Technological Universities Agenda: Statements

I am grateful for the opportunity for me and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, who will also contribute to the debate, to update the House on the progression of the technological university agenda nationally. I am delighted to see such interest in this in Seanad Éireann. It warms my heart that the time for these statements was extended. I am encouraged that there is great interest across the country about the transformation that these technological universities can bring to the regions.

The opportunity to be here today arises in part following a recent Oireachtas committee hearing on the draft order appointing 1 January 2021 as the date on which the new Munster Technological University, MTU, will be established. I thank the Seanad for its approval of the order which I signed today. It will see on the first day of next year the realisation of many years of hard work with the legal establishment of the MTU, the second such technological university, TU, in the State. As Senators will know the first TU in the State is TU Dublin which also has the honour of being the largest higher education institution with more than 29,000 students and 3,500 staff. It is indicative in many ways of what we are striving to achieve with the TU agenda.

We are seeking to create, in the merger of smaller institutes of technology, ITs, - in TU Dublin's case those of DIT, IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght - stand-alone multi-campus entities which are of significant and sufficient critical mass that they can punch well above their weight as individual institutions, and that as reconfigured are much more than the sum of their parts. That is in no way to undervalue what has been and continues to be achieved by institutes of technology.

I was thinking about this today when signing the order effectively dissolving Cork IT and IT Tralee. While we are moving to higher ground and an exciting new agenda, I take the opportunity to thank all the people who have worked and served in IT Tralee, Cork IT and all the institutes of technology over the years. I know there is a real affinity with many of these institutions. They are fine institutions and have served our country well for the past 50 years, putting down roots in regions and communities and providing first-class technical and technological education with wide student access and diversity, and with an embedded connectedness to local and regional business and enterprise.

The Government and the Oireachtas wish to retain and build on what is best in the IT model but to ally that with the best of the university system such as deepened research capability, level 10 designated awarding powers, and international reach and recognition. It is an exciting prospect that Tralee will be a university town from 1 January and this change has the ability to transform our regions. We want to amplify the best attributes of both types of institution into something unique. This uniqueness is to be found in the sheer bandwidth of TUs, which provide research-informed teaching and learning excellence across all levels of the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, from level 6 to level 10, from apprenticeship to doctoral degree.

Last year, the then Department of Education and Skills established a high-level working group entitled the TU research network, TURN. This group, which included the presidents of TU Dublin and of those institutes of technology involved in TU development, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, and the Department, produced a seminal report in October 2019. This report sets out in detail the blueprint for successful TU development in this country. It describes the rationale, benefits and key requirements of this new type of higher education institution in Ireland. The report is entitled "Connectedness and Collaboration through Connectivity", which sums up the ethos and model for TUs. These universities are closely connected with their regions, stakeholders, students and staff. They are collaborative partners with enterprise, research communities, local and national government, and other education providers at home and abroad. Their connectivity is reflective of the modern, globalised, digitally connected world in which students, staff and stakeholders live, work and study.

The report makes a series of 12 recommendations for outcomes that will provide a solid foundation for the development and progression of TUs, centring on the thematic areas of investment in integrated multi-campus digital infrastructure, research capacity-building and realignment of the policy framework and funding for TUs. The focus is now on the implementation of these recommendations, including the development of academic career structures, by the sectoral stakeholders.

Arising directly from the TURN report, budget 2020 introduced a new TU transformation fund of €90 million going out to 2023. This represents a trebling of annual funding and will see TU-oriented funding increase to over €120 million by 2023. The fund will assist in key investment areas including digital infrastructure, research capacity building, change management, systems integration, governance and project management structures and information sharing to establish TUs and assist them to deliver key strategic social and economic development objectives and to respond to specific diverse regional and sectoral impacts such as Brexit.

On 7 October, I announced that the HEA, which is overseeing and administering the fund subject to Department policy requirements, was making a total of €34.3 million in funding allocations. The funds will be disbursed in two tranches in quarter 4 this year and quarter 1 next year. Further allocations will be made in 2021 and 2022 with an emphasis from next year onwards on assisting inter-TU and consortia collaboration on systemic projects as TUs bed down and start to operate within their new environments, in pursuance of their missions and functions.

We want this fund to be utilised to create a network of these universities spanning the country and by 2023 five technological universities could be - I hope they will be - established. The fund will also continue to assist established TUs in those crucial formative years. It is important to have ring-fenced funding to bed in these new universities. In tandem, we are working with stakeholders to establish the mechanisms through which TUs can stand increasingly on their own two feet. This includes the development of a borrowing framework that will enable TUs to access non-Exchequer funding such as the European Investment Bank provides and put them on an equal footing with the traditional universities.

It will enable them to build their research capacity in both applied and theoretical fields, attract both increased research funding and retain and attract high-calibre research staff. It will involve the reconfiguration of the financing models currently in place in the publicly funded higher education sector.

This is not just a one-way street, however. The Government requires the TUs to become engines of regional development and socio-economic progress. That is why we are doing this. It is to achieve balanced regional development and greater access in the regions to higher education, and to try to advance some of our socio-economic objectives. We want the TUs to be magnets for students seeking the finest of educations in top-class, student-centred environments, but without necessarily having to always travel to the big smoke, the capital or the major cities. These facilities should be available in the regions and people should not have to leave these regions to access higher education. Connectivity and state-of-the-art facilities will ensure access to the highest levels of education provision, irrespective, within reason, of location, and subject to the continued roll-out of broadband and other connectivity avenues.

Over time, the TUs will be in a position to "wash their own faces" and facilitate the delivery of national strategic objectives in the areas of higher education provision, access, skills retention and creation, research and innovation, regional development and social progress. I have been meeting with regional skills forums throughout the country and there is a real excitement among the business community, the educators and the citizens of the regions about the difference this will make. Business owners, employers, students, education providers will be able to sit down together and plan the skills needed for the regions. They can ask themselves what they want to be good at in a particular region, and then provide the education to ensure that the workforce is available to achieve that. This will also transform the decisions that younger people will make. If they can stay in their own community and access a university education, they are much more likely to maintain their roots in that community, and that can only be good for balanced regional development.

Regarding where we are today with the TU agenda I have mentioned that we have one TU in situ - TU Dublin - with another less than a month away from establishment MUT. There is also more good news in this regard. Less than a fortnight ago, I also received an application for TU designation, under the relevant legislation, from Athlone and Limerick ITs seeking to establish a university in the midlands and mid-west and that has started a prescribed process of assessment and decision-making under the legislation, so that could well be our third TU. Further applications are anticipated from the Connacht-Ulster Alliance of Galway-Mayo, Sligo and Letterkenny ITs in early quarter 1 of next year. In respect of the south-east, which is the only region that currently has no third level university facility, an application from the TUSEI consortium of Carlow and Waterford ITs is expected in early quarter 2 of 2021

If we get through this process there will be just two ITs that remain unaligned with TU consortia. However, both of these - Dundalk Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Art and Design, Dun Laoghaire - are exploring possible trajectories for TU development under the legislation, with the assistance of the transformation fund.

The TURN high-level group I referenced is also being reconvened under the chairmanship of Dr. Alan Wall of the HEA with a view to the technological sector itself taking significant ownership of the TU agenda going forward, subject to national policy and strategic priorities.

Since their genesis in the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, better known as the Hunt report, in 2011, the technological university agenda has come a long way. While it has not always been an easy or straightforward journey, since the enactment of the Technological Universities Act 2018 we are now seeing the realisation of what may have seemed a distant dream to some people in past times. I assure Senators of my own and the Government's commitment to delivering fully on the TU agenda. This is a major priority for our new Department. This is also a priority in the programme for Government 2020, with a particular urgency being accorded to the delivery of a TU for the south-east, the only region currently without a university presence.

