I thank the Chairman for allowing me to make this opening statement regarding the investigation of plagiarism at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, the establishment of a technological university for the south east and the 2014 financial statements of the Higher Education Authority. As requested, I have forwarded some advance briefing material to the committee.
The Department first became aware of the investigation of plagiarism at GMIT in November 2013. The detailed response on the investigation of plagiarism at GMIT is more appropriate for Mr. Jim Fennell, acting president of GMIT, to outline. However, the Department’s view is that while there are issues arising with how the investigation was managed during the process, the management response to the issues has, ultimately, been comprehensive. Following consideration of the reports on the investigation of plagiarism in GMIT, the Higher Education Authority issued advice to the presidents of all HEA-funded higher education institutions in May 2015 on the matters to be considered in order to manage the costs of independent investigations. Mr. Boland of the HEA will outline the advice provided.
The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, published in January 2011, recommended the consolidation of the institute of technology sector and the creation of a small number of multi-campus technological universities. The technological university, TU, for the south east project was initiated in 2011 and consists of a consortium of two institutes of technology - Carlow Institute of Technology, CIT, and Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT. The process for designation as a technological university consists of four stages and requires the merger of two or more institutes of technology prior to application for designation as a TU. The four stages are set out in more detail in the briefing document supplied to the committee.
The consortium for the technological university for the south east project made good progress initially and submitted a stage one expression of interest in 2012. However, following this promising start, the consortium encountered a series of challenges and difficulties and did not succeed in finalising a stage two plan prior to the decision by WIT to suspend all merger activities in October 2014. Following meetings with both institutes, in early November 2014, the Minister for Education and Skills announced the establishment of a new process of engagement and consultation with the governing bodies, staff and students of both institutes, together with the wider community in the south east, in order to articulate and develop the following: a shared vision for a technological university to serve the south east region and to report to the Minister within ten weeks on the feasibility and steps required to progress an application for technological university status within an acceptable timeframe. This is to be done having regard to the published criteria and process for designation as a technological university which is already in place.
The Minister appointed Mr. Michael Kelly to lead the process of consultation. While a ten-week timeframe was initially set for the process to be completed, the timeframe to completion was extended due to a number of factors. Due to other commitments of Mr. Kelly, a substantive start was not possible until early January 2015. The intention then had been to complete by first quarter 2015 but, in light of progress made and an assessment that some further time would be beneficial to the outcome, the Minister’s agreement to extend the time to completion by a further period was obtained. The detailed response on the process itself and the contents of the report is more appropriate for Mr. Kelly to outline. The Department’s view is that the process has been most beneficial in seeking to reinvigorate the project. It has first and foremost confirmed that the project is viable. In addition, it has also provided an opportunity to articulate for the first time the ambitions of regional stakeholders for a more vibrant regional performance in the future with a technological university as a core feature. It has also set out a set of steps required to successfully reinvigorate the delivery of the project. Mr. Kelly met the Minister for Education and Skills on 2 July 2015 and presented his report at that meeting. The Minister subsequently met with the presidents and chairs of the two institutes on 21 July 2015 following noting of the report by Government. The report was then published on 27 July 2015.
The focus is now on continuing the work progressed by Mr. Kelly and to assist with building mutual trust and respect between the two institutions. In that regard, a preliminary engagement process is now under way between the two institutions, as recommended by Mr. Kelly.
I assure the committee that governance and accountability for the bodies under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills, including the Higher Education Authority, are of paramount importance to the Department and that is why steps have been taken in recent months to strengthen even further the Department’s role in the oversight of all institutions and bodies across the education sector.
Within the Department a committee on sectoral governance and accountability was established earlier this year and two meetings of the committee have been held since then. The Department’s role is to support the development and implementation of best practice governance arrangements across the sector through oversight and regular assessment of its approach to governance. The committee’s focus will include the non-commercial agencies under the Department’s aegis, the higher education institutions as well as the education and training boards. The committee’s membership includes the chief executive of the HEA and an external member who can provide an additional element of insight and experience in the area of governance oversight.
A principal officers sectoral governance and accountability network has also been established. Its role is to support the work of the management advisory committee sub-committee by facilitating discussion regarding compliance requirements, to provide feedback, highlighting issues arising in each sector and to disseminate best practice across the Department’s bodies. It has also been decided, in principle, to establish an internal audit sector forum for personnel with internal audit functions in the Department, its agencies, higher education institutes and ETBs.
In addition, as part of strengthening its role on governance and accountability oversight, the Department is tendering for the supply of services from suitably qualified companies for the purposes of conducting reviews of corporate governance compliance by education sector bodies with their relevant codes of practice which underpin their corporate governance frameworks. The HEA is joining the Department in contracting this service in respect of bodies for which it has responsibility.
The HEA has also introduced a number of measures recently to enhance its role further in the governance and accountability of the higher education institutions under its remit. The HEA is to brief the committee in more detail about these measures. I want to mention in particular the meetings that have taken place in recent months between the HEA, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the institution’s representative bodies which will assist, among other things, in providing an early flagging of any issues in the sector. This new collaborative approach will assist all stakeholders across the sector in delivering a more robust system of governance and accountability in higher education. The Department is committed to working closely with the HEA in achieving this aim.
I am conscious that the Department has been in correspondence in recent times with this committee on a number of issues particular to higher education. In this regard, I assure the committee that the issues raised in the sector are, and continue to be, of great concern to the Department and we are working with the institutions, through the HEA, to seek to have the issues dealt with appropriately and as efficiently as possible. I am happy to answer questions from the committee.