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Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 13 Jul 2021

General Scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)

On behalf of the committee, I welcome: Ms Joan Donegan, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT; Ms Annette Dolan, deputy general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI; and Ms Clare Austick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. 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 Ms Donegan to make an opening statement, followed by Ms Dolan and then Ms Austick. These statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a six-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements 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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. The witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. They have already been advised that they may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. They 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 or it 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 in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

To get started, I call on Ms Donegan, our very first witness, to make her opening statement. She will be followed by the other witnesses as I outlined a few minutes ago. They have four minutes each.

Ms Joan Donegan

I hope that all the members of this very important committee have by now had a chance to study the written submission which IFUT has supplied. Since my time today is limited - I had believed it was limited to three minutes - I will extract from our submission those items which are of particular concern to IFUT or which are less likely to be dealt with by other parties invited to address the committee.

The first issue of concern for IFUT is governance. The Bill’s insistence that external representation should constitute a majority in the governance structures is a very negative development put forward without any coherent or sustainable justification. Higher education is different in kind from the provision of other services. The university enterprise has to do with ideas and concepts. Any drift towards giving overarching control to individuals primarily motivated by other concerns, whether business, social, or economic, is entirely inappropriate. IFUT also wishes to emphasise that this part of the Bill, if enacted, will almost certainly have the possibly unintended consequence of leaving less room for representatives of employees. This would be completely counter to the policies of successive Irish Governments to enhance worker participation and industrial democracy.

The second issue of concern relates to valuing original research and enhancing the status of researchers. When Albert Einstein was developing his theory of relativity, he is reported to have said that he believed there was only a handful of scholars in the world who understood his work or appreciated its value. This reminds us that we must always take care to ensure that primary research is valued and is not relegated to a subsidiary role to applied research. If Irish higher education institutes are to be seen as world class, we must allow them to be leaders in the search for new knowledge and not just the application of existing knowledge. IFUT is very worried that we have allowed the belief to take hold that we can, as a nation, prioritise research while simultaneously subjecting the actual researchers to shameful levels of job insecurity and precarious employment. This contradiction is doing huge damage to the attractiveness and reputation of the career of the researcher and is quite shameful in this 21st century.

The third issue of concern is that of academic freedom. The fact that the right to academic freedom is enshrined in Irish legislation through the Universities Act 1997 has long been a source of great pride. IFUT is very proud to have had some input in the development of that Act. However, the fact that academic freedom is barely mentioned at all, and certainly not in any consequential way, in this Bill is worrying. The kind of centralised micro-management of higher education, which is indicated as desirable throughout this Bill as currently worded, prompts us to paraphrase Albert Einstein’s famous quote and suggest that if you insist on measuring everything that is valuable, you will end up valuing only those things that are measurable.

I express our sincere thanks to the committee for giving us this opportunity to have an input into your deliberations. I wish members great success in their very important work.

I thank Ms Donegan. I hope we have lots of Einsteins coming through our university system. I call Ms Dolan.

Ms Annette Dolan

The TUI welcomes the opportunity to comment on the general scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021. The TUI represents teachers, lecturers, researchers, education professionals and staff in post-primary schools, further and adult education and higher education.

The TUI is concerned about the proposed changes to the Technological Universities Act 2018 because many of the provisions of that Act were the subject of the May 2017 agreement with the union involving the Department of Education and Skills, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA. Consultation and agreement with the TUI is therefore required in order to ensure that the provisions of the HEA Bill 2021, when enacted, will not impinge on existing agreements. Any proposed legislative changes to the existing Technological Universities Act arising from this proposed HEA Bill must be carried out in consultation with the TUI.

In our view, the roles and functions of the academic councils and the governing bodies must be strengthened, and this includes more academic staff representation. Governing bodies, as Ms Donegan outlined, must have sufficient and proportionate representation from both the academic and student communities. The voice of the academic community must be facilitated as part of any higher education institution, HEI, governing body.

Significant additional funding is required for HEIs as there has been major underinvestment in higher education for a considerable period. What is proposed is a very competitive, performance-based model which can be restrictive and limit innovation. The TUI supports and advocates for a publicly funded higher education sector. Increased investment is required in order to maintain academic quality and standards and the student experience. Performance indicators can assist with system accountability and transparency. However, there must be clarity of purpose and precise criteria used for measurement. In addition, consideration needs to be provided for regional provision, demographics and diversity.

On the reform of governing authorities, with a multi-campus technological university, TU, for example, some campuses might not have any representation on the governing body. This could have a significantly negative effect on the local regions served by TU campuses. The TUI does not support any changes to the provisions on governing body composition and size contained in the Technological Universities Act 2018.

The TUI supports autonomy and accountability. However, there is a need for accountability within a strong regulatory framework. The TUI has some concerns around the metrics used for performance-based funding.

Engagement with students is important. However, engagement must be appropriate and relevant to matters of concern to students.

Throughout the draft heads of Bill there is an absence of any reference to engaging with the trade unions that represent staff. We request that such references be inserted throughout the proposed Bill.

The TUI has concerns regarding how research will be evaluated. Significant consultation is required around a HEA legislative role for research and what this would entail.

On equality, there should be stronger provisions in the heads of Bill concerning commitments to equality, diversity, and inclusion. Targets should be set for access, including for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and ethic minority communities, including Travellers, refugees and asylum seekers.

Finally, there is the matter of serving the public interest. Publicly funded HEIs must serve the public. This includes equality of access for all groups to higher education opportunities; the provision of multilevel programmes from national framework of qualifications levels 6 to 10, traditional undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and short programmes for upskilling and reskilling are required. HEIs must have progression routes that are recognised across the systems to facilitate lifelong learning for citizens in Ireland, the European Union and the UK.

