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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Nov 1980

Vol. 95 No. 3

National Institute For Higher Education, Dublin, Bill, 1980: Committee and Final Stages.

Sections 1 to 4, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 5 stand part of the Bill."

The Minister said that my estimate of 16 out of 23, if you like to put it crudely, of the Minister's creatures on the governing body was way out. I still submit that 16 out of 23 is a valid estimate. At the lowest the Minister will have a negative or veto power because surely if "on the recommendation of the Minister" means anything, it means the Minister will clear the nominees in these various categories. If he is not satisfied with a nominee for some reason, he will not have him appointed and is that not a ministerial appointment?

Subsection (4)(a) gives him nine and down to (e) gives him another three, (f) another two and (g) gives him two, and that is 16. I will point out something very interesting here which did not escape my eagle eye, I am glad to say. If you compare section 5(4)(e) in the Dublin Bill with section 5(4)(e) in the Limerick Bill, you will find that in the Limerick Bill three members were to be appointed on the recommendation of the Thomond governing body: three members of the governing body in the NIHE, Limerick, were to be appointed on the recommendation of the Thomond governing body. There was no reference in section 5(e) to ministerial recommendation, yet here we have “on the recommendation of the Minister'. Ministerial recommendation grows apace as the Bills move on. Perhaps not, because the Thomond Bill inexplicably does not give the Minister the same kind of majority at all. Section 5(4)(e) gives the Minister at least the power of veto, the power of negative approval. It is very easy for me to exaggerate and easy for the Minister to reduce my position ad absurdum, but I would ask him to accept that it is very bad psychologically to be starting off the life of a new institute with “on the recommendation of the Minister” stamped all over the Bill, and particularly in section 5. I regret that we will not have more members of the governing body elected by democratic procedures.

I support that. I will not repeat what Senator Murphy has said so well. To learn from experience is a great thing. We have noticed the growing pains in some of these institutions that have been set up, NIHE, Limerick, Thomond, and so so. We have seen some protests and conflict between the students and the people running the institute. Institutions develop over the years. Universities and technological institutions, boarding schools and so on, and teachers, people who deal with young people, have a lot of experience and learn a good deal from day to day because they have to cope from day to day. They can muster the means of handling these tensions and difficulties. Therefore, it is very unwise of the Government to take so much responsibility onto themselves. The Minister happens to be an academic and he knows what I am talking about. By and large people who work in the civil service and in politics do not really have the skills to handle these difficulties. It would be much better if the responsibility were vested in the institution so that it would develop a corporate sense of identity and learn the means to defuse situations when they arise or to avert them before they arise.

In the situation which Senator Murphy has spelled out, the Minister is the man with whom the buck stops all along the line. When the chips are down ultimately the protest will not be against the president or the governing body of the institute, it is going to end up in Marlborough House, or in the Department. There should be far more delegation of authority to the institute. We should set it up and trust it and let it do its own business. The involvement of the Minister in all of these clauses is not really healthy political thinking. We may live to regret the large visibility of the Minister in that area.

As I have said, I appreciate the concern of the Deputies and I would be inclined to amend if I thought it was well founded. With regard to the analysis by Senator Murphy, it is true that nine of those members shall be so appointed on the recommendation of the Minister in accordance with subsection (5) of this section. I pointed out in the course of the discussion that section 5(4)(a) is heavily qualified by the provisioons of section 5(5) because the people to be appointed have to be chosen from a very wide range in industry, agriculture, fisheries, commerce, the professions, staff of the institute, staff of any college or body referred to.

I maintain that even suspicion of danger would be impossible, due to the wide spread of those nine who must be appointed. There is not a way that anybody could get out of an obligation to choose from those areas. There is not a possibility of complicity between people chosen to act on the governing body, whether they be industrialists, agriculturists, men with a first interest in fisheries, commerce, the professions. The possibility of those people, if they are worth their salt at all, being influenced by the Minister to the extent that they would suspend judgment or that they would have no minds of their own is just not on. I know that the two men who hold chairs in two of our traditional universities know in their hearts and souls that what I am saying is the truth.

