committee for the opportunity to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021. We have provided the committee with a detailed submission so I will confine my remarks to a number of key points.

The IUA welcomes this Bill, noting the need to update the half-century old legislation. In overall terms, it is essential that the Bill clearly differentiates the respective roles of the HEA and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The legislative reform, while welcome, must be accompanied by the long-awaited decision to address the serious underfunding of the sector. New laws for the sector without adequate funding would be meaningless.

The provisions in the Bill to underpin accountability, as outlined in the heads, are strongly supported by the IUA. It is important, however, that the agility of individual universities is not unduly constrained. The principle of maintaining the primacy of the governing authority of each university in their governance, with the HEA providing appropriate oversight, is a sound one but it is essential that the specific provisions of the Bill do not compromise institutional autonomy. This is defined by UNESCO as "a degree of self-governance, necessary for effective decision-making by institutes of higher education regarding their academic work standards, management and related activities".

The Bill, particularly head 66 and a number of related heads, provides for a statutory basis for codes of governance and guidelines for the sector. While this provision is necessary, it is important that the codes themselves continue to be developed in partnership with the sector and that a comply-or-explain approach is maintained in line with best governance practice.

There is a range of provisions under heads 67 to 76, inclusive, on regulatory oversight by the HEA, including those relating to intervention with a particular institution or a determination for action. It is critical that the trigger mechanism for such intervention is clearly defined in the legislation and that there is adequate provision for an independent appeals process in such cases. We have outlined this in more detail in our submission.

While noting the need for consultation on strategic plans, it is important that governing authorities retain ultimate decision authority on university plans. We welcome the move to competency-based governing authorities in line with best governance practice elsewhere. We have proposed that consideration be given to providing for a range of sizes of governing authorities in line with the individual needs of universities. We believe the proposed cap of 70 on the size of academic councils be removed. Academic councils are effectively the parliaments of our universities and, as such, it is important that size constraints do not impair the representation of the diverse range of interests in our universities.

There is a need for the HEA's role in research to be strengthened and we have outlined a number of proposed measures in our submission in this regard under head 53.

The committee should be aware that any increase in direct State control of our autonomous universities arising from the Bill could risk the €1 billion borrowings of our members being transferred to the State balance sheet at a time when State borrowings are already severely stretched.

We ask the committee to consider advocating change for a number of heads of the Bill as we have outlined in our submission, in particular heads 66 to 76, inclusive.

I thank Mr. Miley. I now invite Professor Hegarty to make his statement. Professor Hegarty is on mute.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Can you hear me?

Yes, perfectly.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I am glad I did not receive the answer I last received to that question from a student in a lecture hall who said they could hear me but would happily swap with someone who could not.

I thank the committee for this opportunity. The colleges I represent have enrolled 27,000 students, or nearly 12% of the student higher education population. They are also significant contributors to the Irish economy. Equality, diversity and inclusion are proposed objectives of the reformed Higher Education Authority. The unequal treatment of students in private higher education institutes from disadvantaged backgrounds who are excluded from State student supports must be addressed.

In 2017, students and their parents told the committee of pleading with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and credit unions for financial help. The committee strongly supported them and two members of that committee are present. Senator Fiona O'Loughlin was Chair of that committee. It issued a special report recommending that disadvantaged students be entitled to grants for QQI accredited courses in whatever college they wish to attend. The committee's report was never implemented. We understand this was because of cost fears. The HECA estimates the cost to the Exchequer would be estimated to be less than €5 million given that the number of eligible students is likely to be in the hundreds. The argument of a lack of funds does not sit well with the supports to public sector students received over and above the SUSI grant, none of which were given to private students. This further exacerbates the inequality. There was €50 million in Covid-19 supports, €6.5 million in additional hardship assistance supports and disability grants, and €4 million for students to study abroad.

Compared to these amounts, €5 million is a paltry sum. While Covid-19 and hardship support is welcome and disability support is essential, Covid-19, hardship and disability are not visited solely upon students of public sector institutions.

Referring briefly to designated institution status, the Bill should provide for interested institutions to apply for this and give a timeframe within which a decision should be made. A timeframe is essential to avoid repetition of the inordinate delay in delegating authority to private HEIs to award degrees. In 2012, QQI was statutorily required to publish procedures and criteria, and the Minister was obliged to make relevant regulations, as soon as practicable after the establishment day of QQI. Nine years later, there is no sign of either.

The committee should also be aware that learner protection does not exist in the public sector. Students have had to resort to High Court action against the HEA to ensure course continuance. Alternatively, students have lost out due to a receivership of a public sector owned HEI in mid-course. By contrast, HECA learners benefit from action plans in place to ensure course continuance by another HECA college, backed by a €3.6 million protection fund. Public sector institutions should be part of the proposed national learner protection scheme, as is the case in Australia.

Our proposals on HEA board membership, research, strategic development plans, equality policies and equity of access and participation progress indicators address other concerns. We need better progress indicators. Sometimes I fear we are driving the HEA car without a speedometer or a fuel gauge. HECA colleges have much to contribute to the national HEA agenda. While busy internationally, we question whether the obstacles to our provision for Irish students are in the national interest.

Finally, the HEA consultation document advises a shared approach. The legislation has the opportunity to consider a fair, student-centred, State funding model which will enhance equity of participation for disadvantaged students and support the Government's aim for a more inclusive, diverse and equal higher education system. Nobody should be left behind.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

On this signal day for all along the Shannon, I appreciate this opportunity to contribute to what has been an inclusive process to date.

A key characteristic of the consultative documentation is the adoption of a collaborative approach as seen in the internal shared governance model, marked by co-regulation between the HEA and the institution. This recognises the maturity and the critical responsibility that must lie with an institution, while affording the HEA the wherewithal to manage its oversight role. The recent establishment of a governance forum by the HEA, and including IUA and THEA, is regarded as a positive manifestation of this shared approach. This raises an interesting question as to whether a regulatory agency can also be a fostering body. THEA’s view is that we live on a small island. We work to a common goal - facilitating the realisation of personal potential and contributing toward social cohesion and to the growth and sustenance of our economy. In a mature construct, it is advisable to work collegiately while retaining respect for the statutory functions appropriate to all actors. The co-regulation advocated in the document is warmly welcomed, as is the risk-based regulatory approach.

The HEA also has a role in defending diversity. Moves that lead to the homogenising of the system, consciously or otherwise, should proactively be resisted, as they will ultimately undermine the clear policy direction set out in recent legislation.

The paper sets out a concept of a shared governance model that separates the corporate, executive and academic strands. While the architecture and distinct roles are generally understood, there can be questions on the margins of what lies within the competence of each. For example, the role of the governing authority in the academic oversight of an institution, and thus the nature of its relationship with the academic council, deserves particular attention. The role of the chief officer is also understated in the draft to date.

There has been a drive for some time to effect a reduction in the size of governing bodies. The desire to achieve this in the Technological Universities Act was not fully realised and it pointed again to the cultural challenge of moving from a representative to a competency-based structure. THEA is in favour of the proposal which states that governing authorities are more effective when the number of members is reduced. However, this comes with the following caveats. First, there a risk in constructing governing bodies that are too small. Given the increasing complexity and responsibilities of these organisations, a cap of members results in practical housekeeping difficulties. It can be hard to achieve a quorum, to comprehend the range of skill sets that are essential and to lead and populate the principal committees. Second, section 12 of the Technological Universities Act sets out the membership of a governing body. There would be a logic in the technological sector in settling on a figure that is within the lower end of that frame for consistency. Third, essential to this is a shared willingness to embrace a competency-based model of governance. This is not to deprive anyone or any group of a voice, but a shared governance model as is proposed here would be advised to move to a conception of governance, and especially at the apex, that is grounded in a diverse and informed view of what is best for the institution and those it serves. Given the connected nature of the technological sector, there is undoubted merit in having a stronger external voice.

