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Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Technological Universities Act 2019 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2022: Discussion

If any members wish to come into the committee room, they can do so. No apologies have been received. I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when on silent mode. The minutes of the meetings of 7 and 14 December 2021 have been circulated to members. Are they agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, Deputy Niall Collins, is appearing before the committee this morning. This purpose of the meeting is to consider the motion that Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann approve the Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2022. I will invite the Minister of State to make a brief opening statement. Members can ask questions thereafter. As the Minister of State is probably aware, the committee will publish his opening statement on its website following the meeting.

Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment, 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 meeting is solely to legislate for the date of the commencement of the Atlantic Technological University, ATU. It is essentially a technical motion. Members will have the opportunity to raise substantive issues about ATU in future engagements with the Minister and the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA. I am grateful for their co-operation and forbearance. I invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.

A key priority in the programme for Government is the creation and progression of technological universities. I am pleased, therefore, to introduce the following draft order to this committee - the Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2022. Under the Technological Universities Act 2018, an appointed day for the establishment of a technological university, TU, and its name in both English and Irish shall be made by order. The order must be approved by resolution of each House of the Oireachtas. I thank the committee for this opportunity to discuss the matter today in committee. I wish to set 1 April 2022 as the appointed day for the establishment of the new technological university to be known as Atlantic Technological University in the English language and Ollscoil Teicneolaíochta an Atlantaigh in the Irish language and for the dissolution of Galway-Mayo, Sligo and Letterkenny institutes of technology.

The establishment of a fourth technological university in the State is another important milestone for higher education in Ireland, in particular for the west and north west regions. The new TU will provide a multi-campus university presence across the region encompassing eight locations in Castlebar, Galway city, Killybegs, Letterfrack, Letterkenny, Mountbellew and Sligo.

This new technological university will increase higher education access, drive enhanced regional development and increase opportunities for students, staff, business and enterprise, as well as local communities. The new higher education institution of increased scale and reach will benefit students and communities right across Connacht and Ulster. I very much look forward to this new TU bringing those benefits to people in the region, from its most westerly point to its most northerly, and all points between including in counties Cavan, Leitrim, Monaghan and Roscommon. The new TU will now take its rightful place in the higher education landscape in an important strategic part of the country, bordering as it will both the Atlantic and Northern Ireland. Its establishment will allow people in the furthest-flung corner of the island obtain, through digital connectivity, a university degree in their home places. I am delighted to see this milestone being reached and I want to congratulate all involved.

The Government has a clear ambition to create a series of interlinked higher education institutions of greater capacity and reach across all regions of the country in order to help deliver on key national strategic objectives. TUs are a key component in this strategic approach. They provide increased reach, international recognition, greater research capacity, foreign direct investment, FDI, attraction, skills retention and creation, regional development, enhanced staff and student experiences and opportunities and advanced socioeconomic progression.

From April, the new Atlantic Technological University will start its journey and drive the agendas of higher education access, excellence in teaching and learning, regional development, research-informed educational provision and strengthened linkages with industry and the community.

We all want to ensure prosperity for this generation, which is so affected already by the Covid-19 phenomenon, and for future generations. We want to ensure they have the foundational skill sets and qualifications to compete and succeed in a hugely altering and highly competitive world. I thank all concerned, including the staff and students of the Institute of Technology Sligo, IT Sligo, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, a wide variety of stakeholders in the west and north west, the international advisory panel, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, QQI, and the Department. All the aforementioned bodies and people played a key role, statutory and non-statutory, in getting the fledgling new university to this point of establishment. I also thank Deputies and Senators for their kind attention today and thank all Members across the Oireachtas for their steadfast support for this hugely important higher education project.

I thank the Minister of State. I am waiting on my list of questions. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh as she is here in the committee room. She has six minutes.

I thank the Chairman and the Minister of State. I am pleased to be discussing the technological universities again, as we have done so many times before. The Minister of State knows I have a particular interest in the Atlantic Technological University and I think it is a great name for it. As he is aware, it is also important, that we have a proper sustainable funding model and we will have an opportunity to do that when the Cassells report comes back. I ask that he speak to that. We are expecting both the Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to appear before the committee on 10 February. It is very important we have that published as soon as possible in order that we can get the funding model right because unless we get that model right for the technological universities, they will not fulfil their potential. The expectation along the Atlantic economic corridor is that this will be a real catalyst for change in terms of what it can provide in respect of developments in renewable energy and research and development on that.

When we look at research and development, we know the technological universities have not fulfilled their potential and we need to look at what they need in order to be able to do so.