With regard to the three and two and two which Senator Murphy added to my nine above, three of those members shall be so appointed on the recommendation of the Minister from members of the teaching staffs of the colleges of technology managed by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. If the House knows about the colleges of technology and their staff it knows quite well that you could pick any three members of the staff of Kevin Street, Bolton Street, the College of Commerce, Cathal Brugha Street, the College of Marketing, and you could guarantee independence of mind and ability and knowledge of expertise in this field.

I will go on to section 5(4)(f) and (m). Two of those members shall be so appointed on the recommendation of the Minister from members of the teaching staff of the regional and technical colleges. The regional technical colleges will be in the Dublin area, the same as the ones on the Limerick governing body are in the Limerick general catchment area. Again I say the arguments would hold good with regard to the teaching staff of the regional technical colleges. If I were looking for creatures, whatever I would do with creatures I do not know, I would not go to the staffs of regional and technical colleges or to any of our teaching staffs in any of our institutions for such creatures. I am quite confident again, that any two members of the teaching staffs of the regional technical colleges could be relied upon to have expertise, ability and commitment in this field.

The management boards of regional technical colleges will account for the next two. I cannot say of any of the categories, under paragraphs (a), (e), (f) or (g) that there would be any danger of unworthy people being selected to act on the governing body. With regard to the distinction Senator Murphy referred to, paragraph (h) is the corresponding paragraph here to the one he referred to:

one of those members shall be so appointed on the recommendation of the governing body of the National Institute for Higher Education, Limerick.

We have a special case in Limerick because the two institutions there are on the same campus and with a view to what may happen in the future I think cross-pollination between Thomond and the National Institute for Higher Education, Limerick is very important. It is very important that there should be as much communication as possible between them.

"Cross-pollination"——an excellent term.

I understand Senator West is a mathematician, not a botanist.

I am in favour of these unusual genealogical terms.

In Limerick you have that special relationship. I can see, as I have said already, at the end of the century a technological university there which can satisfy all the people who profess that we have not perhaps enough of a liberal input provided by the training colleges for teachers. We will be stealing that from University College, Cork, but that will be at the end of the century and other people will have to worry about it.

With regard to Senator Martin's point about the importance of having people on the governing body with expertise, I take that point completely, but if he looks at section 5 (4), specifically (b), he will see that three members of the academic staff of the institute shall be chosen by the academic staff, with their own knowledge from the academic side and from being members of the institute and working in the institute; (c) one shall be appointed from the non-academic staff, again somebody who would be in touch with the problems of students and anybody else in the institution; (d) two full-time students of the institute — I do not know whether they will be in aid of the governing body or performing the office of the necessary gadflies to sting the governing body into action; — (e), again people who have the training and the knowledge and the expertise in this field. I can go on to (f), (g) and (h) and say the same of them.

I missed the point of what Senator Martin said about the conflicts arising between students and the governing body and so on, and that it is important that people would be au fait with the problems and with a solution of those problems on other occasions. That is provided for very adequately in section 5.

It is not so much that we are disputing the composition of the governing body which, as the Minister suggested, is very well spread, and all the separate representations do not have to be justified. It is the method of selection. I do not really know what the method of selection is. Take paragraph (f) "two of whose members shall be so appointed on the recommendation of the Minister and members of the teaching staff of the regional and technical colleges". Who will actually nominate the members?

The Minister would nominate them to the Government but I presume they will be elected by the staffs of the regional and technical colleges.

That is not stated.

It does not need to be stated.

Democracy and proper representation would be served if it had been stated. Earlier the Minister made play with section 5, suggesting that it severely curtailed his prerogatives by making him have regard to the extent to which various professions should be represented on the governing body. I think the point proves the opposite from what the Minister was saying. He has such a wide brief in section 5 that it does not severely curtail his choice at all. It is the simplest thing in the world to nominate anyone and fit him into one of these professions. Perhaps the word "creature" was too strong and I withdraw it. I am not saying the people the Minister is going to nominate will be absolute toadies, but it is natural for the Minister to choose people who he knows are, shall we say, safe, but let it pass.

Are Senators suggesting that perhaps we should not have any power to nominate?