We are making good progress in that regard and following the appointment of a new, highly experienced programme executive director last July, and building on the significant work done by the proactive team led by the presidents and governing body chairpersons, there is a renewed sense of enthusiasm and can-do spirit, which I am confident will at last rid the south-east of that unenviable label of being the only region without a university.

A TU in the west and the north-west will be of immense benefit to the people of that region, and will help forge relationships on a North-South and cross-Border basis. I would love to come back to this House to talk about how we can collaborate on an all-Island basis when it comes to higher education and research. There are significant opportunities, and some very significant civil rights issues in this space.

I see these developments and the TU agenda as integral to the Department's main mission of uniting educational opportunities with enterprise, research and innovation. I look forward to working with colleagues on all sides of the Oireachtas in pursuit of this goal and I look forward to hearing the Senators' comments and questions. Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is great to hear an update on the TU agenda. As Fine Gael spokesperson on further and higher education, research, innovation and science, I am delighted with the progress the Minister has achieved to date with his officials in this brand new Department. It is quite exciting to be starting off with nothing having gone before and it being wide open for the Minister to achieve what he will. The goals that he has set out here will amount to an amazing achievement when they are delivered. It will take time, but it is amazing to see it happening.

The Dublin TU, which brings together DIT, Blanchardstown and Tallaght, and the Munster TU, which brings together Cork and Tralee ITs, amounts to a total of six campuses, that are going to be university campuses, which is brilliant.

Should it not be "campi"?

An application has also been received from Athlone and Limerick ITs. Athlone Institute of Technology is close to my heart as it is only 15 minutes away from my home in Ballinasloe, and it is very important for the east Galway area as well as the midlands and the mid-west. The Connacht-Ulster Alliance application that will soon be submitted will bring together the Galway-Mayo, Sligo and Letterkenny ITs.

This project is so important. The Saolta hospital group and others across the country are linked to universities and have university status, such the Letterkenny, Mayo and Portiuncula hospitals. It is phenomenal that these hospitals and their excellence are linked to the universities, and it is something I would like to see with the TUs. We need to build the link with both industry and healthcare and the hospitals in each region.

The establishment of the TUs will be transformational for regional areas. As the Minister mentioned, each town with a campus will become a university town, which is a sought-after status. The Government has committed to providing a total Exchequer funding of €90 million through the HEA under the transformation fund. It is the right time to build our research excellence across the country, which is so vital to attracting foreign direct investment. Covid-19 has had a major impact on our community and on our businesses. Many people are seeking other types of work and accessing the pandemic unemployment payment, for example. Students themselves have become very disconnected over the past year from the joys of college life. I was very happy with the supports that the Department has brought in for students, such as helplines and the 50808 text service, which students can use if they are feeling down so they talk to someone and get expert help. Our students today will be our leaders tomorrow, and we need to ensure that they are protected in this difficult period.

Third level courses in each region will ensure that we are building up our talent base and skill sets to attract industries of the future, such as e-health, internet of things, big data, or facing future challenges with research, as has been done in the case of Covid-19. We have seen researchers coming together to look at possibilities. When the pandemic began, in March and April 2020, researchers were working in NUI Galway on the idea of splitting ventilators, so that two patients could access one ventilator, which shows that research is not in an ivory tower, and that researchers are engaging immediately with communities and society to deliver an impact immediately. It is not a case of waiting four or five years to see the impact of research.

We want Ireland to be a global leader in innovation, and we are on are way to achieving this. When I speak with staff in organisations such as Science Foundation Ireland, IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland, they always talk about innovation and how Ireland can become the pinnacle of innovation. If one looks at countries such as Singapore, it becomes apparent immediately that it is about excellence and engagement between industry, universities, and third level education. That is exactly what draws the best of the best to countries that are able to demonstrate that excellence and engagement. Of course, Ireland has been able to attract multinational companies from across the world based on the excellence in our research and researchers in third level institutions.

We are well-positioned in the healthcare, medtech and pharmaceutical sectors, building on the investment in existing universities through Science Foundation Ireland centres of excellence, where industry and academia work together to deliver results. The Enterprise Ireland commercialisation fund, feasibility grants and technology transfer offices translate our research and discoveries into real-life applications. We do not and cannot just perform excellent research. The key to these technological universities is that researchers, lecturers and people who are teaching will have time dedicated to research. This is what is crucial about them. When speaking to those working in third level, one always comes across the issue of people who are teaching not being able to dedicate enough time to research. To do that, we need to ensure we can allocate time and that those people will have dedicated time to do research in order that they can compete to attract the funding they need to continue.

We also have to develop the commercialisation aspect in this regard. Enterprise Ireland is currently very strong on this in the institutes of technology and will be in the technological universities as well. By doing so, we will see the impact of research in society. When we talk about commercialisation, there is a gap from when we deliver research to when we actually get it out into the community. If it is not commercialised it will never end up in the community or in society, where we will be able to see the benefit. It is about building the links between research, academia and day-to-day life and living. We need to think about that and it has to be funded and protected. If that is not done through the commercialisation of research, it will not happen. The commercialisation aspect is extremely important, especially for technological universities, which are about the practical need for industry. As I have mentioned, our institutes of technology have real strength in this area of practical application and have been responsive to industry need.

International peer review is important and measuring ourselves against international standards is crucial. Our graduates are highly sought after in many industries and that is how we attract industry. We must be able to speak to and point to how we are meeting international measures for excellence. That has to be how we judge ourselves and the success of the technological universities as a whole.

Ireland attracts researchers from across the world. When I worked as a contract researcher and project manager on a European project, I got to meet nationalities from all across the world. I have been very fortunate in doing that. Some 20% of Galway is cosmopolitan. The people who decide to stay here in Ireland and the researchers who come from across the world do so because they are able to attract funding. They are able to do what they want as they have the laboratories and infrastructure. We have key agencies, like Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, Enterprise Ireland, and the Irish Research Council, which are there to fund research. This will continue with the technological universities in which we are investing. I understand the precarious nature of contract researchers who are dependent on funding and awards. If we are to look at raising NFQ levels from 6 to 9, we must also develop our PhD teams, our PhDs, and our postdoctoral studies. They are usually funded through European programmes, as well as national programmes. We must ensure we can attract that type of funding. I ask the Minister to look at measures to support our contract PhDs and postdoctorates, to make sure we keep our talent here and that we attract new talent, particularly given the challenges of Brexit and the UK leaving the EU. We must also protect the budget for European Research Council awards at a European level, in order to keep excellence here.

As the Minister has mentioned, these technological universities will deliver higher education access, skills retention and creation, research capacity building, research-led teaching and socioeconomic progress. In other words, they will embed research excellence in our local communities. Strong education, including infrastructure, resources, and crucially, access, is a key tenet of what the Irish Republic means for every Irish citizen. Our technological and national universities will engage actively with the communities in which they are based to share learning and build bridges with key experts in the community outside of the laboratory and the lecture theatre. This will build wealth in our society through access to factual, evidence-based research and information. They will support all of us in community groups, businesses and regional areas to make the right decisions for our region. Technological universities will work closely with the regional skills forums in their areas to bring industry, employment agencies and local enterprise offices together. They will be crucial in being responsive to industry need. What further supports could be considered for SMEs to access research to become more innovative in their fields? Currently we have Enterprise Ireland innovation vouchers, SFI industry fellowships and Irish Research Council industry fellowships.

Reference was made to Norway. The Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, brought an expert in to speak about the model Norway has had for the last 20 years. The expert spoke about the importance of clusters of excellence, allocated time for research and networking to make sure these institutes and campuses work well together.

The year 2021 will be a better year. We will have a vaccine for Covid-19 thanks to research and in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, it is research from two German researchers of Turkish descent.