Legislators will also note the geographical extent of the regions covered by these new universities. The question of ensuring that all in a given region can identify, and feel an affinity, with the university is itself an argument for a slightly larger governing authority than proposed in the paper. The terms of office and the staggered appointment to boards are considered good practice.

There is the danger of perceiving the HEA as an extension of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It would be advisable to have that relationship carefully documented within the scheme. One of the central considerations in the initial discussion about this renewed legislation centred on the independence of the HEA. It is the view of THEA that the system is best served by a strong and independent authority.

Reference was made to the research role of the HEA, which is expressed through the funding through the core grant and dedicated funding to support capacity building in technological universities, in accordance with the Technological Universities Research Network, TURN, report. The role of the HEA in research also needs to be aligned with the role of the Department in research policy. It would also be beneficial for the Irish Research Council to have increased autonomy. This would allow better alignment with its mandate, putting arts, humanities and social sciences research on an equal statutory footing.

Concerning equity, diversity and inclusion, the work commenced by the HEA centre of excellence for gender equality might be reflected in the legislation. As regards the borrowing framework, our institutions have been seeking this for some time. THEA trusts that the new legislation will reflect this ambition. On data sharing, as a system we have access to a significant volume of data and there would be merit in the alignment of data sets between defined entities under appropriate controls.

In conclusion, I thank the committee for the opportunity to make these points. The muscle in this general scheme lies in chapter 3 of part 7 dealing with oversight of designated institutions. Achieving balance between respect for institutional autonomy and a requirement for accountability instruments will be the test of the legislation.

Ms Mary Hoade

I am a member of Galway County Council with more than 20 years' service. I am speaking as president of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, representing 949 city and county councillors from all 31 local authorities and from all parties and from none. The association made a substantial submission last April to the Department's consultation on the scheme of the Bill before the committee. This submission has been forwarded to each of the members through the good offices of the clerk to the committee. I hope the members have had the opportunity to read it, as it sets out our compelling case for retaining councillors on the governing bodies.

As an association of councillors, we are deeply committed to education at all levels, but the association has a particular commitment to third-level education. For more than a century, the association and its predecessor, the General Council of County Councils, has been nominating members to the governing body of University College Dublin. This statutory nomination has been paralleled by our member councils, which nominate to the governing bodies of the universities in Cork and Galway. In all, there are 25 nominees of councillors sitting on the governing bodies of universities.

The association has no issue with the general thrust of the proposed Bill in strengthening the governance framework for the third level colleges. However, it is concerned specifically with head 77, which sets out to reform the size and composition of the governing bodies. We are concerned that such reforms will eliminate the representation by public representatives on the boards of universities. It is the association’s view that there are compelling and constructive reasons for councillors to continue to serve on the governing bodies. I will highlight just three of many.

Representing the public interest on the university boards, councillors have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the Irish public. Through their daily interaction with communities, councillors bring an awareness of the public’s views and concerns regarding higher education to the governing process.

Regarding diversity, councillors come from a range of backgrounds - rural, urban and suburban - and from a diversity of vocational backgrounds and professional competences. Such diversity is a powerful counterbalance to the corporate phenomenon of groupthink and ensures that the governing bodies benefit from diverse and challenging contributors.

Councillors are involved in all levels of the education sector, including as members of boards of primary and secondary schools, as well as being members of the education and training boards countrywide. They bring this awareness of the challenges faced by primary and secondary education to the tertiary level of education as members of the university bodies.

The short time allocated for the opening statement prevents me from elaborating further on the well-founded justification for retaining councillors on the governing bodies. There are many problems facing Irish society, including climate change, digitisation and housing, but it is only by closer co-operation, not less co-operation, between local government and the university sector that we can work towards resourcing the communities in which we live and work.

I think the members the opportunity to address the committee today and thank them for their attention.

I call Senator Malcolm Byrne, to be followed by Deputy Conway-Walsh. Members have a five-minute slot to put their questions and to receive a full reply from the witnesses. I ask members to be brief with their questions. I apologise in advance if I have to cut any member off.

I thank all the witnesses. I echo the congratulations to the new Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. While that name is a bit of a mouthful, it is great news. I also hope we will very soon be seeing a new university for the south east.

I have four questions which go to the heart of this legislation. What is the appropriate relationship between the HEA and the Department? Where is the balance under this legislation between the authority's regulatory role and its advocacy and developmental role? I am conscious of Dr. Ryan's point on this. Where does the balance come between autonomy and accountability? Related to this is the question of sanction. An institution should be allowed autonomy but if there is a problem with how it is spending money or some of its activity, what sanctions should be built into the legislation?

The function, size and purpose of the governing body should follow that of the function and purpose of the university or higher education institution itself. This is a broader question. What is the purpose of a university or a higher education institution in modern Ireland?

Mr. Jim Miley

The Senator asked about the balance of the relationship between the HEA and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The HEA should have the oversight and advocacy role. The primary role of the Department is to source the funding and set policy for Government. That is the differentiation I would see.

On the balance between the regulatory and advocacy approach, it is important that the HEA retains a strong advocacy role in keeping with other sectors where the sectoral State agency would have that advocacy role, be that on the business side or elsewhere. It is very important it retains that. That needs to be upweighted in the sector.

On the autonomy and accountability balance, the principle is outlined well in the legislation. Essentially the decision-making is located as close as possible to the front line - with the governing authority and the relevant institution. That speaks to what Dr. Ryan referenced as avoiding the homogeneity of the sector with everyone becoming the same. It is important. We fully accept, as outlined in our submission, that the accountability needs to be strong. That accountability should be manifested through the governing authority and only in cases where absolutely necessary would the HEA step in.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I wish to complement the points made by Mr. Miley. I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for his questions, which really get to the heart of the matter. I agree with Mr. Miley that the Department provides policy. In our opening statement, we made the argument for a very strong independent HEA. The question of independence is the first piece.

On the balance between the regulatory and fostering role, I would be on the same page as Mr. Miley. Ireland is a small island and there is definitely a case for a very strong fostering role. That does not compromise the role of the HEA as a regulator.

The Senator asked about autonomy and accountability. If the governance is working right, we do not need to get into the sanction area. However, ultimately a sanction provision is required. That is the meat I talk about in this piece. I accept the Senator's point that governing bodies should follow the function. That is what I am getting at. We could actually make the governing bodies too small, as set out in this draft.

I asked the broader question about the function of the university and whether this should be stitched into the legislation.

Mr. Jim Miley

We would probably need two hours to discuss that question on its own. It is a very big question. The point the Senator is making is that it needs to be seeded into the legislation. I would certainly agree with that. I will not attempt to get into a clear definition of the purpose of universities. That would take somewhat longer.

I thank Senator Byrne for being exactly on the button of five minutes. I will allow members to come back in if we have time, but it is important that we get the main questions dealt with first.

I call Deputy Conway-Walsh, to be followed by Deputy Alan Farrell and Senator Mullen.

I thank all the witnesses. Scrutinising this legislation is an almost impossible task. There is an enormous responsibility on us to ensure we come out with the best possible legislation that serves to give us a system that is fit for purpose. The key issue in the legislation is striking the right balance between the Department and the HEA; between the HEA and the institutes of higher education; between the governing authorities and the chief executives; and between the external and internal members of the governing bodies. In addition, we need to strike the right balance in representation and competency on the boards and the governing authorities, as well as between accountability and institutional autonomy.