I also agree with remarks made by Ms Donegan in respect of academic freedom. We absolutely agree with what she has pointed out there. I thank the committee for the opportunity to attend today.

I thank Ms Dolan. I call on our final contributor, Ms Austick of the USI, to make her opening statement.

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the Acting Chairman and members of the joint committee for this opportunity to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill 2021. The USI welcomes the latter believes that, in general terms, it goes some way to meeting the needs of the higher education sector.

The USI welcomes the list of objects outlined within the general scheme under head 8, particularly the inclusion of students’ needs as a primary consideration for decisions within higher education. The USI firmly believes students' needs must remain the priority across the sector to ensure students receive the most meaningful, high-quality college and academic experience possible.

The USI warmly welcomes the emphasis placed on student engagement, participation and student success in head 9 on general functions and supports the continuous endeavour towards a high-quality educational experience for students in higher education. The USI embraces the inclusion of the phrase "[to] promote, support, and fund excellent research". However, it is worrying that the challenges facing researchers in terms of precarity will not be covered in this legislation. Clear commitments to improving conditions for postgraduate students must be constructed and then upheld at HEI governing bodies and authorities. In addition, USI is gravely concerned about the reference to value for money and believes it must be carefully considered to ensure the conversation does not diverge towards one of further marketisation of higher education.

The USI fully supports the appointment of a student representative of a national student union to an t-údarás under head 17.

The USI welcomes the commitment to promoting student engagement between students’ unions and designated HEIs within the Bill under head 43. This provides a statutory footing for the national student engagement programme, an ongoing collaboration between an t-údarás, the USI and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI.

The USI welcomes the provision of a student forum under head 44. Having said that, the operational detail for this forum is not outlined within the general scheme. It is imperative that this detail is developed alongside local and national student representatives to ensure the success of this forum.

Head 45 provides for a student survey of students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to be run. This is welcomed by USI because it is an important piece of work which captures the student voice and provides an evidence base for the development of future policy.

Under heads 77, 90 and 98 on the composition of governing authorities for universities, TUs and institutes of technology, the USI welcomes the best practice framework to improve governance. However, we are concerned there is no requirement of a specific numbers of students in each governing body outlined. The USI is also deeply concerned that there are no amendments to the National College of Art and Design Act 1971 to resolve the challenges faced by the National College of Art and Design Students Union, NCADSU, in being recognised as eligible to become student representatives on the board. Similarly, with head 81, the USI is concerned that there is no required minimum number of students on academic councils.

It is positive to see the emergence of a clear theme underpinning the general scheme of the Bill, which appears to recognise the importance and value of student representation, engagement and participation. The provisions in place are promising but they must not be allowed to become a series of tick box exercises and must eventually translate into real, tangible and effective actions and outcomes for the student experience and quality of our colleges. The ambition of USI is to improve the quality of higher education and to increase access, participation and engagement across the sector. If the provisions detailed in the general scheme are operated and implemented in full, then that progress can be made. I again express my sincere thanks for this opportunity.

I thank Ms Austick and all of our contributors for really detailed contributions and opening statements. Each committee member has six minutes. I ask they direct their questions one of the three witnesses. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh.

I thank the Acting Chair and I thank Ms Donegan, Ms Dolan and Ms Austick for their submissions.

My first question is for the USI. Ms Austic stated that the USI is gravely concerned about the inclusion of the value-for-money criterion and the risk it poses in the context of pushing us further down the road of the marketisation and commercialisation of third level education. I very much share those concerns. We all want value for money, but it is an ideological myth that a market logic produces the best outcomes.

In conclusion, it is positive to see the emergence of a clear theme underpinning the Bill which appears to recognise the importance and value of student representation, engagement and participation. The provisions in place are promising but they must not be allowed to become a series of tick box exercises and must eventually translate into real, tangible and effective actions and outcomes for the student experience and quality of our colleges. The ambition of the USI is to improve the quality of higher education, increase access, participation and engagement across the sector. If the provisions detailed in the Bill are practised and fully implemented then that progress can be made. I again express my sincere thanks for this opportunity. Go raibh míle maith agat.

At the end of the day, education is a public good, or should be a public good and it is not always easy to measure. The Bill refers to evidence of value for money without outlining the criteria. Proving the value of critical thinking and discovery research is not as straightforward as it might appear on the face of it. Could Ms Austick expand on her concerns about this issue? Are there concerns about institutional independence and academic freedom? Perhaps I could get a response to that question first.

Ms Clare Austick

USI firmly believes that access to education throughout the academic journey – from the point of entry, successful progression and continuing on to the workforce for students who have graduated – should be accessible to everyone. In terms of the language used around value for money, there is a concern that it is conflating the academic experience with the market. Naturally, we are concerned at the language. We must try to ensure that the way we view education and the narrative that we tell ourselves about having access to education, is that it is a right at the end of the day and that people from all different parts of society have access to education. Our main interest is in ensuring that undergraduates, postgraduate students and international students get the most meaningful and high quality education experience possible. We believe that can be achieved through student representation, advocacy, engagement and participation and ensuring that their success is a priority for us.

That is enormously important. I think we are losing that, in particular we are losing the ability to be able to critically analyse things, which is what is needed for the workforce. It is also what is needed on one's journey through education and in life.

I have a couple of questions so I will move on. In the 180 pages of the Bill there is no reference to trade unions. At a time when we have seen the rapid expansion of precarious work in the higher education sector, it is alarming that there seems to be an attempt to sideline trade unions. What is the current role of trade unions in higher education governance and what would the witnesses like to see in the Bill?