I thank the Minister for coming into the Seanad for this very important discussion on the technological university sector, the changes that have been happening over the past decade and how they will play a part in the higher education landscape, nationally and internationally. It is important that we also thank the staff, students and governing bodies of all the institutions involved, such as the THEA, or Institutes of Technology Ireland, IOTI, as it was previously, the people in the Department and my former colleagues in the Higher Education Authority. This has been a decade-long process to develop the technological universities. One of the greatest successes we have had in this country is providing opportunities in education. We do not often appreciate the change that has happened from the time when access to higher education was very much for the elites. Now, the highest ever number of school leavers are going on to higher education this year and those numbers will continue to grow.

I welcome the progress we have seen with regard to TU Dublin and I congratulate Munster TU. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me raise the question of the technological university of the south east, which he has been working hard on delivering. There is a consensus in the south east that this needs to happen, not just because we are the only region without a university, but because a university is essential to driving the economic and social development of a region. A commitment has been made by the Minister and all the players, including IT Carlow and Waterford IT, that we will have designation on 1 January 2022. That is a target on which we must continue to be focused. It will be a multi-campus university and if the Minister is the one cutting the ribbon, I hope he will do it in Carlow and Waterford but also in Wexford. Other alliances are being formed and while we need North-South co-operation between all our institutions, I would like to see the Connacht-Ulster Alliance develop closer co-operation with the Magee and Coleraine campuses in the context of a shared island and this should be explored further.

I ask the Minister to respond to or consider a number of specific areas. The Technological Universities Research Network does not have student representation. That must be addressed. There must be input from students and researchers in that network. It is essential that we focus on building the research capacity within our technological universities. They have been doing a very good job but in the new competitive world, we need to look at doing that further. The recurrent funding allocation model, RFAM, must be reformed to allow that to happen and to allow for more focused research funding as part of the RFAM. I welcome the Minister's comments on the borrowing framework, which is certainly important for the sector. We have to remember that these universities will be working together. They are not competing with each other any more. Universities and higher education institutions are now competing internationally and they have to be able to operate on the international stage. That requires us to build further international collaborations.

I hope - and the Minister has given an indication that he will do this - that with, for instance, the more than €80 billion in EU funding that will be available over the coming years, we will have more Irish representatives in Brussels to be able to target that funding and to build partnerships with other European institutions, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, where our comfort of often falling back on relationships with UK institutions might not be as easy, although it is essential that we continue to build those strong bilateral relations we have between our higher education institutions here and those in Britain.

Furthermore, there will be a challenge for the TU sector in particular because it has a very strong tradition of lifelong learning and because of its role in apprenticeships and so on. However, because of the technological revolution we are now experiencing, every single one of us will need to upskill and reskill. We have to be conscious that we will be looking at short courses and microcredentials, and because of its experience and its regional reach, the TU sector will be ideally placed to facilitate those. I ask, therefore, that a clear strategy be set out as to how our higher education institutions will help to prepare our citizens for the technological revolution we are experiencing. This will mean upskilling and reskilling during our lifetimes.

The access agenda has always been the success of the regional technical colleges and the institutes of technology. In many ways the traditional universities were slow to catch up in addressing the access agenda. The regional technical colleges, RTCs, and institutes of technology, IOTs, however, and now the technological universities have very strong records of offering opportunities in higher education that had not been offered to many sectors of the community heretofore. There certainly still are major challenges around socioeconomic access to higher education. The statistics from the HEA show in the case of UCD and Trinity that only about one in every 20 students comes from what is classified as a disadvantaged background, whereas the institutes of technology have an extraordinary record and are far more representative of the community as a whole. It is really essential that as part of the development of technological universities, the record of the good work they have done on access both for those in socioeconomic disadvantage and for mature students and students with a disability is continued.

The final comment I will make concerns the question of governance and this applies not just to the TUs but to our universities generally. The role of universities in society is now vastly different from what it was 50, 60 or 70 years ago. The 21st century will be the century of the battle for talent. We can talk about the Irish economy being based on tax and talent only for so long. Yes, we defend on the tax side but the battle this century is about talent. The technological universities and the traditional universities will be the driving force and the engine at the centre of this. Their governance structures must be equipped to drive this, and their mission must be aligned with that drive. This is the rationale behind the Minister's Department. It is preparing us for the future and for driving that change. His Department cannot be simply an administrative Department, and I think he knows that. We have seen a real and renewed commitment to the technological university sector in the recent past and I believe that any work the Minister does will receive the full support of this House.

I understand that Senator Craughwell is spokesperson for the Independent group.

I am not a spokesman. As I am an independent Senator, I do not take a spokesmanship but I will speak on this matter.

I simply wanted to clarify that the Senator has eight minutes.

Senator Craughwell is not shy.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is world-renowned. Nobody ever had to call it a university. I was president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, when we started the technological university drive. I was not convinced. I am still not convinced we need to refer to these institutions as universities. The previous speaker, Senator Byrne, spoke of the tremendous record of the regional technical colleges, which subsequently became the IOTs, and now we are driving them forward as technological universities.

If I may step back a little, Deputy Harris is also the Minister with responsibility for further education. I am delighted to see that because a man with his drive and energy is what is needed. I was always impressed by his drive when he was in the Department of Health and I hope he brings the same to this portfolio. The further education sector was starved from the time it came about and we all know that it came about through osmosis. There were schools with empty classrooms looking for courses to fill them. The one problem we had, and this will be a challenge for the Minister, is as follows. My courses were in the area of computer network systems and operating systems. I remember that a student would get a level 6 qualification in my college, would progress to one of the Dublin colleges, typically, and would have to go back and do the level 6 course because level 6 in further education and level 6 in higher education were not the same, even though they were. On the national framework there was nothing to separate them. We therefore have to see much closer co-operation between further education and higher education, and particularly now that we have technological universities, we have to do that. In the technological university sphere we also have to do what is being done internationally, that is, we have to hold vocational education and academic education as peer equals. We have to ensure we have pathways whereby a student can move from a vocational trajectory over to an academic one and back to the vocational one if that is what he or she wants to do. We have to have vocational qualifications that go to level 10. If we are really serious about tackling the future in education, that is where we need to go.

I will now speak about TU Dublin. I was extremely impressed by the attitude taken by my members of the TUI at the time and the management at governing bodies in DIT, IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght. The work they did together to get that organisation off the ground was incredible. There were difficulties - I will not pretend there were not - but there was a level of co-operation and the mantra seemed to be "solve the problems, whatever they are" rather than finishing up in the Labour Court, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, or whatever else. They did a tremendous job, and I am really proud to see it up and running, even though I have some misgivings about the idea.

Let us move on. We are one month away from the creation of Munster Technological University, and today its representatives were in the Workplace Relations Commission. They will be there for I do not know how long more. Somebody needs to go and knock heads together and get the differences that exist between staff and the management out of the way and get this project up and running if this is the direction we are going in. Incidentally, the same applies to Carlow and Waterford. There were cosmetic differences, for the want of a better description, between the two colleges there. Both are excellent institutions but for one reason or another, the nonsense of "they are not as good as us" or "we are better than them" crept in. We need to get that out of the way, knock heads together and move the project on. I want to see the south east develop as well. I still have misgivings about the notion of technological universities but now that we have committed to it, let us drive it forward quickly.

Regarding the staff and staffing, my colleague has referred to the issue of teaching contracts. The one thing that held back the IOTs was the fact that those who were employed in them were employed as lecturers within the system. They were employed in order to deliver programmes in classrooms or lecture halls. There was no real facility for research. A lot of research went on but there was no real facility for it. A lot of it involved ad hoc arrangements and the like. We need to drive that forward with contracts of employment that ring-fence hours for research within the system. I want to see that happen.

The moneys the Minister announced, the €90 million, are relatively new, from what I gather.

We were expecting these institutes to work within their own budgets to try to put together technological universities, so I am pleased to see that the Minister has put this money in place. It is a great step forward. Going back to further education, I hope the Minister has some money for that area as well. When he is rooting around in his pockets at some stage, he might find it. That really is important.