Accountability is obviously paramount in all areas where we spend public money. However, this should not come at the expense of institutional autonomy, as was said. The submissions rightly highlighted that the sector has been starved a funding for more than a decade and that legislative reform alone will not deliver the change that we need in higher education and research.

The submissions from the IUA and the THEA touch on the impact the legislation could have on the ability of the institutes to borrow and how these debts are treated. What risks does the legislation pose to existing university debt? How will it impact their ability to borrow in the future?

The size of the governing bodies was mentioned. The Minister believes they should be far smaller.

There are already substantial demands on members of the governing bodies. Is there a risk that we could overtax unpaid members by asking what would be substantially smaller groups to do the same work or even take on additional functions? I will pause there, as I want the witnesses to have time to answer these questions.

Mr. Jim Miley

The enormity of the challenge is one that resonates with me. We must remember that there are members on this committee who were not born - sadly, I am not one of them - when the legislation was formulated in 1971. We will live with the new legislation for a long time and it is important that we get it right.

The Deputy's question speaks to the heart of the issue, that is, how to strike the right balance. Almost €1 billion has been borrowed by seven of our eight members. That is off the State's balance sheet due to the way it is treated. It is a complex process in which the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and EUROSTAT are involved, as the Deputy will be aware. It is related to the level of control that the State has over the sector. If the State exercises greater control through this legislation, there is a risk that existing loans will be cast onto the State's balance sheet, impairing the sector's capacity to borrow in future. We need to get the balance right. It is possible to frame the legislation in a way that does so, but it is important that the line is not overstepped.

I will defer to my colleague, but regarding the size of the governing authorities, we have suggested a range. We strongly support a competence-based approach, but some flexibility in the size ranges might be the way to go. We must recognise that different institutions may require different sizes depending on their scale and complexity.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I will add a supplemental answer. I thank the Deputy for her questions and her constant interest in education, which I appreciate, as with Senator Byrne's. The Deputy made a point about accountability. The need for accountability is a given when dealing with public moneys, but that concern should not lead us into micromanaging these institutions. This is one of the themes that is coming across.

On the question of the legislation's impact on borrowing, we have just had a technical move towards the technological university of the Shannon. It is a great day. We are looking at there being five technological universities by the start of next year. They are nascent bodies at the moment and will need time to build capacity. Our difficulty is that we are not even able to borrow at the moment. These bodies will need that ability if they are going to meet the ambitions set out in Government policy through frameworks such as Project Ireland 2040 and national plans.

I agree with the Deputy regarding the size of governing bodies. That was the point I was making. It is becoming an onerous role. It is becoming more difficult to attract people to take on this work.

I thank Dr. Ryan for that.

Ms Hoade might reply as well, Chair, if time allows.

I will allow it, but then I will move on to the next questioner.

Ms Mary Hoade

I share the Deputy's concerns about the reduction in the size of governing bodies, but it is important to recognise that they should embrace the voices of many contributors and have strong representation from the regions.

Senator Mullen will be next, followed by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na haíonna ar fad agus gabhaim buíochas leo as ucht a bheith linn.

I wish to put two questions. Under the heading of Dr. Alan Wall's line, "Our institutions require a balance between autonomy and accountability", which has been referred to several times, I will discuss governing authorities. As I understand it, this balance is necessary to the integrity of our system. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, will be before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on Thursday. It gets €9 million or €10 million of taxpayers' money and is accountable to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Given that autonomy is necessary, how does the public ensure that money is being well and properly spent? Are representatives from local authorities on governing bodies not part of that process, in that they guarantee a certain visibility of the governance of higher education to the public it is supposed to be serving?

Perhaps Councillor Hoade will have a view on my next question. While I get the importance of competence-based appointments, is there some support that we could give to members of local authorities so that, when they set about discharging their responsibilities, which I hope they will continue to have, as members of governing authorities, they can come to the job with the expertise they need? Can we have it both ways in terms of competence-based appointments while also recognising the particular competence of local authority members and enhancing that through training as people join the board and so on?

I have been raising issues about academic freedom and the safety of students coming from China in particular to participate in higher education in this country, where there are developing relationships between Irish institutions and institutions in other countries, not just China, where our rights and freedoms may not be respected. If we are speaking about autonomy and academic freedom, we need to recognise that these may be under threat in the developing relationships between our universities and institutions in certain countries. What does this legislation have to say to that challenge? The committee may decide to explore this issue. That is not yet decided, but I am preparing a scoping report on the topic. What can be done to assist the accountability of our higher education institutions to ensure that we are doing our utmost for the safety and security of staff and students, both ours going abroad and people from other countries coming to Ireland?

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Griffith College has been bringing in students from China since 1994. I have colleagues in several Chinese universities. Indeed, my professorship was awarded by a Chinese university. I have had the advantage of studying in China over the past 26 years. The changes that are happening are slow, but they are happening. The best contribution that we in the West can make is to quietly and gently impart the values that the Senator spoke about to the students. They will bring them back to their country and will be part of the change. As is always the case with social change, there will be a reaction and situations where governments may feel that people have gone too far, but I believe that what I have seen in China is a gradual change. It is probably best that we not get terribly excited. We have to be concerned about civil rights, but we also have to respect the history of the country. We have to, and do, respect the fact that the party in China has done a significant job in building the country since 1989. We must hope that the values that we give to our students will ultimately inform the development of society in China. I know that was a long answer to the Senator's question and was probably not as specific as he wanted.

It is a troubling answer in some ways, but we do not have time to get into that.

Ms Mary Hoade

I will respond quickly. It is important that the universities engage with the nominees to the governing bodies to offer induction training and similar supports so that they can fully realise their potential and be active and valuable contributors to the bodies' deliberations.

In the wider scheme of things, there is merit in the governing bodies reaching out to organisations such as ours and to all the local authorities to strengthen the relationships in areas related to research and policy that are relevant to the local and regional development of the area.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

On the question about the balance of accountability and autonomy, the governing body has the key role. If we start locating this in bodies such as the Committee of Public Accounts, we will lose something. I take the Senator's well-made point about the informed view a local politician may have and the support for that.

The question of academic freedom is very interesting. Heads 8 and 57 reference it but they are light at the moment. The critical aspect relates to the responsibility under the objects of the university, which Deputy Conway-Walsh and Senator Malcolm Byrne discussed.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I might make one comment I wanted to make earlier. The new Shannon technological university was raised. I should mention that somebody in our presence was very much involved in the development of the reputation of one of the institutes that is a partner in that technological university, and should take credit for building that reputation. It was Dr. Ryan, so I congratulate him.

I thank our guests. Senator Mullen is preparing a rapporteur's report on some of the specific issues he raised. If he contacts our guests, I ask that they give him their full co-operation on these issues.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. There may be some repetition, given that Senator Malcolm Byrne, in getting the first bite at the cherry, probably asked the most pertinent questions. If there is repetition, perhaps we can use the time to expand a little on those discussions.

My first question concerns the relationship between the HEA and the Department, and the need to distinguish between the two bodies. I have a slight nagging concern and I might use the HSE and the Department of Health as an analogy. My worry is about accountability to the Dáil. The Department of Health is often used as a distancing device, whereby it is difficult for us to ask politicians to have a line of sight to issues within the HSE that might worry us. I am concerned that creating that distinction between the HEA and the Department, which I accept is necessary, might make the body less accountable to the Dáil.

Turning to the borrowing framework, I am a Deputy who represents Waterford and the south east, so a recurring issue for me relates to the ability of the institutes of technology to access borrowing in the same way as universities. Will that follow through to the technological university system?