We know those in Waterford, Cork and Dublin have probably been the best performers but only 0.2% of Ireland's total, or €1.9 million, has been drawn down by the combination of the Atlantic Technological University. Particularly in terms of the challenges of climate change and what we can do in regard to renewable energy along the western seaboard, it is important we have those proper discussions on the funding they need to be able to lever the huge amount of money that is available through Horizon 2020.

We know that since 2014, Ireland has drawn down more than €1 billion worth of research funding, €618 million of which was by the third level institutions. We must really concentrate on what we need to do in that regard. How will the Minister of State make sure that happens?

I am concerned about the public private partnership, PPP, contracts for all of the investments in technological universities, particularly as we have not carried out a proper evaluation of the couple that have been done before. I believe it is approximately ten years ago since they were done under Fianna Fáil. We need to do a further examination of that model to see if we are going to deliver value for money and whether it is the best vehicle. I do not believe it is the best vehicle for us to achieve what we need around third level. I am concerned that we will end up with a privatised situation where the academic element will be public but many of the ways in which we deliver third level education will be dependent on the public private partnership. I want to see the evidence for that. One contract that was signed in 2020 was valued at almost €600 million. We are talking about an awful lot of money here.

This is quite technical but with regard to the amalgamation of St. Angela's College with the Atlantic Technological University, amendments will needed to the higher education authority Bill. They need to be in situ before 1 April, however. What does the Minister of State have in place to ensure that St. Angela's College can avail of what is on offer and amalgamate?

I want to acknowledge the huge amount of work that has been done by St. Angela's College, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Institute of Technology Sligo, Letterkenny Institute of Technology and all the institutes in getting this to where it is today. I want to make sure we do not let the ball drop in any of those instances. I thank the Minister of State. There is a lot there.

I thank the Deputy for her comments and the support of her party on the projects around the advancement of technological universities around the country.

The Deputy raised the Cassells report on numerous occasions both here and in the Dáil. I do not have anything new to say to her on that. The Deputy knows its status in terms of having worked its way through the European Commission. It is in the programme for Government. It will be coming before Government and Cabinet shortly where a decision will have to be taken on it. We are all aware of the various options that were in the report. We are probably all agreed in terms of how we progress from here vis-à-vis the options. As the Deputy rightly said, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will appear before this committee shortly to further discuss that.

One of the key economies of scale a technological university will have, which we have seen from the advancement and creation of other technology universities, is the ability to increase its research and development capacity and particularly to tap into other streams of funding that become available by virtue of its university status. That will obviously now be available to the new Atlantic Technological University and will help it catch up and get up to speed in that regard.

I am not clear on the question with regard to public private partnerships.

On public private partnerships, there is concern that services around the technological universities will not be retained in public ownership. In other words, they will be in the ownership of the public private partnership. I would like to see greater evaluation of that to ensure that we are delivering value for money, but also that we are keeping higher education as a public good, which I think the Minister of State will agree with.

My question in regard to St. Angela's College arises from the press release from the Minister, Deputy Harris, on 23 November in which he stated that there are a number of issues to be resolved by the respective higher education institutes in terms of completing all of the due diligence processes and centrally by the Government in terms of the delivery of the legislation to provide for legal incorporations of the type envisaged. He stated he expected these to be completed over the coming months. As I know that all of the due diligence has been done, I am querying what has been done in terms of the legislation being delivered. The Bill referenced by the Minister, Deputy Harris, is the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022. I am querying the timeline for its delivery because I understand that this will have to be done by 1 April in order to facilitate St. Angela's College. I am not sure if it affects any of the others.

I ask the Minister of State for a brief reply as we are running way over time.

As the Deputy will know, we have to get the Atlantic Technological University progressed. Work on St. Angela's College will come afterwards. That is the intention, as the Deputy will know.

The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 is scheduled to be taken on Second Stage in the Dáil this week. As such, the Bill is progressing. In regard to amendments, as part of the normal legislative process there will be an opportunity on Committee Stage in the Dáil and Seanad to progress any of the amendments referenced by the Deputy.

Senators O'Loughlin and Dolan are not present. Would Deputy Ó Cathasaigh like to put a question to the Minister of State?

I have no questions at this point. I welcome the Minister of State's presentation. I very much look forward to the day when we can do something similar for the technological university of the south east.

Would Deputy Ó Ríordáin like to put a question to the Minister of State?

I have no questions. I thank the Minister of State for his presentation.

There are no further questions. The Minister of State is getting away lightly. I thank him for his opening statement. Like Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, I am interested in the TU in the south east. I know there is ongoing work on the issue but if it could be progressed as quickly as possible it would be very much appreciated. I will not ask the Minister of State for an update. It would be unfair of me to do so. I am aware that there is a great deal of work going on in the background within the Department.

Would the Minister of State like to make some concluding remarks?

No. I thank the committee.