The ability to borrow in order to carry out research and to develop colleges is a fantastic idea. The one thing I would like to see is additional funding for innovation centres associated with each of the TUs in order that we can get microbusinesses to develop within the university structure and then perhaps branch out, as has happened in UCD, DCU and other colleges.

I have a concern about the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. It goes back to a meeting I had with the president of Letterkenny Institute of Technology many years ago. His favourite option was to link up with the University of Ulster. I know there is a problem with respect to the fact that Brexit is coming down the road and we are no longer one big happy family within the EU. The point he made to me at the time is no different today than it was then. He said if a meeting was called in GMIT, in Renmore in Galway, it was a day's drive down to attend the meeting, stay overnight and then a day's drive back. He said that is nonsense when he could just drive across the Border and have a meeting with the University of Ulster. As part of a shared island forum, we need to develop the east-west relationships that should exist in terms of the University of Ulster and Donegal.

The connection between Galway and Sligo is pushing it as far as one really can. Galway, Mayo and Sligo involve quite a chunk of the country. The connection between Athlone and Limerick is a bit odd geographically. They do not sit neatly together but, nonetheless, I am delighted to see that they have come into the frame as well and that they are working in that particular area.

I got hung for this shortly after I came into the Oireachtas when I wrote an article about the delivery of educational programmes. I would like to see educational programmes delivered from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. My colleague, Senator Byrne, referred to modular programmes where one can opt in and opt out.

I will finish now. At the end of the day I wish the Minister well as he goes forward with this programme. I think he is the man to drive it. I would be happy to assist in any way I can, provided I am not shot by my former union members as I leave here today. Like Senator Byrne, I also want to see much longer days for the delivery of education and more accessibility.

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the technological universities agenda. My notes are scattered across various pieces of paper so I apologise to the people typing this up. First, I congratulate the Minister, CIT and IT Tralee for signing today for the legal establishment of the Munster Technological University, which will be effective from 1 January. As I always do when I speak in the House, I shall toot the horn of the student movement. When I was president of the Union of Students in Ireland, the student unions of IT Tralee and CIT had already completed their work to amalgamate the student unions. That was four years ago, so it is super that their parent bodies have now also completed that work. It was a big issue during my time and the student unions were champing at the bit to get themselves together, so it is an exciting time to see this starting to speed along and come to fruition.

It would be remiss of me not to talk about some of the areas that need to be looked at in the higher education sector. I spoke here previously about the rather discouraging piece in thejournal.ie on the series that was done by Noteworthy on the way staff in the higher education sector are being treated. Many are on zero-hour contracts or term-time only contracts and are not being paid for the enormous amount of overtime that they do. Institutions consistently argue that they do not have the budgets to pay all of their staff, hence the use of postgraduate students for unpaid tutorial or lecturing work. I do not think that is any way to treat staff. Over the summer, postgraduate students in NUI Galway were expected to teach as part of their postgraduate studies with no remuneration. This has been a widespread practice for a long time but it was the first time I saw it so blatantly circulated in black and white. It is no coincidence that vocational roles in Ireland are treated so poorly. Teaching and healthcare staff are often affected. As I always do, I may as well mention the plight of student nurses and how they are working and not being paid. They are on the Covid front line every day. I am going to talk about it until we get them paid.

I did make a request, through the Leader of this House, that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science would come into the House to discuss the precarious work practices in the higher and further education sector. The reason I bring this up is because we are talking about technological universities and the future of higher education and how we are being innovative. However, I struggle to see how we can have this wonderful stride forward in the TU sector unless we are committed to dealing with the precarious nature of employment in the sector. There is no point in investing all of this money in the sector and building new consortia and brilliant centres for the regions if we are going to make the same mistakes of the past in terms of precarious work. I am interested to hear the Minister's comments on that and what we are going to do to ensure that we stem precarious work in the sector. We must ensure that it does not continue in the new technological universities and that they are a bastion for what we are looking for in the higher and further education sector. I do not want them to be hamstrung by this blight, which is the only way I can describe it, in terms of how workers are treated in the higher and further education sector.

The Minister mentioned the borrowing framework. This has been an issue for IoTs for a number of years. I remember talking about this in the HEA and we were all pulling our hair out. We said they could not borrow money and that it was a nightmare. The Minister said there will be five more technological universities but, potentially, two institutes will be left out from joining the technological universities. Does the Minister have any comment to make on that, so that we ensure those two institutions do not get left behind because they simply cannot compete with the rest of the technological universities and universities that are able to access funds through the borrowing framework? I have other concerns about how those institutions will be left behind or may not be able to compete with the technological universities and the university sector. I am interested in particular in hearing about borrowing, as that has been an issue for the IoTs and now that will be addressed, but we cannot leave two institutions behind. Does the Minister have a comment to make in that regard?

The Minister also spoke about the TUs being an opportunity for the regions and for people to be able to access education. It would be remiss of me not to speak about my second favourite topic, which is funding and fees and how people are able to access higher education. We have the second highest fees in Europe and, if and when Brexit finally topples over the line, we will have the highest fees in Europe. We need to have a genuine conversation about access to higher education. We can put all the schemes in place and do everything to try to get people through the cracks but, ultimately, if there is a financial barrier in place that decides who is in the room and who is not in the room, that creates a homogenous group of people. Previous speakers have alluded to who is and who is not in the room and who has access to education in terms of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. If there is a financial barrier in place, it decides who is in the room from the get-go.

I probably do not need to say too much about the impact of not being able to access education in terms of the waste of potential and loss. We talked in the debate about the Irish nationality and citizenship Bill about those people who are not able to access education, whose parents are undocumented, and the impact that has on them. I always say, and in fairness the Minister does too, not everyone needs to go to university. Not everyone needs to get a qualification. There are lots of opportunities for work, training and apprenticeships, but everyone should have the opportunity to access lifelong learning if they so wish. It is an extraordinarily large investment that the Minister has outlined for the TU sector and I hope it will open up the opportunity for many more people. We talk about investment in the regions and this being an opportunity for the regions. I am positive and optimistic about the impact the TUs will have in the regions in opening up opportunities for people who perhaps have not had them previously. I am an advocate for lifelong learning from cradle to grave. We must ensure that the move to the TUs does not repeat the mistakes of the past. I talk about precarious learning. My sisters and I all had very different ways of learning.

I went to university, one of my sisters went to an IT and another went through post leaving certificate courses. My mother went to the Open University and my dad was sent to Liverpool to train as an accountant before becoming a farmer. We all accessed education in very different ways, so I am very excited to see how the TU agenda gives that opportunity to many more people and the different ways of learning. There is also communication, which the Minister spoke of a lot. We say people need an education, but they need opportunity to do so. I hope the TUs open people's eyes to the opportunities available if they want them.

I echo the importance of student representation. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have student voices and student consultation at every level, the technological research network and the whole way through.

A Star Wars quote came to mind: "You can't stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting". The higher and further education landscape is rapidly changing. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that the Oireachtas and Government can respond to that change and to the needs of people who are clearly calling out for change. I hope we can keep up with the rapid change that is happening. TUs are an important step in that and I wish the Minister well as he steers that ship. We must make sure that some of the mistakes hampering the further and higher education sector do not infect the technological university sector as well.

I ask for a little leeway from the Acting Chairman to continue on from Senator Hoey's remarks. I feel a little leeway can sometimes save us a Commencement matter. As we are addressing technological universities, I must mention the fantastic contribution made by our student nurses, those who have just graduated and who are currently studying in our ITs. I appeal to the Minister to go back to Cabinet to say these student nurses should be paid for their role as front-line workers. Their position as students should not be seized on to pay them any less, or even, in many cases, leave them out of pocket for travel expenses and accommodation. They are subject to work restrictions due to cross-contamination prevention measures, which are reasonable and which the students accept, to protect patients, but they mean that students have to forego part-time work. They may need to pay rent and bills but they cannot forego the placement as it is a requirement for their degree.