Ms Joan Donegan

Currently, staff are elected. These are the internal representatives. The staff are elected by their own peers on to governing authorities in universities. There is a concern that by reducing the number of internal participants on the governing authority that it will affect the input from the staff. Not only that, it will also create a mistrust of the governing authority because right through the Bill there are several heads referring to the need for the external membership to be higher than the internal membership and that a number of external members will be ministerial appointments. There is a very strong sense and huge concern among our members that the staff voice will be reduced and that the ministerial nominees will promote Government policy rather than staff concerns for the needs of the university.

On the question of trade union involvement and the references to that in the Bill, there is no mention of the trade union movement in the Bill. That is really disappointing. The students union is correctly mentioned in a number of tables right through the document. There are a few examples in heads 17, 18 and 37. There are phrases such as "appointed by the Minister" or "representative bodies of staff and researchers in higher education providers", but there is no mention of the trade union movement which is extraordinary. The membership of the Higher Education Authority again includes a student representative, which is correct, but there is no trade union representative on that body. That is of huge concern, not only to IFUT but to the trade union movement itself.

I share Ms Donegan's concerns. Does Ms Dolan wish to speak to that?

Ms Annette Dolan

I might add to that. First, there is a larger group representing members in the higher education sector, all under the ICTU umbrella. They include my colleagues from SIPTU, Unite and Fórsa. There might be an opportunity at a later stage to invite ICTU and the relevant unions within the higher education sector because in the past we have been working very closely together as a higher education group not alone on Covid-19 issues but also on funding. The committee may have got a report from the ICTU about a year ago on the funding of the sector but I can re-send it to members of the committee. All of my fellow trade unionists representing higher education are at one that there should be a representative of the trade union movement on the governing body of the HEA. There is not currently such representation and there is no mention of it within the provisions of the heads of the Bill and that must be the case.

I apologise for interrupting Ms Dolan but I am afraid we have come to the end of the six minutes. If it is all right, Ms Dolan might put the answer together and send it to Deputy Conway-Walsh.

Ms Annette Dolan

I will certainly do that.

I should point out that ICTU declined to join the meeting today.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee this afternoon. Would Ms Dolan mind if I started with a couple of questions to her specifically about the important issue of academic freedom? Regrettably, this year we have already seen two examples of interference with academic freedom. First, there was a complaint by the head of a Chinese company about an article published by an academic in the school of politics and international relations at UCD. The company head wrote to the Secretary General of the Department of Defence and copied it to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney.

Second, in respect of DCU, where another respected academic is running a course on Russia and the post-Soviet space, letters of complaint were made to the academic institution by a number of ambassadors. Is academic freedom becoming a more significant issue? Is that freedom being more undermined in recent years or are these just unusual examples?

Ms Joan Donegan

The real concern of academics is about funding and the connection with business interests as well as policymaking and direction from the Government and that courses and the direction of the university will in some way be aligned to business interests and not the concepts and other issues to do with new thinking within the university sector. We see it particularly in research where that search for new knowledge is not happening. I have just skated over the employment conditions for young researchers coming into universities. Because of the shortage of funding we find that there is a race to try to get external funding. It is very competitive and there is a particular direction with regard to business interests where our researchers are finding that is the only way they can get funded. Those researchers who are on precarious contracts cannot even apply for research funding.

Researchers cannot get involved in this blue skies research or our new research. Our academics in universities who are involved in humanities, the social sciences and the arts are again limited in what they can do because of funding but also because of the direction from Government with regard to that alignment with business interests.

The concerns which Ms Donegan has set out there are predominantly ones about academic freedom being interfered with as a result of commercial interests.

Ms Joan Donegan


The examples I refer to appear to be from some sort of pressure coming from other country interests. Is that something that she has seen recently or is it something that we as a committee should be concerned about in looking at the legislation and how it should be amended?

Ms Joan Donegan

Yes, of course we are aware of those situations. When I am speaking as a trade union official on behalf of the majority of my members, the day-to-day issue of concern for our members is interference with the kind of work that they want to do.

Okay, I thank Ms Donegan very much.

I wish to ask Ms Dolan another question. One of her concerns is the proposed changes to the Technological Universities Act 2018 that is contained within the Bill that we are considering now. What is her specific concern here? Is it the change it to the governing body or what interests of the TUI will be affected and undermined if the Bill is enacted as drafted at present?

Ms Annette Dolan

I will give an example of one of the key changes and the impact of the Technological University Act. First, we have moved from 14 institutes of technology and now have one technological university in Dublin since January 2019 as a result of the merger of IT Tallaght, IT Blanchardstown and the DIT. We have Munster Technological University, MTU, in existence now since January 2021. We have the Technological University of the Shannon coming into being on 1 October 2021. The international panel is down in Carlow and Waterford and hopefully those colleges will receive technological university, TU, status soon. Over next week the international panel is engaging in respect of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Institute of Technology Sligo, IT Sligo, and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT. The technological universities are only beginning to embed and are starting that process. At that very early stage of the process it is unwise to be changing what has been agreed and negotiated because there has been a great deal of negotiation and discussion in transforming from institutes of technology, IOTs, into technological universities.

I will give one example of governance. If the proposals set out in the Bill are to be followed through, that would mean that not all of the campuses for GMIT, IT Sligo and LYIT would have representation from the staff. If one is in Letterkenny, which is way out there, one will feel aggrieved as will the people being represented and the general community because all of the institutes of technology have a broader remit which will continue into the technological universities era. They are serving the business and industry needs of the region and we need that continued representation.

I apologise to Ms Dolan but, unfortunately, we are coming to the end of the six minutes there. I ask therefore that she might respond to Deputy O’Callaghan on that question if we have time at the end and I will also look to bring in both Deputies and Senators then as well.