The institutes of technology, and I hope the technological universities, will be able to work closely with industry. This goes to the issue of autonomy we talked about. The agility and the responsiveness in courses offered at the institutes of technology will, I hope, continue through to the technological universities and be maintained. There appears to be a tension between Councillor Hoade's position regarding representatives on governing bodies and what Dr. Ryan argued for, that is, a greater emphasis on competencies. If that tension is there - I do not mean to stoke any problems or anything like that - it is probably best that we name it and speak specifically to that point. Councillor Hoade strongly put the argument for the representative element, so I would like to hear the counterpoint from the competency point of view in the context of the governing bodies.

Mr. Jim Miley

On the issue of accountability to the Dáil, the comparison the Deputy outlined is interesting. Nevertheless, we are very much involved in research and innovation and are drivers of economic growth through fostering that. I see us very much in the developmental space as much as in that of education. Enterprise Ireland, for example, has a strong fostering role for SMEs and indigenous industry, as well as a direct funding and grant-making role, while there is a similar dynamic at Bord Bia.

I would see the HEA in that space. It has that oversight and funding function but also has that role of advocacy and fostering the benefits of the sector. I will leave the question on the borrowing framework because I think that was directed more to Dr. Ryan and others.

I am glad the Deputy mentioned agility. We sometimes talk about autonomy as if it is an end in itself, but this is all about agility. During Covid, all our institutions have responded in a very agile way to the pressures of Covid, not just in translating to an online teaching environment but also through staff being seconded to the health services, research laboratories being transformed into testing centres, contact tracing and all that work. We have to link that to the individual agility of the institutions to make those decisions and move quickly to do that. That is what I think of when I refer to agility.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

On the borrowing framework, the Deputy is absolutely correct. As I said earlier, in order to meet the ambitions of the new technological universities, there will have to be access to that borrowing. That facility is outlined in the Act but it is a question of triggering it. I would pick up on the very word Mr. Miley picked up on, that is, agility. When the Oireachtas was debating what is now the Technological Universities Act, both Deputies and Senators were very keen to ensure that the technological sector would not lose that agility, that connectedness it had. That was a key part of the debate.

On competency, I do not think it is as stark a difference as the Deputy suggested. I am not saying we should exclude anyone from this. I am conscious of the Chairman's injunction not to name names, but a leading provost of a European university has told me the key to the success of that university involved choosing the most competent people for its governing body, in whom everybody could have faith, rather than going down the route of a representative model, which tends, by its nature, to get larger and larger in any case. Where the competency comes from is not the point I am making but rather that there should be a competency.

Ms Mary Hoade

Councillors have significant expertise in accountability roles as well as in representation. We deal with huge revenue and capital budgets on an ongoing basis. It would be a mistake to assume that representation and competency are distinct capacities.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I might give a different perspective on the borrowing question. A borrower can be thought of as a risk-taker and an investor in an institution. I had the privilege of serving for ten years on the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. In the course of those ten years, I got to know very well most of the heads of the institutes of technology. I formed the view that this was a group of very competent people and I would have had no hesitation investing in them. The Government probably needs to have faith in the quality of the people leading the State's universities and technological universities, given what they have achieved with limited resources over a number of years. That is just a comment from my personal perspective.

I thank the witnesses for coming in this afternoon. I want to raise an issue, which I do not believe has been raised, which is the content of the general scheme of the Bill that deals with students. Our guests will be aware that it is dealt with in Part 4, with three specific sections dealing with students that provide for engagement with students, the student form and the student survey. Do the guests believe the content of the Bill is sufficient to protect and represent the interests of students or are there other changes they would like to see in the Bill to advance that?

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I made the point in my contribution earlier that there is an absence of learner protection for students in public sector institutions. I have given examples of at least three where students have lost out and in one instance had to go to the High Court to ensure course continuance. That is missing. The higher education authority Bill should include a provision effectively obliging public sector institutions to be part of the national learner protection scheme, as is the case in Australia.

Mr. Jim Miley

Similarly, the principle of student engagement is well outlined but the detail of how that would be executed it is not clear in many instances. It is important to recognise that there is strong student engagement. We have seen it throughout Covid at the sectoral level and at an institutional level where students are involved in Covid consultative and steering group fora in each of the institutions, and they have a very active voice. The Deputy is asking whether this needs to be codified to a greater extent in the legislation. There are aspects in there where specific provision is made for student representation on governing authorities, for example, and that is as it should be. There is perhaps not as detailed a reference to their consultative role in policy setting. That potentially is an area that should be looked at in the more detailed legislation.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Co-creation has become a real feature of higher education in recent times. I agree with the Deputy that the heads of the Bill in a number of cases are actually quite light, and it is certainly light on this one. Ever since the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999, students have been put increasingly at the centre of education. It is exactly as Mr. Miley has said. Even in the national steering group that looks after Covid oversight, students are a very clear voice at the leadership table there. When it is fully fleshed out, this head of the Bill will reflect that.

Another point essential to third level educational institutions is the promotion of research in higher education. I believe it was Dr. Ryan who stated that there is very little detail given on how the Higher Education Authority, HEA, should promote research in higher education. What is the panel's view of the function of the HEA in trying to promote research and does the Bill refer to that?

Mr. Jim Miley

I think it does not. We have referenced this in our opening statement. In the more detailed submission we provided to the committee, we outlined six different specific points about bolstering research. It is encouraging to see the announcement yesterday by the Taoiseach on the €40 million under the shared island fund. The HEA is leading out on that and it is an important signal as to the role of the HEA on research. As they are currently framed, the heads are very light on the detail on research. We would like to see a much clearer and more defined role for the HEA both for funding research, which it already does through the Irish Research Council, and to have this upweighted, and with regard to the policy setting agenda particularly around research integrity and ethics, which is an area in which the HEA should have specific responsibility.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I fully echo that. That head is very light and needs to be further fleshed out. There is the chance now with the new Department, with that large body of co-location of research, to reflect that much better, along with the complementary piece here under Part 6.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

If I may, I will comment on the sectional interest from the point of view of the private institutions. As the chair of the Higher Education Colleges Association I would like to see more research within the private institutions. In our submission I have said that we would like to see the HEA encouraging the removal of the obstacles. We have obstacles that really represent a Catch-22: if one has no experience in research then one does not get work in research. We would like to see the HEA encouraging co-operation between the public sector institutions and the private institutions to build a research capability in the private institutions, which I believe would be in the national interests.

I will conclude by agreeing with Councillor Hoade. Sometimes there is an assumption that people who end up on boards as a result of being elected to a local authority or being a public representative, somehow may lack competencies. Having been a member of a local authority and having served on boards, it is my experience that members of local authorities can bring much broader ranges of competencies to a board rather than being merely representative of the local authorities from where they come.

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for that. I invite Senator Dolan to make a contribution now and she will be followed by Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh who is deputising for Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

I thank the Chair. It is a great and momentous day for our Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. I am absolutely delighted. It is a new university bringing together the Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology. It will really transform our region. It is very important because of the opportunities we will have to potentially expand campuses and hubs out into the likes of Roscommon, east Galway and other regional areas. In this way, by linking the towns and villages with universities, we are driving excellence across the region and reflecting the communities we come from. Dr. Ryan and I have spoken many times on this. It is a really wonderful day.

I have a few questions, the first of which is for Dr. Ryan on the importance of balanced representation and the challenges and opportunities in bringing such large institutes together under technological universities. Reference was made to the numbers on the governing authorities. In this period of transition, I am curious on how key this is to the success of integration.

In front of the committee today we have the higher education authority Bill, which is to reform legislation that is more than 50 years old. There is a focus on it now because we have such a high number of students going to third level education, which is brilliant and is possibly the highest number in Europe if not worldwide. It is also about the breadth of programmes they study, how we are to maintain excellence, and building strategies around this.