I accept that the Minister has mentioned a framework for borrowing by the TUs in conjunction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. He also mentioned the improvement in the all-Ireland dimension in subjects and hopes that by 2023, five TUs will have applied. I would like an update on the Connacht-Ulster Alliance technological university application. It was due to be made before the year's end. There is an added dynamic to this alliance as it provides increased opportunity for collaboration with another third level institution in Derry. Has the Minster examined how the range of courses that will be offered by the Connacht-Ulster Alliance can complement rather than compete with courses offered on the newly expanded Ulster University campus at Magee? A graduate entry medical school will take in students on the Magee campus from next September. There is collaboration between Ulster University and NUIG on the medical school curriculum but there must also be room in the middle for GMIT, of which I am a graduate, and the Sligo and Letterkenny ITs that make up the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. As a graduate entry programme, it will be looking for students with a primary qualification in science or related subjects.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I second what many other Senators have said. It is remarkable that we are here talking about opportunities and third level education, universities and all the work that we have to do to get into these universities, be successful and then come out the other side after all the hard work. Student nurses are on the front line and are not being treated as equal to more senior nurses. I second the call for student nurses to be paid, particularly during this crisis.

The new TU for the west and north-west is welcome. It will give students in Donegal and beyond new opportunities in higher education at all levels with courses online and remote learning. The technological university will also play a key role in helping the region compete on an international stage. I hope it will bring greater economic and social benefits to the west and north-west, including cross-Border communities. The Bridging the Gap report on Ireland's digital divide found that 42% of people describe themselves as below average in digital skills and 29% said they do not know where to learn. This would be a great opportunity for the new universities to ensure that measures are put in place to improve digital literacy and understanding.

The pandemic has shown that the challenges faced around the world require many different kinds of research. The Irish Research Council contributes funding for research in the sustainable development goals. There should be more funding like this for education.

Young people in Donegal welcome the university and we look forward to working with the Minister in the future along with Donegal ETB to make it happen.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to the House. Following the recent election, before the Government was formed, many had their say on higher education and whether there was a need for a senior and junior Minister for the sector. Some said it was not necessary, but tonight's debate shows why it is.

As Senator Byrne noted, the regional technical colleges did a great job in their day. They became institutes of technology, which moved everything on to the next level, introducing some research and expanding the courses available to students across the country. Those developments played a major role in us becoming the multi-tech and pharma employer we are today. If one stands still, nothing will change but what will happen is the influx of jobs and opportunities over the past decade and more will cease to exist in the future. Some like Senator Craughwell question why there should be technological universities; that is the reason.

We cannot afford to stand still. We need to move forward with innovation and research. Every area of the country is entitled to that access for all our young people coming forward, and those who go to learn later in life, so they have the opportunity to going to a more localised university setting. I very much welcome the work of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. They have taken on a lot of work. It is very welcome. I refer also to my local strategic partnership, the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. I will address the remarks that were made by Senator Craughwell with regard to the president of the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, Paul Hannigan, and the remarks he made many years ago. I assure the Minister, Deputy Harris, that the president of the LYIT is 100% behind the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. Over and above that, Mr. Hannigan is already working hand in glove with Professor Malachy O'Neill, the provost of the Magee campus of Ulster University, with the heads of the North West Regional College in Derry, and with the Donegal Education and Training Board, ETB.

It is only a few weeks ago that I organised for Professor O'Neill and the president of LYIT, Mr. Hannigan, with the stewardship of the Chairman, to address the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which they did. They outlined the great work and co-operation that is going on there at the moment. They are co-operating from the point of view that if one campus cannot deal with a certain area in providing a new course, they collaborate together to ensure the north west gets a proper representation of courses. This has to be welcomed and a lot more development can happen there. I will come back to this point before I finish.

In his speech the Minister referred to balanced regional development, which is key. I believe that the Minister and the Minister of State will play a key role in balanced regional development on a North-South footing. A lot of our students go across the Border, and particularly along the Border, but very few come across to here. With the shared island approach, the Ministers will play a key role in developing trust within communities in Northern Ireland. I have had this batted about with regard to border polls. We need to work with all sectors across the Border and show what we have to offer down south.

I want to make one strong point on the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, which is the issue of the TUI signing off on each technological university. I believe it is wrong that each area is asked for sign-off by the TUI. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to look at this. It should not be happening on a local basis. Obviously, one is going to have something over and above the other, and vice versa.. This should be addressed at a national level. It is wrong and I ask again that the Minister and the Minister of State would look at this.

I wish the Minister well in the work ahead. I look forward and hope that the Minister takes an interest in the shared island unit and how the Department can contribute to that. I believe the Minister has a lot to contribute in this regard. I welcome the opportunity, as mentioned by the Minister, to have a North-South debate on higher education. It would be very useful.

Ar dtús báire, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is lá iontach é inniu mar tá ollscoil nua á socrú i gCorcaigh agus i dTrá Lí.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I congratulate him on is appointment. Today is an important day in the framework of the evolution of technological universities, with the dissolution of IT Tralee and of Cork IT and the creation of the Munster Technological University. Many of us remember the days of the creation of Cork Regional Technical College and then its evolution to Cork IT, and now to the Munster Technological University. It is important that we get it right. This has been a very elongated process that has had many false dawns and many different struggles. Ultimately, a technological university for Munster has been achieved because of collaboration and co-operation by many different personnel. On the floor of the House tonight I pay tribute to Dr. Barry O'Connor of the Cork Institute of Technology who is retiring in December, for his stewardship in the past years in achieving today's dissolution. We also remember the former president of CIT, Dr. Brendan Murphy.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, spoke in his address about the borrowing framework that will be put in place for the technological universities. I believe there should be a borrowing framework. This will allow and facilitate the universities to avail of the supports of agencies, such as the European Investment Bank, to develop their mission of service and of building a community of enterprise. It will also create a level playing field with the traditional universities, together with supporting the full continuum of education provision from apprenticeships to degree programmes to PhDs. Therein, the issue of apprenticeships and the need to pursue the apprenticeship programme comes under the remit of the Minister's Department.

The new governing body of the Munster Technological University will be very important. The Minister is acutely aware from his own experience as a public representative dealing with boards of management on public bodies that we need to put in place people of strong professional experience and of vision. To that end, people like Mr. Bob Savage, who chaired the governing body of CIT, deserve great credit, praise and thanks. We need that type of person. Equally, there needs to be a whole level of continuity, and especially now that we are creating a new framework and a new technological university. There must be continuity in that governing body. At the same time, when it comes to the membership of the governing body, I hope that the ETB in Cork will be recognised. It is critical that we nominate and put in place people who will serve, who have vision, who will have impetus and, in this case, come from the point of view of Cork.

I congratulate the Minister on today. This is a good news story, which we all support and celebrate.

I thank the Leader of the House, in absentia, for facilitating this debate on foot of a request I made last Wednesday when we had a motion on this topic before the House that was to be taken without debate. That followed a rather short and truncated debate at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science some weeks ago. It is important that Seanadóirí discuss these issues as they progress. The motion before us last week was on the establishment of the Munster Technological University and the merger of IT Tralee and Cork IT. I welcome that development, as does everyone here, since it will strengthen the quality of education provided by those bodies, and I do not to detract from the good work already being done. It will enhance the opportunities of those who attend those campuses. A critical mass is being created in the merger of these institutes of technology in becoming a technological university. There is also the question of increased financial stability for the entities involved.