I thank the Acting Chairman.

I ask Deputy Farrell to make his contribution now please.

My apologies Chair, I was making my way from the convention centre and I have missed the opening statements. I will come in at the end if I may.

I thank the Deputy and call our next speaker, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh and apologies for my pronunciation of his name.

The Acting Chairman has pronounced it better than most people within my own family and I thank her very much. I also thank the witnesses for their presentations which have been very informative. Something that comes across again and again is how we measure value and worth and how perhaps a monetary definition of how we measure value does not do a great job in what we are looking for.

I want to afford the witnesses some latitude to expand on what they laid out because I realise that a three-minute presentation is a very tight timeframe within which to get things across.

I ask Ms Donegan first of all to dig down into that differentiation between the primary and applied research. Perhaps this is a very simplistic synopsis on my part but traditionally we would have relied upon the universities for the former, and the IOTs or the new TU structures for the latter. Can she perhaps develop that, please? Can she also dig down into the idea of how precarious the research job is at the moment? There is a real issue there particularly around primary research which may not always be directly marketable, as it were, and may be difficult to attract funding for. I used to research medieval English which was not the most close-to-market field in the entire world.

Building on that I will turn to Ms Dolan and give her more time to talk about the role of the TU and how this role differs from universities proper within this Higher Education Authority Bill and I will leave my questions at that to allow for answers.

Ms Joan Donegan

I thank the Deputy. Primary research would be seen as a kind of curiosity-driven science where we are talking about original research. This would be more around the direction of the researcher rather than it being directed to the researcher to conduct such research. Section 12 (a) of the Universities Act 1997, which is something that is very important to Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, talks about “advancing knowledge”. We have seen in recent years, particularly in the last ten years, that that connection and alignment with business interests has become very competitive, marketised and linked to industry and growth. This is limiting innovation and those ideas and concepts that we talked about earlier. There is a sense from academics that it can be just for short-term business interests which, when we look at university as a place of knowledge, takes away from that primary research which should be as special as the applied research. We can see that being chipped away and we are concerned about it.

On the plight of researchers, this is a calling action. As a trade union official and general secretary of IFUT it pains me to see that in the number of years I have been working in IFUT that this situation has not improved. If anything, it is getting worse. We have students and post-doctoral graduates coming into our universities who are very well qualified and on appalling terms of conditions of employment. We have recently had this new research career framework which the universities and the Irish Universities Association have signed up to, which more or less talks about seven stages throughout their time where a post-doctoral graduate comes into a university. It could be four contracts, if one was talking about four years each, which would be a total of 16 years and ends then with termination. Where else would one see that in any other employment? What does that mean for the universities? They are losing their talent and the best people, apart from the exploitation of the talents of those people. This is a very significant concern.

I will draw the attention of the joint committee to what happens to lecturers in our universities. We saw in the independent expert group Cush Report in 2016 the recommendation that after two years if universities still needed lecturers, they should be employed on permanent contracts. Here we have the shocking situation where we can have a researcher in a university for a period of 16 years and their contract will terminate. That is the awful situation that exists for our researchers in universities.

I always worry about something being called a calling or a vocation when it should in fact be a career.

I also directed questions to Ms Dolan.

Ms Annette Dolan

On the difference between a TU and a university, the TUs are formed as a result of the merger of institutes of technologies. We have two at present and, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future we will have five. They are important not only for the development of the regions but also to attract international students. Their function is to focus on the needs of the regions in which they are situated. A TU in Athlone and Limerick will have a remit for the midlands and the mid west, GMIT Sligo's remit is for the needs of the Connacht-Ulster region, Carlow's and Waterford's is the south east and TU Dublin has a remit for Dublin and the greater Dublin area. A TU provides programmes of education and training from level 6 to level 10, undergraduate courses, postgraduate courses, short courses, upskilling, reskilling-----

I apologise, but I have to cut in. We might have to ask to Ms Dolan to speak first the next time. I am sorry I have to cut her off again but we are at the end of the six minutes and we have to allow other speakers contribute.

I congratulate Ms Austick on her election as USI president. I echo the issue she raised on student representation in the National College of Art and Design. It is an outlier. I say that because my sister is a former president of NCADSU and has raised the matter with me directly.

My first question is on academic freedom. I raise this matter in the context of issues referred to by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, namely, the importance we afford to allowing evidence-based research to be freely disseminated and discussed. What action should be taken where tenured academics abuse tenure and are responsible for spreading misinformation or disinformation? Ms Donegan and Ms Dolan might wish to comment on that, but I would ask Ms Austick to comment on it from a learner's perspective. What action should we take where there is an academic who is not performing up to standard? I will not ask in the context of specific instances although it is known that there are cases of academics who are abusing their position and tenure.

How do the witnesses see the balance between the role of the HEA as a regulator - and the sanctions it may be able to apply where a university does not achieve particular results or the rewards it can offer - and its advocacy or developmental role?

I remind the witnesses to comment in a general way because they are not within the precincts of Leinster House.

Ms Clare Austick

I support the previous speaker's comments on staff representation and engagement. USI strongly supports that call. It is important to raise the opportunity for member of the NCADSU being recognised as eligible to become student representatives on the board here. Students must be empowered to be able to voice concerns if they are having difficulty with college courses, lectures, core structures or timetables. Student voice, engagement and representation is all about empowering students to come forward and address the issues and to know the processes and procedures that are in place to deal with those situations. The process is about empowering the student voice and being at the centre to ensure that student representatives can raise issues, if there are any, but also that the HEA -an t-údaras - has a monitoring ability to be able to examine how higher education institutes are performing across the country while also supporting and respecting the autonomy of higher education institutes. The increased monitoring and oversight of the HEA - an t-údaras - to ensure a standardised approach across the board and that any student, regardless of where they are in the country, has access to a high-quality education experience, and not only in an academic sense.