I thank Mr. Miley for his presentation and for his submission on behalf of the IUA. My question for Mr. Miley is on performance frameworks. All of our universities know about performance frameworks when it comes to the QS World University Rankings and ensuring our universities are there in the top 1,000, top 500, top 250 and top 100. That is how Ireland shows its excellence across the world. In Mr. Miley's submission he referred to research. I was a contract researcher in NUI Galway and I understand the concerns and needs in that regard. Will Mr. Miley expand on how important is the investment in research and innovation as a driver of economic growth? How are we going to ensure that by funding research and innovation, we will drive and maintain our position on those QS World University Rankings? I apologise that it is such a broad question but I ask that Mr. Miley would reiterate the importance of research, as he mentioned previously.

I welcome Councillor Mary Hoade. She and I were on Galway County Council together and it is wonderful to see her here today as a great and a very strong representative. I have spoken about performance frameworks and we know about competency within our council, along with the importance of training and learning. I have seen it all through the council myself as a councillor on Galway County Council. If there were gaps in technological university boards, how would Councillor Hoade see councillors meeting those competency-based gaps?

I thank Professor Hegarty for his comments on inclusion.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I am happy to start with some of those answers if that is agreeable. I thank Senator Dolan for the questions and for her constant support for the education agenda, which we very much appreciate.

I will take two of them. Looking at the original Act, it could almost be fit on one page. It is an indication of the scope and importance of higher education now that the Act is the size it is. I fully agree with Deputy Conway-Walsh's comments earlier that getting this right is the critical thing. On ownership and balanced representation, take the technical university of the Shannon or the Connaught Ulster alliance and its scope, local ownership of these institutions will be critical. Balance has been mentioned a number of times. Between trying to get very focused governing bodies but also those which people have a sense of ownership over will be critical. Geography comes into that as well.

I mentioned the practical difficulties at governing body level of people in committees. If one makes it too narrow, one does not get the many committees that are required to make these effective organisations.

I thank Dr. Ryan. I thank Dr. Miley for coming in.

Mr. Jim Miley

I do not know if it is because I am a fellow Rossie that the Senator has elevated me to be "Dr.". It is certainly not a title I have earned.

I always mix them up.

Mr. Jim Miley

I will make a couple of points on research. Our investment in research is way below what it needs to be. We are a high skills economy. Look at how during Covid our tax base has held up remarkably well principally from the high skills sector that are fostered by the higher education sector which is the talent and innovation base for those. It is a real case study for how valuable our sector is to the economic growth of the country. Countries such as Denmark, Estonia or Finland spend around double what we spend on research. At the weekend the chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce said we need to double our investment. Do not listen to our voice, listen to the voice of industry, whether it is IBEC, the American Chamber of Commerce, the British Irish Chamber. They will all say this. Industry is also prepared to step up and spend there.

We also need to look at how research advisory to the Government is framed. In our detailed submission to the committee, we have proposed that a research advisory council be set up. It is important that there be an independent advisory council to the Government. When we say research, we do not just mean science but the wider aspects of research including all the humanities and the creative industries as well, if you want to call them that.

I have to cut the Senator off but I will bring her back. I want to be fair to everybody. Deputy Conway-Walsh, substituting for Deputy Ó Laoghaire, is next and then Senator Pauline O'Reilly.

Will the general scheme of the Bill in its current form result in the centralisation of control in the higher education sector? That is a broader question for everybody.

The 1971 Act set out the democratisation of the third level sector as an objective. Is this still relevant today? Does this Bill further this or contradict it? I return to the funding model and the CSO categorisation. In 2018 when EUROSTAT and the CSO revisited the assessment of the control of universities, they came up with the criteria of autonomous institutions under public or private control or market or non-market. The result was that the universities were seen as autonomous institutions under public control and as a market operator. I think we can manage everything that needs to be achieved and still remain off the balance sheet. In 2018 the CSO report clearly states that all fee income, whether that is paid by households or the State on behalf of households, is treated as sales. This would mean that provided a funding model is correctly designed the universities could continue to have full off-State balance sheet borrowing.

Mr. Miley or Dr. Ryan might address that question. The first question is for everyone.

Mr. Jim Miley

I will cede to Dr. Ryan first. I do not want to come in first each time.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

"No" is the answer to the question on central control. I do not think there is any intention for that, but the question is what does the Bill lead us to. Strong autonomous institutions with central support and the ultimate ability of an authority to come in where it is necessary is the goal from a Bill such as this.

On the democratisation question, absolutely, that is the way we would see for our higher education institutions to go. What I would love to see come out of this consideration of the reform is an increase in democratisation. If we respect the landscape that we have now with traditional universities, technological universities, institutes, etc., I think there is a place for everyone in that. We are trying to construct a system where people can move pathways from further to higher education.

I fully agree with the Deputy on her last point. The critical thing when we get down to consider what comes back from Europe on Cassells is ensuring that we facilitate that access into the borrowing framework and construct it in such a way. My reading would be very much on the same lines as the Deputy.

Ms Mary Hoade

Earlier I said that a wide and diverse governing body with good strong regional membership would very much guard against what the Deputy has mentioned on the whole area of centralisation.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

On democratisation, I spoke earlier on the need for clearer indicators on progression. As I sit here in Sandymount, three miles to the south west, there is a 99% participation in third level education in Dublin 6. Three miles of me to the north west, there is a 15% participation in higher education in Dublin 17. These figures have not significantly changed since they were first calculated by Dr. Pat Clancy in the 1960s and 1970s. That is the greatest indictment on us all. It is the greatest indictment on the progress of the democratisation of education: we simply have not achieved significant change. That is why I am talking about progress indicators. We need a dashboard setting out indicators and if we do not like the indicators, we need to improve them not to have different indicators. I think there is a problem here. These indicators need to be revisited every year and improved. I am not saying nothing is done but at the same time, there is a significant problem here and a significant shortfall.

Mr. Jim Miley

I am aware of the clock but briefly, I would urge the committee to have a special session on access in the near future because there is a very substantive issue which we need to discuss there. We need to recognise that progress has been made but it is not enough. We have a record number of applicants under the disability access route to education, DARE, and higher education access route, HEAR, schemes. That is very encouraging. It is those who have not applied or who do not get in that we need to focus on as Dr. Hegarty rightly outlined.

The point I was making on loans is that we need to avoid the law of unintended consequences in the legislation. It is important that we retain access to loan funding for the system. Otherwise we could create a real problem.

This might be in hand, but we will need to ask the CSO in for a session to examine that so that, as Mr. Miley said, there are not unintended consequences and that we have a model that is suitable.

The next member up is Senator Pauline O'Reilly. She will be followed by Senator O'Loughlin. I remind members that apologies have been received from Senator Flynn, who was to come in after Senator Pauline O'Reilly.

I thank all the contributors. In a broad sense, this Bill has to address the problems and look at what success means. Funding is absolutely a key issue for the higher education sector. That was outlined in the Cassells report and we still have not addressed it, so the Bill has to take that on board. It is also really important to look at what it means to be successful in third level education. I sat on a governing authority as a public representative and we spent a huge amount of time coming up with a strategic plan for the university. One of the key things was openness. I will read out for the committee what Professor Ó hÓgartaigh wrote in the opening statement in that strategic plan:

We recognise that we cannot achieve our ambitions alone. We are a university with no gates. When darkness comes, we don't close. Openness means we welcome friends and strangers in. It also means we go out, seeking new and deeper research co-operation, new ideas, new partnerships, new communities, and new ways of engaging.