Senator Murphy has a point, but on the other hand if the Minister does nominate, adopting Senator Murphy's words, safe nominees who do not fulfil their functions, I think that ultimately, particularly in the present and future context, the uproar will be such that the Minister will be under a tremendous amount of pressure to nominate the people who would be representative of the professions. He would be very foolish to try to do otherwise in the initial appointments. There will be a procedure for choosing representatives which will work satisfactorily once the categories have been defined. It may be unwise to say this, but the procedure will develop and the nomination system will become a more well-organised, well defined procedure and the Minister will have no doubt who are the representatives of the professions and the various categories and he will nominate those people who have come up in this way.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 6 to 8, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 9 stand part of the Bill."

Section 9 has given great concern to Senator Martin and me. I should like to refer to subsection (3). The entire section deals with the administration of the college, and subsection (3) states:

The Institute shall not remove or suspend any of its officers (including the Director) from office without the consent of the Minister.

I know for a fact that this clause is giving concern to the members of the staff in Dublin. In which circumstances will that most unusual event take place — the suspension of a staff member? It is very much a rarity in academic circles. Like the civil service, I suppose we look after our own. You probably would have something like gross moral turpitude or gross negligence, and I think these matters are best handled, so to speak, within the family. I can imagine a situation when, if someone had to be suspended he should be suspended very quickly. It might need a very quick suspension to deal with the matter, but here we have a situation where they cannot do that without consulting the Minister and waiting for his clearance.

The inability of the governing body to suspend its staff without ministerial reference is a grave defect. Already in fact the authorities in the NIHE Dublin and the staff representatives in their union are agreed on the procedures involved in the case of suspension or dismissal. The trade unions would not at all mind, if you like, handling these affairs internally. There is no difficulty from that point of view, and I must say I can only regard it once again as evidence of this uncontrollable itch to interfere on the part of the Minister.

The Minister has shown great forbearance and patience in the matter, and of course the Bill is going through all Stages, but I should like to register a similar point. I should like to make it clear that Senator Murphy and I never discussed this outside the House.

We are not even good friends.

Not even in the same constituency.

It is the shadow of the meaning; there were references to casting shadows forward to a university Bill, and that is fair game. The Minister ticked us off quite skilfully on that matter, and fair dues to him. That is not my main concern about this. Academic institutions, and I do not have to tell the Minister this, work according to the type of experience they have had, and it is a good school if it has a good spirit working within it. If it has not got a good spirit working within it all the inspectors in the Department will not make it a good school.

You really cannot legislate a good spirit into it. A good university really depends on generating its own excellence. There seems to be in section 9 and in a good deal of this Bill the suggestion that you would see lecturers, teachers and so forth almost punching a clock, coming in and out in a regimented way, in other words obeying rules that are entirely appropriate to a Govermennt Department. It is perfectly proper that people who are doing the kind of very important day-to-day work that civil servants or executives in firms do should be at their desks at a certain time. People who are working in an institution of this kind sometimes do their very best work by staying at home, by thinking things out, by writing things out, by engaging in experiments, that sort of thing.

It seems to me that section 9 and indeed the candid spirit of the legislation do not take sufficient account of that, and the way in which people are appointed by being placed on a scale seems to be too much under control of, I am not saying the Minister or civil servants, but an agency outside the institution itself. In other words, the institution itself is not to have as much freedom as I should Ike it to have to regulate its own business. I am not saying anything pejoratively — the Minister was kind enough to say that I would be given absolute leeway with regard to a point I made about salaries and I am quite willing to suppress that. But I think this other point is an important one. I do not think the Bill actually gives enough indigenous freedom to the institution itself. It is too much hedged around by both ministerial and civil service monitoring from without. I sincerely feel that.

When I read this section first I queried subsection (3) and I was persuaded that it was necessary and important to put it in for the protection of individuals, that it was a liberal subsection to protect people from hasty action on the part of the institute, and it was only because I was convinced that there was something in this in so far as the protection of the individual is concerned that I agreed to put it in.

I am surprised that it is being looked at from a different point of view. It is being looked at as another instance of ministerial interference. From listening to Senator Murphy I would admit that it sounds strange that the institute could not suspend their director or any other officer. The only justification for it is in the area of protection for individuals. Admittedly, there is a whole body of legislation now which tends to protect the individual.