Will Ms Dolan speak on action where there are problems and the balance between the HEA's role as a regulator and an advocacy body.

Ms Annette Dolan

We are really lucky here that we have a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science since last July. It celebrated its first anniversary recently. That new Department and Ministry have to establish themselves. Previously, it was almost the Cinderella of the larger Department of Education among all the sectors of education. There has to be a clearly differentiated role between the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and that of the HEA. That is not clear anywhere in the Bill and that needs to be much stronger. If the Department is to become a leader and innovator and change the status of further and higher education in this country, there must be clearly differentiated roles. That needs to be looked at in the legislation. It may have been that the HEA Act is there since 1971 and up until a year ago there was not a dedicated Department and now there is, but it is a dimension that needs to be examined and changed in the Bill.

Academic freedom is really important. It is the tenet of what academia is all about but everyone who is employed within a university, a TU, an institute of technology or any other college of education has a contract. There are rights, roles and responsibilities within the contract. If there is an issue, it is a matter for the agreed grievance or disciplinary procedures as set out in the contract. There have to be fair procedures and due process and natural justice within that.

I remind everyone to keep their responses tight to allow everyone to come in.

I welcome our guests and congratulate Ms Austick. It is great to see her in the role.

The instances mentioned by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and Senator Malcolm Byrne on academic freedom are at the sharp end of wedge. I have spoken about this before. The fear is that we are moving into a model - if have not already started and are now trying to reverse out of it - where there is a reliance on private sector investment in research.

That is part of the issue with regard to academic freedom. However, in some ways, with greater regulation comes more accounting. How does one account for things that are based around values, such as the value of learning? It is not necessarily about the outcome in terms of jobs or money for the economy but it is about opening our minds. That is not an easy thing for which to legislate. I am not sure what specific things the witnesses believe could be changed in the Bill to allow for that. I fully agree with Ms Dolan and I would like it to be included in the Bill but I wish to identify how specifically to do so.

As regards students, Ms Austick and possibly our other guests will have an input on this. We need to be really careful that we are considering future learners and future academics as well as current academics and students. I agree with Ms Austick regarding the important role of unions when it comes to current workers and their rights. I share all of the concerns raised relating to researchers and PhD students and some of the terms and conditions that have made it very difficult for them to stay in the sector. How do we ensure it is possible for them to remain in the sector? How can the unions help us to consider future learners so that we are not reliant on the State coming up with what it is we need for future employment but, rather, we consider how we, as a society, can move forward in terms of thinking about the future needs of workers? I hope that is not too vague a question. It is important to encapsulate it in the Bill but it is difficult to tie down how to do so.

Ms Annette Dolan

If I may come in at this point, I think what the Senator is referring to is the whole social dimension of higher education. That is now set out in an annexe to the Rome Communiqué which is part of the Bologna Process to which the various Ministries, including the Irish Ministry, have signed up. Provisions should be put in place in order that no matter the area or postal code one in which a person lives and no matter whether the person is a Traveller, a refugee, an asylum seeker or from a socio-economically deprived background, he or she should be able to access higher education. However, that does not happen when the person does the leaving certificate. The whole process of giving individuals the opportunity to go to higher education has to start when the child is one, two or three years of age. The supports need to be in place within preschool, primary and post-primary to enable participation in higher education because, otherwise, we will continue to have the same level of participation in the north inner city or in rural areas which currently have poor representation. That is certainly something that could be done.

I will finish replying to the question I started addressing earlier. The technological universities are reaching out to the needs of communities within those regions as well as the needs of business and industry and they are considering what is needed for the development of those communities. As all present are aware, higher education institutes have transformed the areas in which they have been sited. It is to be hoped that the technological universities will transform the regions in which they are placed.

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the Senator for her question. Addressing the issue of future learners is crucial in terms of access to education. I refer in particular to funding for the whole third level education sector to ensure that students can avail of third level education. That includes annual and sustainable core funding into the sector for support services, resourcing and staff, which is so important. As regards how unions can support students and staff and ensure their voices are heard, it all comes down to engagement and ensuring effective participation, but also meaningful engagement. That means ensuring that student engagement is not a box-ticking exercise but, rather, that there is a lengthy process involving consultation and that all students and staff can have their say at various points in the process, while also ensuring consideration is given to the outcomes of that process and that what was discussed or suggested is carefully listened to and taken on board. Engagement with representatives of students and staff is the way forward in the context of what can be done to ensure future learners have access to education.

I thank Ms Austick. I very much appreciate that contribution. I thank the Senator for her questions. Does Deputy Conway-Walsh wish to contribute?

Most of the questions I intended to ask have been answered so I will pass over to a member who has not yet spoken. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Ó Laoghaire and Eimear on their new arrival.

I join in the congratulations. I saw a lovely photo on Twitter. Congratulations again to Deputy Ó Laoghaire on the new arrival to his family.

Do any members wish to contribute? If not, I have a few questions of my own. Does Senator Malcolm Byrne wish to come in?

I am happy to let the Acting Chairman go ahead. I will wait until everyone else has contributed.

I welcome the witnesses. I again offer my congratulations to Ms Austick on being elected president of USI. It is a great achievement.