I am on leave from what is now TU Dublin, the largest university in the State based on numbers of students. I am very pleased to see matters progressing on all fronts. The merger of Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology is well advanced, and GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT are also set to merge. I believe that a formal application was expected there before the end of the year. The proposals for a south-eastern technological university has been somewhat more sluggish, as other speakers have referred to. I understand that an application is due there by April 2021. These mergers cannot be just about a new name, new logos and letterheads, and websites, like the intermittent merger of Government Departments or the merger of the health boards into the HSE some time ago. There needs to be a culture change that allows the newly merged bodies to do the best they can to achieve the educational needs of young people in their region, while in turn acting as conduits for investment from at home and abroad into those regions.

Significant concerns existed about the financial position of IT Tralee, arising from a study conducted by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, almost two years ago.

Perhaps the Minister might update us. Significant problems remain in the technological university or institutes of technology sector. The simple merging of institutions will not necessarily solve them. I have flagged here a number of times the alarming drop-out rates in our institutes of technology. According to the HEA, it is an incredible 33% and rises to much higher levels in certain sectors such as computing and IT. Those figures should prompt hard questions.

I wonder whether the abolition of third level fees in the mid-1990s eroded the sense of value placed on third level education as a resource. Are we failing young people? Are many people going to third level due to societal pressure? Should they choose another route that better suits their needs and ambitions? Are we also failing the taxpayer by forcing everybody into the same model to pursue? Significant resources are perhaps being spent on sending some people to college who really do not want to be there or whose opportunities might lie elsewhere. We need continued focus and investment. Yes, in higher education to be sure but also in apprenticeships and skills-based jobs more generally given the serious and acute shortage of skills in many areas.

I wish to mention one thing about the name of the new institution being established. I received correspondence from Mary Fitzgibbon who is a lecturer in nursing in the Institute of Technology in Tralee. She was concerned, as I think others there were, about the proposed name starting with "Munster". I know very well about the Technological University Dublin and a senior academic in Blanchardstown who reminded me that the proper name matters. A great deal of effort goes into the branding of these new institutions. My correspondent was worried that some people would think the acronym for the institute sounds like empty. Sadly, universities have been empty this year and will continue to be. There is also the potential confusion with Münster in Germany and Munster rugby. There is the fact that two of the institutes of technology in the province of Munster are going into alliances with institutes of technology from other areas entirely. I presume that the Minister will say, if he sees fit to answer, that this ship has sailed. Certainly, correspondence with the former Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, in May 2019, pointed up the fact that this is a matter for the relevant institutes upon successful designation as a technological university under the Act. I do wonder whether there has been sufficient consultation with all of the stakeholders in all cases about the names to be given to these new designated institutions.

In the time remaining I might mention that the Minister recently issued a statement on sexual harassment and the bullying of staff and students in higher education institutions. That is a very important topic to which we need to return.

In conclusion, I must say the following to any Minister with the responsibility for higher education. The sickly sweet term of "blended learning" is non-existent in reality as students are increasingly frustrated about the fact that there is no college experience as so much is online. They want to see that reflected in reduced fees, which is another topic to which we must return.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the progress on the concept of the technological universities, which we have seen here in the TU in Dublin that was designated in January 2019 and also Munster Technological University, notwithstanding the name concerns that Senator Mullen has raised.

I wish to acknowledge the work of all of the officials in the Department. I also acknowledge my colleagues in government, ranging from Richard Bruton, Joe McHugh and Mary Mitchell O'Connor to the present Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, for their work in continuing this very important area of change within the third level sector.

Cardinal Newman, who founded what became University College, Dublin, or UCD, felt that knowledge and learning should "be pursued for its own sake" in his essay The Idea of a University. One could say that the idea of a technological university should give rise to the pursuit of knowledge, science and technological research for all our sakes, which is central to the idea behind the concept. Rather than having institutes of technology working in isolation or competing, having them work together in one bigger institution in a region serving industry and community makes perfect sense. Different institutes of technology have different strengths and specialties to enable the cross-fertilisation of ideas so one large university brings benefits for all.

I am pleased to see that the Connacht-Ulster Alliance is making progress with the combination of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, and the Institute of Technology Sligo, ITS. The initiative will create a university of scale across four campuses in Galway, Castlebar, Sligo and Letterkenny, and I am not forgetting the other very important places like Letterfrack where GMIT runs its furniture design college, and Mountbellew in the area of agriculture. The potential for such a university is immense. The strengths of each campus will complement each other to create a full range of studies across all fields, including: Letterkenny's specialised area in law and forensics; Sligo's specialty of online learning where it has approximately 3,000 distance learning students making it the largest online learning community in Ireland; and GMIT that offers courses in hotel management, the culinary arts, creative arts and nursing. These all combine to provide an extraordinary range of studies. Also for the west and north west there is technology, medical device innovation, tourism and arts. The Connacht-Ulster Alliance will support all of these sectors in a unique way, providing top-class graduates and creating centres of research like the innovation hub at GMIT.

The combination of the three institutes will open up opportunities to access research funding from Europe. The advantage of having an English speaking research partner post-Brexit must be attractive to other European institutions. We cannot just create a number of technological universities and leave them to their own devices when it comes to funding. We must resource them to allow them to survive and prosper. When opportunities arise to expand and develop, the Government cannot be found wanting. GMIT has had a long-running interest in acquiring additional land in Crowley Park that is near its campus in Galway. The HEA is engaging on that and I hope the acquisition can be supported.

We must continue to put the foundations in place. This is a long game so we must ensure that our technological universities are central to education, industry, research and community if they are to fulfil their potential. The relationship between the existing institutes of technology is very important. Hopefully, in the future it will be technological universities that work with business and play a hands-on role in providing the graduates that businesses want. That relationship in terms of designing courses, ensuring that students learn what is required to get them into positions in industry up and down the country is very important.

I acknowledge the work that has been done. I hope to see the application for the Connacht-Ulster technological university in the spring. I know there is work being done at the moment. It is not just throwing in an application but working with unions and student unions on organisational issues to ensure that this is part of the application, and that these issues do not cause problems, and unforeseen problems, when the technological university is in place. I welcome the progress that has been made to date. This is a very exciting area and one that will lead the charge in our third level community across this island for years to come.

I welcome the Minister of State. He has had a keen interest in education over a long period. I know that with him and the Minister, Deputy Harris, we have two people who will drive this project. It is in safe hands. So many speakers have mentioned that it is great to have the development that we have now. To have the ongoing consultation and drive to make things happen following this announcement is important.

This project is really exciting for the west and north west. We often ask in the west and north west what is missing, why can we not get employment and develop the west and north west. This project will provide a golden opportunity for my part of the country. In saying that, I acknowledge the work of the Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, that has well in excess of 6,000 students of 63 different nationalities.

AIT has one of the country's best records of placing students in employment. People there are very excited about this development. I welcome the fact that Athlone Institute of Technology is to be linked with Limerick Institute of Technology. Both institutions are on the River Shannon. The knowledge, schemes and ideas we can share with each other will be fantastic. It will be a huge shot in the arm in the context of foreign direct investment. Political parties and Governments have talked a great deal in this Chamber about balanced regional development. This is a real tool that will help balanced regional development. I am thinking specifically of places like Roscommon and Ballinasloe. They already have links with Athlone Institute of Technology, but those links will now be far stronger. That is important. I do not want to leave out Institute of Technology Sligo, which has also been really important to north Roscommon.

Athlone Institute of Technology covers many different areas, including engineering, health, science and hospitality. It was named "Institute of Technology of the Year" by The Sunday Times in 2018. It is a great driving force with a great interest in its students. Sometimes we talk about the great economic activity colleges and universities bring to towns, cities or villages. This is something more than that. It is about working with the people in the area. Roscommon, Galway and the adjoining counties will derive quite a lot of benefit.