I do not accept that if the National Institute for Higher Education, Dublin, wanted to make a decision that they would be held up unduly by applying for consent in individual instances. I do not think it would be employed very often. As Senator Murphy said, all institutions tend to defend themselves and look after their own. I do not think the situation would arise very often nor would there be any great delay in processing it. It would give the governing body pause if they had to submit their decision to dismiss or suspend to the Department. It would be an argument corrective against hasty action. That is all I have to say about it. I did challenge it when I first saw it, but I was convinced that as it provided an extra safeguard for individuals it was worth putting in.

It was very interesting that the Minister made that comment in response to what has been said. I want to make one further comment on this point. It would have been reasonable in subsection (3) that the removal should have to be at the behest of the Minister, and the word "suspension" might well have been omitted. One hopes that many of these negative clauses will very rarely, or perhaps never, be invoked once an institution like this gets underway. If they are invoked, clearly there are problems which need important changes, maybe legislative changes, or changes in the constitution of the governing body, or other sorts of changes. If the institute had to get the Minister's approval or consent for removal or suspension, this may bring such a suspension into the realm of politics, in other words, the Minister will be open to questioning in the Dáil on such an issue concerning such individuals. In other situations, certainly in connection with semi-State bodies, he would have said he had no function in the matter. One wonders whether this is actually wise, seeing that it means, in a sense, Dáil supervision of these institutions, when we have always tried to avoid that with other bodies — perhaps not educational bodies, but certainly commercial bodies.

It is also very sobering for the Minister to consider that he might have to answer questions in the Dáil about his action with regard to the suspension or dismissal of somebody. It could also be the reverse of the coin.

One last word on that point. I should have thought that, as the Minister suggested, there is now a sufficient body of general legislation as regards unfair dismissals and appeals procedures to take care of any possible victimisation. Before we leave this section I want to ask the Minister to look into the following situation which may arise under subsection (5). As I understand it, the position in Limerick and in Dublin in the matter of appointments is that the relevant assessors board recommend an appointment and then it is duly endorsed by the other bodies. If, however, the successful candidate is appointed at any point on the salary scale above the minimum, I understand that requires ministerial sanction. This is already involving these institutes in considerable and unnecessary correspondence with the Department who want all kinds of information as to why somebody is being put on a particular scale, what are his years of service and so on. I suggest that this should be at the discretion of any assessors board. It should be a part of the appointments system to have the discretionary power of recommending that X be appointed at point three on the scale. Since the new appointments system came into the NUI college this has been a standard feature of assessors boards. It is never extravagantly abused. Assessors boards do not suddenly say everyone is going to be appointed above the bar, or at the top of the scale. I suggest this is a measure of discretion that should be left to the appointing bodies within the college and that the matter of increments should be taken care of there, and does not warrant further interference.

I notice that in all the subsections except subsection (3), "officers and servants" are referred to but in subsection (3) only "officers" are referred to. There is no definition for "officer" or "servant".

If I could reinforce Senator Murphy's point. I can understand the Department's attitude in producing this sort of legislation. It is not necessarily bad. If this institute gets going the way we all hope they will in the near future they may start to protest that the legislation, if it is applied with the rigour of the law, is too strict. We hope this institute will develop and expand its own spirit — which is a crucial thing in any body, school, college or educational institution — that it will develop its own momentum and its own character. The important point is that if it does so, it is absolutely certain to find legislation of this type too restrictive. When I say that, I am not questioning either the Department or the Minister's motives in drawing up this kind of legislation, but I would make the parallel with semi-State bodies. Semi-State bodies are governed by legislation which gives the governing body and the executive a great deal more freedom than is being given to this institute. That is important because our universities have always been given a good deal of autonomy. They have operated not always satisfactorily — no institution ever does — to the benefit of the State and to the benefit of the system. To hedge them in with all sorts of clauses would have been a mistake.

Even though this legislation may pass the Seanad unscathed, I believe that if NIHE, Dublin pass the test and fulfil the wishes which we have expressed for it then the clauses we find in this section may very well be either redundant or not operated. If that is the case, I do not mind too much but it causes an overflow of correspondence between the Institute and the Department which holds up forward movement, that is very serious.