I approach this issue having worked as a contract researcher on a research award at third level and I also have experience of having worked in funding agencies, so I have a little knowledge of what it is like to be a contract researcher at third level. I very much disagree with the statement of Ms Donegan regarding research and funding being linked to industrialisation. I believe the research prioritisation that has happened in recent years has actually increased the number of PhD students. In fact, the statistics we have that link back to the Central Statistics Office show that the number of PhD students at third level has increased by 100% since 2011. The number has increased to 30,000, whereas in 2006 there were approximately 11,000 PhD students. That shows there has been incredible Government investment in third level to encourage excellence in all universities, as well as the institutes of technology that are now making the transformational leap to technological university status. I point to the fact that more than €1 billion in Horizon Europe funding has been made available. That is a milestone for Ireland in terms of the funding that has been achieved by researchers on the ground. These are research teams that have done incredible things. We are past juste retour. I believe that what we have achieved in third level and on behalf of the researchers and research teams is absolutely incredible. It shows that we are internationally competitive. The areas that are being funded are areas of societal challenge. That is what is being considered. Researchers are considering the environment, energy, food production systems, robotics and artificial intelligence, independent living and an ageing population. These are the areas that are being funded. This is what researchers are doing. I really disagree with the remarks of Ms Donegan in that regard.

I wish to highlight that we are here for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Higher Education Authority Bill. As Ms Donegan mentioned in her opening statement, there are many areas to be considered in the context of the precarious situation for researchers. There is a significant amount to be done in this regard. However, I point to the number of PhD students who are graduating from university and finding employment in areas outside the academic field. Many graduates are moving into industry.

Some of the key drivers of innovation we have seen, especially in the west, are in medtech, engineering, links between healthcare and engineering and multidisciplinary research. They are really driving that holy trinity of universities being embedded in their societies and communities and responding to what we need. I will point to one example I am aware of. Even in the past year Since Foundation Ireland, SFI, had funding for Covid-related research. That funding went, I think, to each and every university and institute of technology and allowed researchers to focus on an immediate impact of a crisis we face this year. There are certain things there that I would take on board. How can we work towards supporting researchers in respect of the contracts? I understand that, whether master's, PhD or post-doc students, it is about excellence and trying to ensure that people graduate to whatever levels they can and then have a career in areas that can be outside of third level. I will ask Ms Austick of the USI about the students. This is very much about the student experience. That is at the heart of the Bill the Minister, Deputy Harris, has brought before us. What one or two things about the student experience would Ms Austick pull out of the Bill before her?

I will leave it at that for the time being. I might come back to Ms Dolan if I have time.

Ms Clare Austick

I cannot reiterate enough how important the engagement with students is. This can be done through not only the national student engagement programme specifically referred to under head 43 but also the student forum. The one concern we have is that the operational detail of this is still missing. The student forum has huge potential to engage with students and to look at the future direction of education and how we can support students and enhance the overall student experience, particularly with the student survey. We are in partnership with the TUI, the USI and the HEA on the survey. It reviews annually the student experience from the academic side of things but, as we always mention, the student experience is far greater than just its academic side. It is all about being able to engage the learning that often takes place outside of the classroom while being able to respond to different things emerging throughout the year by ensuring that the student voice is at the centre and at the top of the table and that as issues arise in that regard they can be addressed immediately and over time to ensure a better, enhanced student experience for everyone.

Could I ask Ms Donegan the same question?

Ms Joan Donegan

I fundamentally disagree with the Acting Chairman. Obviously, the number of PhD students coming through correlates with the number of students coming into our universities. In 2008 we had 150,000 students. That number went up to 213,000 in 2020, and we expect 240,000 to 250,000 students to come into our universities in 2030. We should be very mindful of that. The funding crisis before Covid and Covid on top of it are absolutely stretching resources within the universities, but the Acting Chairman is quite right that the PhD students are coming through. Our academics have worked really hard through the Covid situation and through that financial crisis to support those students.

The Acting Chairman talked about medtech and Covid and the research that was done in a very short time. I think Professor Luke O'Neill, who was at our conference, would tell the Acting Chairman that but for Covid that funding would not have been given to the universities to study those infections. Because this was a very important economic issue that had to be addressed worldwide and the absolute support for and importance of researchers working on that issue, funding was available. However, academics in the humanities, social sciences and arts would say that is not the situation for them. The reason universities are reaching out to other companies to support them in research is that the funding situation in our universities right now is in crisis. It is not sustainable into the future. Universities cannot survive, depend on or be sustainable on the core funding they are receiving from the Government. If I were to pick any issue out of all the issues that have been raised in our submission, it would have to be funding and the sustainability of universities and third level education into the future. We cannot do this in a real, sustainable way unless we have proper funding. That impacts everything we do.

I agree that there is a challenge with the core funding, but the research funding that comes into universities is separate. That is the competitive external funding that is achieved through national and international exchequer funding. However, I take Ms Donegan's points on board.

I am aware I have gone over my time. I apologise. Would Senator Malcolm Byrne like to come back in, or does anybody else have another question?

May I follow up on the legislation and the governing bodies? This is the question about the size, purpose and function of the governing bodies, and there has been a certain amount of debate on this. As somebody who was involved in campaigning to ensure there was student representation on governing bodies in the Universities Act, I think it is important there is input, but there is the core issue that governing bodies should act as bodies corporate as opposed to being representative of each sector. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on that. In other words, how do we get a governing body that acts in the best interests of the institution as a whole rather than one that simply listens to representative voices, either internal or external?

My second question is about the role of the HEA when there is a requirement in respect of either sanction or reward for institutions. This comes back to my earlier question. If an institution is found not to be meeting whatever requirements there are, whether it is about levels of student engagement or whether there is a question about how it has spent particular sums of money - and the witnesses will be aware of issues that have been raised before the Committee of Public Accounts - what sanction, and what mechanism for that sanction, do the witnesses believe would be appropriate to build into this legislation?