I would like to comment on apprenticeships. I would like our education system to ring-fence a percentage of apprenticeships for young people who grew up in the care of the State. I do not know if this is the right approach. There may be a scheme in place at the moment but as far as I can see, there is not. We should make a huge effort to make that happen. It would be a great gesture and it would give some of those people a really good chance.

I welcome the Minister of State. As Senator Murphy stated, this matter is in good hands with him and the Minister. I have no doubt that they will bring this to fruition in the not-too-distant future.

I was the recipient of the free education and school transport introduced by the then Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, in 1967. That was the first year it was available and it was my first year in secondary school. I do not think anybody going to secondary school in 1967 realised the enormity of what Donogh O'Malley had done. We took it for granted. Very few of the people who had gone before us had the opportunity to get an education. This development at third level is on par with what Donogh O'Malley achieved. It will give everybody an opportunity to attend third level in their own region. In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and probably the 1970s people had to board in secondary schools to get their second level education. Very few people have to go to a boarding school for a second level education now. All of those opportunities are available to people in their own region. That is what this legislation is going to do.

This is also a great opportunity to re-educate people. I feel very sorry for people who lose their seats in these Houses or retire. Some are young people who have been here for ten or 15 years. When they seek employment there is very little out there for them. They see a huge change in the jobs they were doing before. The Houses of the Oireachtas should provide educational opportunities for people who lose their seats to enable them to return to their previous professions, for example, as doctors, solicitors and teachers.

I would like to discuss governance. I can speak about governance because the Mayo campus of GMIT was at a huge disadvantage for quite a long time. When the ETBs were changed, local authorities put members on their governing bodies. Mayo County Council appointed members to the Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim Education and Training Board, but the board responsible for GMIT was the Galway and Roscommon ETB. As a result, the Castlebar campus was downgraded every year for many years.

The new president recently addressed Mayo County Council. I have a Private Members' Bill which I am ready to introduce. It would give the Minister the power to appoint people from a certain region to a governing body. In other words, the Minister would have the power to appoint someone from the Mayo area to help to govern GMIT. That Bill was cosigned by former Senators Mulherin and O'Mahony. I am not going to move it now. The new president of GMIT has advised against it. She has said that the most important thing is representation on the governing body. When the Minister of State is appointing people to governing bodies, I ask him to ensure a good regional balance. That applies not only to the west and north-west, but to all regions. They should all have representation on governing bodies.

This is a golden opportunity. I wish the Minister of State well. I have no doubt that this can be rolled out fairly quickly, given what Donogh O'Malley achieved with transport and education in one or two years. The same thing can be done now. There is great need for it. This is a great opportunity for the young people of this country. It will put us on a level above any other country in Europe.

I listened with great interest, as I always do, to our long-established and learned colleague, Senator Burke. I often think about what would happen if I lost my seat. The Houses of the Oireachtas have a duty of care to people who have given good service but through no fault of their own are not re-elected. There should be a significant retraining and education programme to assist those people. That point should be considered by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

This is my first time welcoming the Minister of State to the House. He has been a good friend of mine for a long time and it is great to address him as Minister of State. He holidays in my village and he will continue to do so. He has a deep interest in education. He is most welcome to the House. We look forward to seeing him over Christmas.

When the restrictions at county boundaries are lifted.

Under his stewardship and that of the Minister, we will hopefully see another technological university in the mid-west. Ennis in County Clare has the capability, structure and character to be a university town. The Limerick Institute of Technology opening a campus in Ennis this time last year was a significant incremental step towards developing its potential. Ennis is famous for culture. Clare County Council appointed the first ever local authority arts officer in the 1980s or early 1990s. We have hosted the most successful national Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in recent times.

Ennis is the capital of County Clare and its traditional cultural, arts and music areas. The town has a cultural heart which fits in well with being a university town. The observation by LIT of that link and its potential was a clever move. The campus in Ennis is going exceptionally well, although people are working and studying from home now, unfortunately. Its birth and first three months were enormously successful. The retail and business community in Ennis was extremely happy with it. The birth is over and the baby steps have been taken. We now need to build on that.

Education is so important. The Minister of State's fellow Limerickman, Donogh O'Malley, has been mentioned previously in the context of what can be achieved through education, and that percolates into business. Most of the European head offices of the technology companies are based in Ireland and five of the seven leading pharmaceutical companies have their European head offices in Ireland. That did not happen by accident. It came about because we have a highly skilled, flexible workforce with transferable skills as a result of what is, by and large, free education in this country. Let us look at the cost of education in other areas of the world, such as the United States. If anybody in this country who has the ability and achieves the points comes from a family who cannot afford to send him or her to college, the State will step in and provide the necessary financial support. That is revolutionary in its own right.

This programme of rolling out technological universities will bring more people into the educational sphere for longer. It will encourage people who are talented and skilled in their own right, but who might have thought of taking a different route, such as going abroad or pursuing a career internationally, to look at Ireland and the raft of courses, skills training programmes and other opportunities that exist here. Other speakers referred to the silly competition that exists between third level institutions. We are a small island and we all need to be working together. We must pool our resources. The pooling of resources to date has resulted in us being so competitive that we have been able to attract five of the seven leading pharmaceutical companies to locate their head offices to Ireland. If we continue to work together and pool our resources, we will become a world-class economy. That is what education can achieve in this country.

I thank the Minister of State for the funding given last October to the consortium of Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology. It allowed for the progression of proposals which the consortium had formally commenced in October 2019. The targeted date for the technological university to open is 1 September 2021. Both institutes of technology voted overwhelmingly in favour of the measures contained in the application for this project. Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, president of Athlone IT, said:

This is a transformational development for the Midlands, and once it comes to fruition, it will provide significant social and economic benefit to communities across the region and beyond. Becoming a TU will broaden access to higher education and create opportunities in areas that have previously been under served with respect to apprenticeships right through to PhD.

Confirmation that the consortium has finally submitted its application to the Government is a major breakthrough and indicates the project is on course to proceed on 1 September 2021.

Athlone Institute of Technology is home to 6,000 students. More than 11% of the full-time student population is from overseas, with 63 nationalities represented, reflecting the globalised nature of the campus. The institute's global focus is also evident in the 230 partnerships and agreements it has signed with universities and research institutions around the world. Recently, Athlone IT was included for the second consecutive year in the U-Multirank Top 25 Performing Universities in the World in the category of interdisciplinary research. The U-Multirank rankings "show how Irish colleges are performing in comparison to their international counterparts", so Athlone IT is right up there with the top-ranked colleges in the world.

A formal legislative process must now take place but this is an exciting prospect for the midlands and the mid west, particularly for Longford-Westmeath. It can be transformative for the region. The Government has given a commitment to ensure the benefits of higher education and regional development are spread equitably across the country and everyone can avail of the high quality provision that technological universities deliver for students, staff, employers, enterprises and the wider local and regional communities within which they are embedded. The new institution is expected to have a student population of up to 15,000 and a staff complement of approximately 1,200 across the six campuses of Athlone, Limerick, where there will be two campuses, Clonmel, Ennis and Thurles. I hope there will be an opportunity to have a campus in Longford as well. It would be a fantastic asset to Longford and would alleviate the accommodation issue which might arise in Athlone.

An economic impact study commissioned by the consortium found that the combined impact of the two institutions on the Irish economy is close to €420 million and the proposed new institution would support more than 800 jobs, in addition to the staff complement. This is an exciting project for the midlands, the mid west and the Minister of State's local area of Limerick. It is particularly important for our area of Longford-Westmeath. I look forward to meeting representatives of Athlone IT to examine the possibility of a campus in Longford.

I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his portfolio. I have not had the opportunity to speak to him since he was appointed.

It is fantastic news that the order for a new technological university in Munster has been signed, namely, the Munster Technological University, comprised of Tralee Institute of Technology and Cork Institute of Technology. It is another statement of intent by this Government and the new Department which has been set up. The establishment of a third university in Munster is a real achievement for the area and brings huge possibilities.