That has to be a key part of what governing authorities do. Competency is absolutely key, but it is not just about ensuring we can wash our faces when it comes to money. A university is also a social good. It is not just about the students who are there; in Galway in particular, it also has to encapsulate the entire city in it. That is why it is key that we do not lose that element of having the public involved in the running of the university. That may not look like having a certain number of public representatives but it absolutely cannot be based only on what it means to run an institution. It also has to have that representative element to it. I would like to hear the witnesses' thoughts on that. There are problems with it - do not get me wrong. I got on the governing authority at the flip of a coin and was the only female councillor on it at that time. That goes to our political system as well. Councillor Hoade, in her short time as president of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, has done a huge amount of work regarding gender balance on local authorities. We have local authorities on which there might be one woman and the rest are men, and that needs to be addressed. It spills over when it comes to the kinds of boards councillors are on, and I was on a number of them. Those are a few of my thoughts on that and about the importance of not just competency but also how the witnesses reflect wider society in the running of their institutions.

There have clearly been some problems, and gender discrimination is one. Do the witnesses think a Bill of this kind will address some of the issues surrounding the lack of transparency that has existed in the past? I think all of us who have served on boards, be they boards of management for schools or for universities, know there have been difficulties. If we are honest and if we look down through the list of the problems with appointments to particular positions within universities, do we think the Bill will address that lack of transparency sufficiently? We definitely had issues in Galway. The landscape has changed in that regard, but we need to make sure that these things do not happen again. That is where accountability comes in.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I can offer, if I may, through the Chair-----

There is about a minute left in this slot, so whoever is first may respond.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Reflecting on what the Senator said, when I went to college - I am going back a bit now - the number of students amounted to approximately 15% to 20% of the age cohort; they now amount to more than 60% of the age cohort. The question of democratisation and the role of the technological sector in widening access have been a key part of this. That access and the link to region and community are key to the build of these new technological universities. The linkage between governance and place and region has been a key theme to which we have been referring all the time. I do not think there is any disconnect between that connectedness, which is the byline of the TURN report on the build of these technological universities, and that question of linkage back into community. I fully agree with the Senator that there should be a mirror of these new universities with the regions themselves.

As for the question of gender, THEA, as the committee will know, launched some time ago the PROPEL report on the consent framework and linkages. We have done a lot of work, along with colleagues in the IUA and elsewhere, on senior academic leadership initiative, SALI, frameworks etc. There has been a lot of change in trying to get a broader equality, diversity and inclusion, EDI, agenda within higher education, including dedicated posts at senior level. I am not for a moment making the argument that we have solved the matter but we are certainly on a path and we would like to see that reflected within this legislation.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

If I may speak from my experience in Griffith College, we promote people based on abilities. In reality, the majority of our faculty heads are females. They are not promoted because of their gender; they are promoted because they are the best for the job.

Absolutely. I take that on board and I am not accusing anyone. It is more about long-term accountability. If this is held within each institution, we do not have that security. That is not what the Bill says, but I just want to be sure we are all on the same page in that regard.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I would absolutely encourage every institution-----

I am very conscious-----

Ms Mary Hoade

May I briefly come in-----

Sorry, Councillor Hoade. Mr. Miley indicated that he wanted to come in.

Mr. Jim Miley

My colleagues have probably addressed what I was going to say. The extent of what can be put in the legislation is an important issue. I am reminded of the late Jim Mitchell, who once opined, in discussing an issue with new laws, that we had enough laws and that what we needed was more order. In this regard we need to be a little careful about trying to put everything into the Bill. The issues being talked about, transparency and operational practice, are those of culture and practice as much as anything else. As Dr. Ryan has outlined, a lot of good work is being done in that area but we need to continue to drive it on.

Ms Mary Hoade

I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Pauline O'Reilly. To respond to her comments on the inclusion of the wider community on the boards, in Galway you will find that the nominees to the board represent a number of different counties within the region of NUI Galway. I also wish to make a comment on our nominees on the governing body. We strictly take into consideration gender balance as well.

The next member up is Senator O'Loughlin, who was to be followed by Deputy Nolan. The Deputy is not present at the moment, so I will come in after Senator O'Loughlin. I will call on Senator Dolan after that because Deputy Alan Farrell did not take his slot and has handed it over to her.

Good afternoon to our distinguished guests, most of whom I have had the privilege of meeting and engaging with before. It has been very interesting to listen to them talk about gender equality. Councillor Hoade is the first female president of the AILG. That should be noted and remarked on, and I congratulate her on the difficult year the AILG is having because of Covid. Councillor Hoade is certainly leading with great strides, which is great to see.

Much of the debate and discussion we have had has been about balance, specifically the balance between autonomy and accountability. In my view, the best way of doing this is through public representation.

The submission from the Association of Irish Local Government has certainly demonstrated the strong contribution elected members have made to governing bodies over the years since 1908. Anyone would know Liam Kenny was a historian in terms of the links that he has made. It is interesting to see the links between the foundation of our universities and local government, which was only in place ten years at that point. That link is important in representing the public interest and not only the diversity of experience but the experience of diversity. It is important in bringing that all to the fore.

I was fortunate enough to serve on the European Committee of the Regions for five years some ten years ago. One thing that struck me across Europe was the strong relationship between universities and the regions and their business and political leadership. My view was this was something we were not strong enough on. Within my county we have NUI Maynooth. In the past five years there have been stronger and better connections but to have had the possibility of a public representative from Kildare on the governing body would have been a wonderful thing for the region and for the university. I know that Sara Moorhead spoke in her report about that absolute connection.

I will put some questions to Councillor Hoade. Time is short so I will confine my questions to her. This is key because there is a suggestion that boards might minimise the numbers. There is a fear that we may lose some of the valuable expertise and insights of our public representatives.

In her submission Councillor Hoade talked about bringing the experience of the wider education sector to the governing bodies. Will Councillor Hoade develop that point about those connections? There is a view regarding the competency-based approach to the selection of members, and that is not a bad thing. I have no doubt about the competencies that councillors can bring. Can Councillor Hoade elaborate on that? They are the two questions that I am putting initially.

Ms Mary Hoade

My thanks to Senator O'Loughlin for her comments. One of the things I said at the outset was that many councillors throughout the country have been members of statutory education training boards as well as being members of education and training boards. I am chairperson of a board of management of a secondary school of almost 700 people. I have been on the boards of management of two primary schools. Councillors come to the table with this expertise and knowledge. They have worked in the education sector. They come with this knowledge and have been involved in participation at a great level in the area through boards of management. I take the view that they have the capacity within themselves to be able to bring skills, knowledge and expertise to the table in that regard.

What about bringing a regional and rural voice to the governing bodies? Will Councillor Hoade elaborate on that a little? I am thinking of University College Dublin in particular because so many from rural areas come to Dublin to go to UCD. If we do not have the voices of people representing those areas, it could be a loss. Will Councillor Hoade tell us her views on that?

Ms Mary Hoade

Councillors represent all strands of life. They come from rural, urban and suburban areas. Many people from rural areas attend college in Dublin. The level of expertise or support is relevant. An elected representative in a rural area or an area like Galway coming as a representative on a governing body can bring expertise and knowledge.

Irish universities are to the fore in progressing research and training in areas. Earlier I mentioned the areas of climate change, food science, community development and similar regional issues. It is essential that this work is given realistic connection by having members from the regions and people from rural Ireland participating. We send our students from rural Ireland and the major urban cities to Dublin. It would be important to have a good strong cross-section of community represented on the governing body.

I know my time is up. I believe Councillor Hoade has made a strong case for the retention of councillors on the governing bodies.