Ms Joan Donegan

The Senator's first question was about governing authorities and the actual numbers of representatives on governing authorities. The question IFUT would ask is why there is a need for change. We believe the HEA has proved to be an effective governing authority in higher education. We realise that structures need to be modernised, but there seems to be a focus on governance of universities. Why is that? I have not seen anything on the scale of the insinuation through the Bill that there have been very serious governance issues. I am not aware of them. There are checks and balances and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, looks at quality assurance and accreditation-----

I am sorry to interrupt. The majority of the sector operates exceptionally well, but Ms Donegan will be aware that questions have been raised in the past at the Committee of Public Accounts about actions in certain higher education institutions. This is public money that is being invested, and most of it is being spent very well, but questions have been raised about governance and accountability.

Ms Joan Donegan

Yes, and, as the Senator says, most of the money has been spent very well. There is also the rigorous employment control framework that has been put in place over the past ten years, since the financial crisis. I can tell the Senator as somebody who is at the coalface that when you go in to try to resolve issues, and if they are in any way connected in monetary terms, it is very difficult. Universities cannot come to some agreement with the trade union movement in resolving issues; they have to go higher than that, even to the Department.

It conforms with Government policy. I do not understand the reason for this focus on governance in our institutions.

Regarding the current structures, our academic staff members who are on governing authorities are elected by their peers. That is positive because there is a sense that it is democratic and a trust that they will oversee how things are done. If that representation is to be reduced, it will cause concerns.

After this Bill was proposed, we only had a short time in which to examine it. I believe it was a weekend, which was then extended to two weeks. Most of our academics have been extraordinarily busy because of Covid. I have no doubt that, when people hopefully return to normality in September, there will be significant concerns about what the Bill contains. Speaking as general secretary of IFUT, this is a very serious matter. My sense is that the Bill will go through in a short time - I understand that the Minister wants to have it done and dusted by the end of the year - and there will be consequences.

I thank Ms Donegan. I note that there are a number of hands up. Is it okay with Senator Byrne if I move forward with our focus on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill?

I am happy to do that, but if there is time, I would like to hear from Ms Dolan and Ms Austick now or later.

In relation to our remit in pre-legislative scrutiny-----

Ms Annette Dolan

Could I just add that-----

Apologies. Ms Dolan might respond directly to Senator Byrne on some of those points, but I have two other members of the committee who would like to contribute. I will offer the witnesses time at the end to make concluding statements. Deputy Conway-Walsh and Senator O'Reilly wish to speak.

I wish to raise some concerns with Ms Dolan. Forgive me for being parochial, but is she really saying that the Mayo campus would not have representation on the governing body? Could she address that point again? Would it also mean that Letterkenny and Sligo would not have representation?

Ms Annette Dolan

What is set out in the Bill could mean that one of the campuses would not have staff representation. That would be horrific. This goes to what Senator Byrne spoke about in terms of accountability and a governing body acting as a corporate entity guarding public money. Staff representatives tend to be the ones raising the issues at governing bodies because they know what is happening on the ground. It is important to have that robustness so that issues are raised at the governing body. If GMIT, IT Sligo or LYIT is without such representation, it will not augur well for those regions.

The technological universities are in their infancy. We have had many difficulties getting to this space, so we should be supporting them and ensuring that they are successful entities. The agreed changes that are set out in the Technological Universities Act are working well, and now is not the right time to change them.

I agree with Ms Dolan. It would be astonishing for that to happen. Trojan collaborative work was done by the Connacht-Ulster Alliance in getting to this stage, so I would be shocked to hear that the Mayo campus would not have a voice. It would be repugnant and contravene what had been accepted to this point. To start backtracking at this early stage would ring alarm bells. This is something that I will raise with the Minister separately because we cannot allow that to happen.

I wish to address Ms Donegan's comments on research funding and core funding. We have all the figures in terms of student-teacher ratios and chronic underfunding, particularly since 2008. There has been a large increase in the number of students. This committee must face that issue. Otherwise, we will not be going anywhere. Taking inflation into account and so on, funding is approximately 75% less than it was in 2008. We cannot keep doing more with less.

We are all looking forward to the Cassells report coming back. Its option No. 1 is my preferred option. We need the report back as soon as possible. In light of what people are trying to achieve in this context, we need absolute commitment on the report sooner rather than later. We are five years the far side of the report and we cannot keep dragging our feet. We know what the knock-on effect on tuition and so on would be. If we do not have adequate funding to underpin the announcement after announcement of extra places, it will be an insult to everyone and damage the advancement of our knowledge as a nation.

I thank the Acting Chair for facilitating me. My question is on promotions. There have been issues around promotion and gender, particularly in NUIG. They have gone through the courts, so it is fine for me to say that. I know from my short time on a governing authority - I was on one with Ms Austick - that governing authorities sign off on promotions. I would like to feel secure that there is transparency in that regard. Do the witnesses feel that more needs to be done with the Bill so that there is transparency? People are entitled to take cases to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, but before it gets to that stage, it is important to ensure that all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed so that we can be assured that the steps taken in the lead up to a promotion are the correct ones.

Ms Joan Donegan

I thank the Senator for raising that matter. I was involved in those cases. We used the offices of the WRC for one of them. That was useful. The Senator is right, though, in that we should not have to go to third parties and such situations should be addressed at a local level. That is what I discussed earlier in terms of the kinds of situation where HR managers have their hands tied, in that they cannot move on or try to resolve issues without reporting further up the line. I am referring to the Department of Education.

There has been a great deal of good work done since the Sheehy Skeffington case, which transformed the landscape in terms of equality and was positive for female academics. The data have not come out yet, but due to parental duties and the like during Covid, it unfortunately looks like women will not have achieved the citations, book publications and so on that go towards supporting women in their career progression.

We will see things falling back again.