This is why the academic section among the Independents is querying the Minister on these clauses. I am only speaking for myself, but in my view, either these clauses will be redundant or, if they are operated with the rigour of the law, the institute will be coming back in a few years saying they need freedom to develop, that the legislation is restricting them and they want the basic spirit of the legislation changed. This is the basis of the argument we have been making.

I disagree with both of my colleagues. I thought I would avail of this opportunity to put that on record. It may be too late for the institution to come back in five or six years time saying this legislation is too repressive, because at that stage it will be too late and the decision cannot be reversed.

I will take one tiny detail which Senator Murphy raised. Take an assessment board who appoint somebody to a certain level, say a junior lecturer. There is an incremental scale between £7,000 and £10,000. I do not think the board that appoints that man or woman should have the right to decide which point on that scale he should have, nor is it a matter for a civil servant either, because the only people who are really responsible, who really know how to decide that, are the people within that academic community. If the people from the assessment board say that person should be appointed at point F on the scale, they do not know that there may be an older person in the institute who is just as good as the appointee who is at the same point. In other words, we could do a lot of harm if we give that kind of authority.

If we give that authority to the civil service, whose only criteria are qualifications on paper, they are not the right people to decide either. The people best equipped to decide are the head of the department and the academic colleagues. They know the ecology of the department; they know the temperaments of the people within the department. I have seen such psychic damage inflicted on somebody because a youngster from outside with many degrees was brought in and put one step on the scale above him.

The point I am making — I am not even asking for a reply — is this: in the implementation of legislation in the crucial early years, I would urge the Minister to supervise his Department in such a way that that kind of damage is not done, in other words, that great delicacy is exercised on the part of the civil service and the boards of assessors to be sure of what they are doing when they are putting somebody on a certain scale in the college. You have no idea what dreadful human reverberations come from indelicate decisions in that area. The only people who can decide it are people within the college. This is a summary of my attitude towards this Bill. If the Bill must stand as it is, it is an accretion of practice that will show how the Bill works. The Minister must be utterly scrupulous and see that it is on the right lines from the beginning.

Senator Murphy made the point that the assessors board had the very important role of assessing and recommending a candidate. He advocated that the assessors board would recommend a point on the scale. I do not think that comes fully against what Senator Martin was talking about. Unless there is a totally external assessors board, I presume there will be somebody from the institute represented on it, I do not know off hand, but if there is, he will be au fait with the problems that might be created by a wrong placement.

Already elaborated by the Higher Education Authority with the Department of Education, are a general scheme and criteria laid down for the Higher Education Authority about placing appointees at particular points on the scale. That has been worked out by the Higher Education Authority after consultation with the Department.

There is nothing in this legislation that would preclude Senator Murphy's recommendation being accepted, namely, that the practice could be encouraged that the assessors, provided that they had representations from the institute, should recommend the point on the scale, and there would be no problem if that corresponded with the detail of the scheme worked out with the Higher Education Authority. If it did not, there would be a possibility of settling the matter by negotiation. As the institutions are funded by the Higher Education Authority, it is an area in which the Higher Education Authority are competent. Some of the problems Senator Murphy heard about may have been teething ones; in fact, the Department were too involved, by necessity, because the institutions were only being launched, were only getting under way and without being sustained by the Department they could not have been launched at all.

Senator's West's mind is the kind of mind I would like to have on the governing body.

Any time.

He would be able to deal with all these problems and iron out the difficulties about what look like restrictive clauses. All institutions, as Senator Martin said, from the primary school up develop their own spirit, their own way of looking at things. I accept it is important that there should be knowledge of that. The Higher Education Authority in elaborating their scheme, with specific reference to the placement of appointees on particular points of the scale, did not elaborate it without examining the institutions to which the scheme would refer. Again, that is not a substitute for what Senator Martin said, someone within the institution knowing the structures, the seniorities, and the value of members of staff. It is very important to have that kind of input.