The next speaker is Senator Aisling Dolan, who has five minutes in Deputy Alan Farrell's slot. I had to cut you off earlier, Senator, so please continue from where you left off.

We were speaking the last time. My question was really around the competencies required by higher education institutions. They will identify gaps in specific areas. Can Councillor Hoade give two examples of how councillors could meet those gaps? I mean either through training or other areas, for example, areas of medical technology in Galway or innovation. There might be other areas that a university might mention.

I will put the question to Mr. Miley. I will not put a title in front of his name just yet. I am coming at this from my experience as a contract researcher in universities. The Higher Education Authority provides a core grant or block grant to the universities and colleges to ensure they have infrastructure and facilities to provide research. We understand the cost of laboratories. We know that students in arts cover the costs of many students doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. How can we see that additional funding coming through research?

I have gone through the elements mentioned in the submission. We need to increase the Government funding. I would be in favour of doubling that but, as we can imagine, budgets are tight. How else can we attract this type of funding? How can the Higher Education Authority promote this? What is the role of international students in positioning Irish colleges and universities with the infrastructure and laboratories to compete at world class level for research?

I want to consider the agencies that fund universities, including for the arts area and Science Foundation Ireland for the science and technology areas. There are several partnerships or collaborations, including the US-Ireland research and development partnership programme and the US National Science Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health. There is the Horizon Europe at the moment. What ways can we look to support the research path students take from masters to PhD to post-doctorate level? How do we support people in our research sector in universities? What can the HEA do to help?

Ms Mary Hoade

Again, I go back to what I said recently in respect of regional knowledge and local knowledge and our connection with universities and local needs. One of the advisory bodies I am on is the town teams group. Town team groups have a clear knowledge and pathway. The people involved identify exactly what is going on in areas. They know the needs and local issues in areas. They are the people who are able to transform and bring forward those ideas.

No matter how we look at it communities are a microcosm of the technological need. Many of our members come from different backgrounds. Many of them have close involvement with medical technology industries so that area would be catered for and I do not imagine there would be a deficit there. When it comes to the appointment of members there is a strong connection and we would be able to find the relevant representation necessary for the governing bodies.

Mr. Jim Miley

I will come in on the Senator's question on the research side. Our proposal is not that the State does this in isolation by any means. As committee members are aware, our universities and institutes of technology have long and detailed partnerships with industry and access money for research through a variety of mechanisms. One thing we can look at has been striking in recent years.

The Senator is probably aware of the analysis on this issue. In order to qualify for European Research Council, ERC, grants, one needs State support and to be able to show other sources of funding. By not giving certain grants to some of our lead researchers, the State is causing other difficulties for them. It is interesting that some of the people who are featured on television nightly or weekly talking about Covid did not have access to ERC grants in recent years because, in order to qualify, they needed a certain seedbed of State grants to kick them off. It is very much a matched funding model.

To bring this back to the legislation, it is important that the Higher Education Authority would have a pivotal role in setting the ground rules in this area and developing a framework around them. The money is one side of it and the framework through which the money is channelled is the other. It cannot just be about recurrent funding. The infrastructure funding, which the Senator referenced, is critical. We have a situation where, in some higher education institutions, students are being educated and researchers are working in laboratories built in the 1980s and 1990s. That is a real problem when trying to developing industry partnerships. If a third level institution brings in representatives from the local FDI company, they will not want to take a student into their super-high-tech environment who is coming out of that environment. There is a real issue in terms of bridging that gap and the funding needs to address it, both in terms of how it is structured and the quantum of funding.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

There was a reference to North-South funding. That is challenge-based funding, which is exciting. Increasingly, however, we are seeing competitive funding calls, which are associated with a very big transactional cost. A different type of approach is needed. The Senator mentioned the advocacy role of the HEA. I ask the committee to imagine a HEA that is working with all institutions to leverage the Horizon Europe Funding the Senator referenced and to gain a greater part of that pie for Ireland. That is a good prospect.

I thank Dr. Ryan and Mr. Miley for their responses and congratulate Councillor Hoade on her new role.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

If I may, I would like to offer a commercial focus on the point raised by the Senator. We have seen examples during the Covid period of research being developed in the universities and being applied. Individual professors are doing good work in that regard. I feel, however, that there are not sufficient connections between the employment and investment incentive, EII, scheme and research within the universities. There is potential there in terms of funding for applied research if the universities were to develop the skills needed to cultivate Asian investors, for example, and perhaps work more with the Department on developing the EII scheme. I serve on Dublin Chamber and we made submissions to Government last February on the scheme. It needs to be broadened significantly and it needs to reward people for risk-taking. Research can involve total risk and total loss or it can involve substantial gain. In the case of applied research, there is an opportunity there. If we had more of those types of commercial skills within the universities, it might enhance the potential return universities and individual researchers can get from the research. It is just a thought.

It is a very important one and I thank Professor Hegarty for making it. It is about translational research in some ways but also that our businesses and communities should be able see the value of the research. We do not want to be seen in any shape or form as being behind ivory walls. I very much agree with Professor Hegarty's point.

I have a few questions for the witnesses before we conclude the meeting. Concerns were raised regarding the proposed composition and size of the governing authorities. Can any of the witnesses comment on how the governing authorities might be constituted to ensure they are as representative as possible, while also being small enough to make their work effective?

Mr. Miley spoke about our high-skills economy and compared us with other countries that are spending double what we spend on research. If we were spending similar amounts of money, where might we be at right now? When does he see us being able to afford to spend the same amounts of money? That leads into the question of access to third level education, which is a huge concern of mine. When I go back to my constituency, which is Wexford, one of the main issues people raise with me is access to third level education and the cost of it. Accommodation costs have gone through the roof and many families are struggling. The cost of living has gone up but salaries may not have increased. There are greater expectations on other family members and so on. We need to invest more in research but we also have to make it affordable for students to go to third level. We are still going back to the Exchequer and the same pocket of money. What is more important in terms of prioritising funding? Should we give 50% to research and 50% to making third level more accessible to students? It is absolutely fantastic to see people who got their education in Ireland making their name worldwide. There should be the same accessibility to third level for everybody. It is a huge concern of mine that we are making it way too expensive for people. I will be raising this issue with the Minister, Deputy Harris, when he comes before the committee to discuss the reopening of colleges.

I will call Mr. Miley first to respond on that point, after which Dr. Ryan and Professor Hegarty may also wish to comment. Councillor Hoade might comment then on the point about membership of the governing authorities.

Mr. Jim Miley

I very much share the Chairman's view on access. It is critically important and it speaks to both the legislation and the upcoming announcements we hope to see on the sustainable funding for the sector that the Minister and Taoiseach have pledged for this year. It is vital that we have a system that is accessible and fair. This means doing something, for instance, for the 85% of pupils who are not getting access in the school Professor Hegarty mentioned earlier, which is located not far from where I am sitting. We must ensure that more of the children in that school who have the ability to go to third level are given the capacity to do so. There is a more complex issue around this in that the pathway starts in primary school. It is not something that just happens at the end of the cycle. There is a larger question to be considered in that regard but I very much share the Chairman's sentiment.

The Chairman referred to the high-skills aspect and what is needed in that regard. In essence, we would say that something in the order of €80 million to €100 million per year in extra funding for research is needed over the next five years. We have proposed a €3.5 billion investment over a decade for the entire sector, through the national development plan, a substantial portion of which should be on the research side.

That is to deal with the infrastructure issues we have outlined. I urge the committee to think about this. This is not a matter of funding something for the sake of it. It is about funding a working asset for the country and economy. We should view it in those terms. There is a discernible return on that asset.