My apologies for interrupting. I ask that we confine the discussion to the Bill. Does Senator O'Reilly have any specific questions on the Bill? The discussion is becoming broader.

With all respect, my question is about the Bill and whether anything can be included in it to ensure there is transparency. Governing authorities are closed books and forums in many instances. This is about transparency and I hope the Bill achieves that. Is Ms Donegan confident that everything that can be done to ensure gender balance and fairness is done and that we do not have discrimination in these promotions? Could anything else be included in the Bill so that the structure of the governing authorities is different in order to ensure that we have transparency?

Ms Joan Donegan

If the academics are still on those governing authorities and are not taken over by external appointees, something academics feel strongly about, that will ensure equality remains an important issue for universities.

I thank Ms Donegan. Did Senator O'Reilly wish to pose that question to any of the other witnesses?

No. Obviously, it is an important point. If anybody has anything to add to that they can do so. It is important that we make sure it is on the record and we are fulfilling our obligations, as a committee, to women academics.

I thank the Senator. I do not believe any other members wish to come in with questions. I will ask each of our witnesses to use their remaining time for concluding remarks. That will bring our session to a close. I call on Ms Annette Dolan.

Ms Annette Dolan

We welcome this opportunity to be here today. If there are further questions we will follow up on them. The key element of the Bill is consultation with us. The Technological Universities Act is a recent piece of legislation and technological universities are evolving from there being none two years ago to, it is to be hoped, five in the near future. Great care and attention has to be taken with this Bill to ensure it does not undermine what was enacted in the Technological Universities Act.

We require and seek interaction and consultation with the committee, and direct consultation with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the impact the proposed changes would have on our current institutions. We respect the separate role of the Legislature, but there are agreements in place and it is important that they are maintained. Consultation is the first step.

The second issue is funding. I am certainly aware that there has been increased funding in the past three or four years in respect of higher education in this country. While that is appreciated, there were major cuts to higher education in 2008. The impact of those austerity cuts continues. Funding has not been restored. Over that period of time there has been a 35% increase in the number of students, but there has not been the same percentage increase in staff.

We note the increase in funding, but the real focus has to be increased funding for the sector. For some reason, the focus seems to be on governance. We do not think that is the key problem. Rather, the key problem is funding. We thoroughly respect the right of the Legislature to enact new legislation, but we need to be cognisant of the fact that that should be done in consultation with us and various partners. On incentives, the carrot and stick approach was mentioned. Within higher education, we need to consider incentives. How can we encourage higher education institutions to reach out and have more students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds participating in higher education? It would be a real success of the Bill if that could be the way forward. It would be transformative for communities up and down the country which, in turn, would increase and enhance their economic viability. That is something that needs to be addressed within the Bill. I will hand over to my colleagues.

I call on Ms Donegan, followed by Ms Austick.

Ms Joan Donegan

I concur with Ms Dolan, who spoke about consultation. That is extremely important. The engagement of the new Department of Higher and Further Education, Research, Innovation and Science with the trade union movement and congress has been important for us. It is the first time IFUT has engaged with the Government. That has been very positive over the past year, not just in terms of sharing ideas and getting a sense of where the Government and we are. We were also able to bring that to our members so that we can have informed discussions rather than taking positions. That is really important and I hope lessons have been learned from that process that can be carried forward.

The term "trade union" should be in the Bill. I hope cognisance is taken of that because it is very important to us. If we are not recognised in the Bill, how can we genuinely engage with the Government at a national level?

The most important issue in all of this is, as I have said, funding. It is as if it has been an invisible crisis. Academics in all higher education institutions have been working seven days a week to try to keep the show on the road. Our students are happy with their education, irrespective of all of the difficulties they faced during the Covid period, and that is a huge tribute to those staff members. I can tell the committee that they are absolutely exhausted, and are looking forward to having Covid behind them and getting back to some kind of normality in September. The funding issue will not have gone away. They will still be stretched, which is a significant problem for us.

On the link with business, there is no hard data on researchers and what is happening with regard to primary and applied research. There does not seem to be any investment in blue sky research, which is really important. They are some things that I hope the committee might take on board.

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the committee for this opportunity to speak today. I would like to touch on a couple of points. The first is ensuring that the voices of students and staff are heard, and that there is adequate and meaningful representation of students and staff on governing bodies and they are consulted on and listened to in the different processes.

Senator Malcolm Byrne mentioned the governing authority and the number of union representatives on it. I acknowledge that there is a difference between being a student representative and being a governor of an institution, be that a university, a college or whatever. In terms of higher education institutions, they often set values and strategic priorities which pertain to students, including student well-being, engagement, sustainability, equality, diversity and inclusion, which are important areas for students in terms of input. Students will be able to have their say and encourage and further the mission and purpose of the higher education institution.

There is one other concern I would like to raise. With this Bill we have an opportunity to look at how we define and pigeonhole higher education. It is important for all of us to remember that education is a right, not a privilege. Students should have access to education and be aided and supported in that entry through sustainable funding to allow them to be able to progress to education and also to be able to continue in the lifelong journey around education.

I again thank the committee for this opportunity. I remind everyone that with this Bill we have a real opportunity to review how we think about education and how as a country and society we define the purpose of higher education. Through student engagement and participation and ensuring that the student voice is heard we can enhance that journey going forward.

I thank all of our witnesses. It has been an excellent discussion that has provided the committee with many points to consider. Thank you very much for your efforts and work on the opening statements and for briefing us comprehensively on all of the points you mentioned. The briefing will be of enormous assistance to the committee in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Bill.

I will now bring the meeting to a close. The committee will meet again in private session at 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 July 2021, followed by a public meeting at 3.30 p.m. I thank everybody for their time today.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.02 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 July 2021.