Senator Jago made the point about "officers and servants." The terminology does not particularly "grab me", but it is — we made this point in one of the Houses when we were dealing with the National Institute for Higher Education, Limerick, Bill — enshrined in the 1930 Vocational Education Act. Section 9(3) in referring to the removal or suspension of officers deliberately omitted "servants which is defined already in legislation.

May I make one further point? The Minister has been very generous in his reply. This is specifically referring to the difficulty raised concerning subsection (2). I have been a member of asessment boards. I tried to assess my future colleagues. Basically one has to assess three things and the third may be of less importance than the other two. First, will the person be an adequate teacher? Second, will he adequately carry out what in the broadest terms is called ‘research', in other words, the sort of work that ensures that his teaching is kept alive and that his knowledge does not grow stale? Third, which is the most difficult to make and may be the least important, we have to asess the individual as a person. Is he going to, in some minimal sense, be able to create a relationship with his students and with his colleagues. I do not think I have ever failed anybody on the last one. I have been on assessment boards and I know I made wrong decisions on the first two, because one is working too much on the paper qualifications. Both Senators Murphy and Martin referred to the fact that there is great danger that civil service procedures may be, in a sense, pushed upon this institute and that the paper qualifications will be all. I think the civil service are much too astute to appoint only their own men on those grounds, but it could happen that in a transfer of procedure this was the sort of thing that happened.

I would like to illustrate this in my own case. We are not always academics; we are not always fighting civil servants. We spend most of the time fighting with the administrators in our own institutions. I have not reached the intellectual eminence of my colleagues here. One of the daily papers recently in a list of university teachers did not categorise me as a university teacher at all. I do happen to be one, whatever The Irish Times might think. I am only a humble associate professor and my colleagues Senator Murphy and Senator Martin have reached the apogee of the profession—

Some day, my boy, all this will be yours.

One day recently I met an administrator in my own institution. He said: "I see you do not do any research". To put it crudely, I think I have been busting my backside over the last 15 years of my academic life to do some of the best research in my subject anywhere. I said: "How do you measure this?" He said: "I see you have never taken a sabbatical year." The fact that I had never taken a sabbatical leave—

It could be. But the point is that the measurement of qualities is a very difficult and delicate one. As I said, I have been on assessment boards and have not made the right decisions, but I am certain that the boards which have a fairly strong input from the institution making the appointment will eventually make the right appointment. Of course, there must be strong external guidance but, as Senator Martin said, there are delicate problems of staffing which have to be considered when making a new appointment, because this could affect the balance of the department and create a great deal of backwash and many problems if it was not handled correctly. That is the sort of thing this legislation can take into account as this debate is making clear, and the Minister has responded on the right note. I hope this is not all wasted on the desert air and that it will seep down into the great channels which we hope to see guiding this institute in Dublin.

Senator West's outline of the qualifications he would look for in an appointee is highly commendable. It might be true to say of assessment boards and appointments that there is no royal road to success in them, the same as there is not for assesment for entrance to third level institutions. There is an element of hit-and-miss in everything. People who have been turned down for positions later acquitted themselves with great distinction elsewhere. This has happened in institutions and will happen again.

In section 9(2) the mention of the Minister for the Public Service and the Minister for Education is totally unconnected with that kind of assessment. The Minister will have absolutely no part to play in it. The systems built up by the institutions and the universities over the years will no doubt act as headlines for the National Institute for Higher Education, Dublin, and there will not be any outside departmental interference whatsoever in it.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 10 to 14, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 15 stand part of the Bill".

I want to express my disappointment again. If you look at the debates on the Limerick Bill, I suggested that this brought ministerial interference to a really absurd point. The Minister went a long way towards admitting that there was much in what I said. He said that it was put in there because of concern that from time to time the governing body might charge excessive fees and that the Minister's court of final appeal would prevent the charging of excessive fees for courses and so on. He admitted that that was a rather farfetched and remote possibility. I recognise, of course, that he cannot change section 15 in the Dublin Bill when it is already in the Limerick Bill. However, I want to express my disapointment that it appears again. Let me echo my colleagues' words of appreciation of the Minister's generous response to the points we are making.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 16 and 17 agreed to.
First and Second Schedules agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.