Mr. Miley's last point was that it is an investment into the future of our country and economy. I would be interested in the committee doing something later regarding the benefits and analysis of that. If the witnesses offered to come back in to speak about something like that, I would take them up on that and hope that members will support me on that.

Going back to access, we are a great country for examining other models and not putting our own model in place. A number of years ago, following the Cassells report, I examined the Australian model. It was a loan repayment scheme. When students went into the workplace after doing three or four years in third level, there was an onus on them to pay back a loan. What are the witnesses' views on that type of model?

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

That is certainly relevant to our institution. One thing that I constantly ask myself and that we in Griffith College and indeed HECA colleges constantly ask ourselves is if we are giving students the capacity to earn to repay the debt. The reality of the matter is that the Chairman is correct that accommodation costs are out of hand, and education costs and living costs are not getting lower, so students have to borrow. It is important that they get skills from their years in college that will quickly enable them to earn salaries at a decent level so that they can repay those loans and they are not hanging over them for life. The loans are not terribly large relative to potential incomes but we have to give them the skills to get into the workplace quickly. That is imperative. I would be delighted to contribute to the committee's deliberations on that aspect. It is vital for both students and for the economy.

I will call Dr. Ryan and then go back to Mr. Miley because I am interested in his view on that. I do not want to put him on the spot. I will then come back to Councillor Hoade.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Going back to the debate on the loan scheme, THEA set itself against that. We did that due to the access issue since we felt that it would exacerbate the challenges for so many people accessing higher education. I made the point earlier that the sector I have the honour to represent is the access sector. It has done much for the democratisation of education. These new technological universities are geographically more dispersed, which will make things easier. That is not to gainsay the Chair's points. The challenge is that the student fee is one of the highest in Europe. Accommodation costs are high. I used to work as a registrar in the college and one could hear the pips squeak a number of years ago when families came and said that they could not afford to have their next son or daughter go through education. The funding is a three-legged stool. Hopefully, we will have a discussion dedicated to funding in time. That three-legged stool is the student contribution which I propose is effectively maxed out, as it stands. The second part is the National Training Fund, which is now at 1%, a significant contribution from enterprise. The third part is central funding. I fully take the point that has been made here a few times. We are looking at a potential change in the tax regime. Our native genius is in the talent of our people. It is worth investing in the talent of those people because that is what draws people to this small, open, productive economy. I hope that is the discussion that we have when we come back.

Mr. Jim Miley

Someone referred to loans earlier. We recognise that a significant proportion of students take out loans to get themselves through college. That is a reality. What we do not have is a structured loan scheme, as in Australia and elsewhere. The political debate on that is probably near to twilight, if I am reading the tea leaves correctly. In dealing with the substantive funding question, which we understand is coming to the table soon, I would simply come back to the point that the fact of the matter is that a cohort of students is going to college who are stretched and finding it difficult to cope. We also know that another cohort is not getting access to college due to financial constraints. In dealing with the funding question, we have to have that front and centre. We also have to have front and centre that there is a cohort of families and students who can afford to pay. Many of them are paying €6,000 to €12,000 a year for secondary school and then going on to third level. The fairness equation needs to apply across the spectrum. Our system needs to deal with that appropriately.

I concur completely with Mr. Miley's analysis. We talk about the Cassells report. When we have finished all these reports, it will nearly be time to start another one.

Ms Mary Hoade

The boards can be much smaller than 40 but they must be big enough to ensure that the public voice is strong. If the size of the boards is to be reduced, the representation must remain in proportion to ensure that the entire voice and local knowledge is heard. That is our primary concern as an association.

I have a final question for Mr. Miley on college places. As we prepare this legislation, another significant issue in the future will be college places. We have an increasing population, with a growing younger generation and number of people going to college even though it is more expensive. What are Mr. Miley's views on that?

Mr. Jim Miley

The system is stretched at present. In 2008, we had 150,000 or so students in higher education. In 2020, we had 213,000. From what we are told, that will increase to between 240,000 and 250,000 by 2030 or shortly thereafter. We have a serious bulge coming into the system. We need to do two things. Whoever is in the system needs to be funded appropriately. The worst thing that we could do is pull more people into the system and not fund them adequately. Second, we need to make sure that alternative channels are provided for them, through apprenticeships or more flexible opportunities. We would advocate as strongly as anyone else for that. The worst thing for any 18- or 19-year-olds is to find themselves in a course or an institution which does not suit them. I know a number of people around this table have made the case repeatedly that it is important that a broad base of opportunities be provided and that each stream be funded appropriately.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Hear, hear. I completely agree with an tUasal Miley. I use that title to reflect his contribution to higher education over many years. Apprenticeships, and earning and learning, are a significant opportunity for us to expand the third-level cohort. We need, as a society, to change our attitudes. We also need to provide progression plans from apprenticeships. We need to respect them as potential sources of entry to degrees, masters, doctorates, and professional doctorates.

It will be an area of huge growth. Griffith College is involved in two apprenticeship programmes now and we expect to be involved in many more. Apprenticeship programmes give students the opportunity to earn while learning. For many students and their families, this is the solution to the problem. It is also a model which suits some students who learn better in a work context. Therefore, I ask that the importance of this approach not be underestimated. It will make a significant difference in solving the budget problem identified in the Cassells report some years ago.

I thank Professor Hegarty. We have two minutes remaining before we conclude. I will bring Senator Malcolm Byrne back in for one minute to ask a question. There will be no replies. I am also going to bring back in Deputy Conway-Walsh, who is looking at me anxiously. To conclude then, we will have two questions of one minute each with no replies. I ask the witnesses to reply in writing directly to the clerk to the committee. I call Senator Byrne.

One of the things we should celebrate is the increase in participation rates at third level. When the original Higher Education Act was enacted in 1971, fewer than one in ten people in the relevant age cohort participated. Input from all the organisations represented here and successive Governments means that we have now achieved participation rates which see more than six in ten people going on to third level education. Apprenticeship programmes have also been expanded. We must acknowledge that increase in participation at third-level in contributing to the transformation of Ireland. The task now is to equip ourselves with legislation for the next half-century.

One issue I have concerning this new system that we are going to consider developing is the extent to which we will be able to factor in changes in technology. I refer to developments such as mass open online courses, MOOCs. All the third level institutions have responded to the pandemic by using technology in particular ways. Technology programmes were implemented which may have been only in the planning stage in the previous year. My question concerns how we can equip and future-proof the third-level education system, via this legislation, to enable it to deal with all the technological changes we will see in the years to come.

I thank Senator Byrne. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh, who has one minute as well.

What is the current role of the Higher Education Authority in governing the private college sector? How will this proposed Bill impact on the current governance structure in respect of the private colleges? In that regard, what would the provision for an independent appeals process look like? I refer to the process mentioned in some of the submissions. I thank the Chair for allowing me to contribute again.

I ask the witnesses to reply directly to the clerk to the committee concerning the two issues raised by Senator Byrne and Deputy Conway-Walsh. We have run out of time again. It is 5.30 p.m. and the Covid-19 restrictions necessitate that we confine our meetings to two hours in length. As I will probably have the Covid-19 compliance officers in here with me within the next ten seconds, I thank Mr. Miley, Professor Hegarty, Dr. Ryan and Councillor Hoade for attending the meeting and for briefing us so comprehensively. This session has been of enormous assistance to all the members of the committee as we undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of this Bill. Mr. Miley and other witnesses also said that they would be willing to return and talk about the benefits of investing in third-level education. Mr. Miley may wish to put his thinking hat on between now and the end of the year. Some of our other witnesses would also like to participate in such a scheduled meeting and it would be very beneficial for the committee. I again thank all the witnesses and the members for their input.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.34 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Thursday, 8 July 2021.