This is one of the biggest statements the Government has made. When we look back and, hopefully, consider the successes of the Government, the Department of Health's actions in the context of Covid-19, for obvious reasons, and what has happened with Brexit, in respect of our immediate concerns as a country, will be included. In the long run, however, the decision to have a Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will be viewed as a significant change. We have focused on employment and work in the last ten years, obviously for the right reasons. Now is the right time to look at education, and both higher and, importantly, further education. I wish the Minister of State well in that endeavour in the years to come. It is an important task but he is certainly starting on a positive note.

I will focus most of my contribution on the announcement several weeks ago of the application by Limerick IT and Athlone IT for technological university status. It is another major development for the area, but particularly for my area of Tipperary. Many students in the county travel to Cork or Limerick to go to university. It will be phenomenal for regional towns like Thurles and Clonmel to have university campuses right on their doorsteps, which will be the position from 1 September 2021 onwards.

Senator Burke referred to how this gives possibilities for those in regional areas to receive the highest quality education the country can provide in their own region. That just gives so many more opportunities.

I know the Minister of State, who is from a neighbouring county, is aware that Clonmel and Tipperary have been aligned with Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, for many years. I encourage him to visit Clonmel when normality returns and to see the plans they have there. It is a real testament to where rural towns can go. As he is aware, the LIT campus is on the outskirts of the town, on the link road known as the Frank Drohan Road. With funding from the Government and plans in place, the old Kickham Barracks in Clonmel is being transformed into a new LIT and ETB campus right in the centre of the town. The Minister of State knows what such a project can do for a town and the businesses in the area - it totally transforms them. The project is an indication of where the Government is going in terms of the opportunities it wishes to give people in rural Ireland and the education it wishes to make available there. The project is being run in conjunction with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage under the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and there are many positive steps going forward from it. At its nucleus is the provision of a university campus in the town of Clonmel. That is very significant and speaks volumes about where we are going in rural Ireland.

I wish the Minister of State well. He is always welcome across the border in Tipperary. I am happy to work with him going forward and I will support him in everything he and the Minister, Deputy Harris, do. I thank him for being here today.

Before I call on the Minister of State, I wish to take this opportunity to welcome him to the Seanad. I wish him well in what is clearly a very exciting portfolio for him. I wish him every success with it.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his remarks. I sincerely thank Senators for a very informed, stimulating and incisive session. We have had several sessions in this Chamber relating to further and higher education and they have all been very engaging. I think all present agree that we are not just entering a new era in higher education, but advancing purposefully through it. It is an era where we are trying to meet and balance the rightful demands and associated challenges arising from our regional populations for equitable access to higher education, which was in large measure previously the preserve of Dublin and the other major cities. As we have heard again today, Waterford and the south east stands out as a place which is crying out for the provision of the type of higher education institution that a technological university is. Personally, I am very pleased that the Department has recently received an application for TU designation under the relevant legislation from Athlone Institute of Technology and LIT, which are seeking to establish a university in the midlands and mid west.

The move from the existing sectoral organisation to a new higher education landscape is truly what the Technological Universities Research Network, TURN, report has called a step-change in developmental terms. I have heard from a number of contributors. I hope the earlier remarks of the Minister, Deputy Harris, underline that this is not just a rebranding exercise to change the nameplate from "institute of technology" to "technological university". That would be a wasteful and expensive mistake that would do a disservice to the sector and particularly to students and staff. It is a mistake that neither I nor the Government are prepared to make. That is why we are prioritising the TU agenda in the programme for Government. In addition, in practical terms there is prioritisation from the TU development consortiums themselves on the ground in regional centres and gateways such as Athlone, Carlow, Castlebar, Clonmel, Ennis, Killybegs, Letterkenny, Sligo, Thurles and Wexford on a pro-active basis. We want to ensure that all those towns and areas benefit as much as possible on an equitable basis from a TU multi-campus presence. I see the TU agenda as much through a regional development lens as one of higher education transformation. The TUs will enable the regions to explore, expand and maximise their potential through the choices and activities of the students, staff, stakeholders and communities which these institutions support and facilitate.

Naturally, not all TUs will be pursuing the same identical missions and nor should they. There will be particular strengths in different universities, whether that be their research focus or online or blended provision excellence. The latter is something that has been significantly accelerated with Covid-19 and which all higher education institutions must master considerably earlier than envisaged. Alternatively, there may be an emphasis on particular disciplinary strengths across unified institutions, allied to enterprise engagement and innovation spin-outs.

The threads that will run through all TUs are those identified in the TURN report, that is: access; the provision of high-quality research-led teaching and learning excellence across all NFQ levels; and the creation of a welcoming and supportive personal developmental environment which will allow all learners and students to fulfil their individual and societal potential. The development of TUs will bring many benefits to regions and the nation overall. These benefits include: institutional reach; international recognition; research capacity building; attraction of foreign direct investment; skills retention and creation; regional development; enhanced staff and student experience; and opportunities and socio-economic progression.

The Government has committed to a very substantial financial package of support in the transformation fund in the coming years and, as the TURN report recommends, TUs and prospective TUs are being prioritised appropriately in terms of capital investment to underpin the cohesion of their regionally dispersed multi-campuses. The fund will assist in key investment areas including: digital infrastructure; research capacity building; change management; systems integration; governance; project management structures; and information sharing, to establish TUs and assist them to deliver key strategic economic and social development objectives and to respond to specific diverse regional and sectoral impacts such as Brexit. Now more than ever, we need to stay connected and to collaborate with colleagues and partners as peers and equals in the technological sector and in the wider higher education ecosystem nationally and internationally.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science continues to work with other Departments and sectoral stakeholders on the implementation of relevant TURN report recommendations. We are encouraging ownership by the sector of the TU development process such as can facilitate this new type of higher education institution to assist the delivery of national and regional strategic priorities such as are set out, for example, in Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan, Future Jobs Ireland, innovation and Horizon 2020.

The TURN high level group which was so pivotal in producing the blueprint for successful TUs last year is being reconvened under the chairmanship of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, initially. The Department and the HEA continue to assist consortiums through the provision of policy guidance, including on appropriate pre-TU establishment governance structures, and by facilitating the exchange of expertise among consortiums and between TU Dublin and consortiums.

Department officials are working with the HEA, TU Dublin and the Teachers Union of Ireland to develop national responses to certain issues which have proved challenging at individual TU consortium level, including online and e-learning policy, review of lecturing, voluntary staff mobility and reassignment, researcher contracts, recruitment and selection policies. The Department is currently working with TU Dublin and will, in time, work with the wider technological sector and relevant Departments, as appropriate, on a process seeking to establish new academic career structures for TUs with sector-wide application. Officials have been in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the establishment of a borrowing framework for TUs which would enable their accessing funds to progress capital infrastructure such as student accommodation and enable TUs to operate on the same basis as the traditional universities currently do.

Senators raised various questions on specific elements of TU projects and there is understandably a keen interest in the impacts and effects for their own areas, regions and localities.

The Minister and I will do our best to answer all such questions in the appropriate fora. We have made a start in that direction today. The Minister has updated Cabinet colleagues on two occasions to date on the TU agenda and we intend to continue to do so regularly as this vital agenda is delivered upon. He is happy to continue to brief public representatives, be that in the Houses of the Oireachtas through the parliamentary questions system or in sessions such as this, on the progression of the TU agenda. He is also meeting with Deputies and Senators on a cross-party regional basis to keep them updated. For example, Senator Malcolm Byrne acts as convenor for his colleagues in the south-east.

This is a good news story, one which we want people everywhere to feel pride in and one which they can take ownership of because these are, or will be, TUs in their regions, serving them. Once again, I thank all Senators for their attention and for the opportunity to discuss these matters with them.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.52 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 December 2020.