This is a trojan horse of a Bill. On the face of it nothing could appear simpler than to introduce a piece of legislation to give statutory existence to an organisation which has had a fruitful and ad hoc existence for several years. There is much more to the Bill than ratifying the present status of the National Council for Educational Awards or restoring to that Council the facilities to award degrees.
In some of its small print—and some of its print is very small indeed—the Bill has implications for some parts of the third-level sector in education that go beyond the Government's election commitment in this regard and open up many new fields for querying what precisely the long-term intentions are in relation to third-level education outside the universities. It is obvious that the Minister, when he was Opposition spokesman for education, was under the impression that the business of not just restoring to the NCEA their degree-awarding powers but of establishing them on a statutory basis was something which could be accomplished at the stroke of a pen.
The Government's election manifesto announced that it would immediately establish the NCEA by statute. I do not know what happened after the Government assumed office to delay the necessary preparation of the Bill. It may be that the Minister discovered that things were not as simple as he thought they were; indeed, we have his word for it that he took a personal interest in the progress of this Bill during its drafting and made weekly inquiries about it.
There was a strange contrast between the delay in producing the Bill and the speed with which in November last the Minister expected us to take it. As far as I recall, I did not object at that time but I thought it was anomalous that the Minister should have spent the better part of the year and a half producing the Bill and then expect us to take it nine days after its publication. I was all the more suspicious of this tactic because of the absence of an explanatory memorandum accompanying the Bill. If any Bill needs an explanatory memorandum it is this one, not necessarily for Deputy Collins or myself. In so far as this Bill is going to affect the institutional structures and the working conditions of people involved in the entire third-level educational system outside the universities, it is less than good enough of the Minister to produce a document the basic intent of which is swathed in the traditional jargon of the parliamentary draftsman. I suspect that the Minister would go down in history if he could ever produce a piece of legislation that was written in plain English or in plain Irish. It is not impossible in other legislatures—the American one is a classic example. I sometimes think that we are too hamstrung by the British tradition of parliamentary drafting. Hamstrung or not, we are stuck with it for the time being.
The Minister was less than generous when he sought to defend his decision not to produce an explanatory memorandum for the Bill. He remarked, no doubt in the heat of the moment, that if the National Coalition Government had produced any education legislation of any substance we might be in a better position. The implication is that because there was no substantial education legislation from the National Coalition Government this was in some sense an excuse for the absence of the document which in courtesy is produced with most major pieces of legislation. That courtesy was not extended to the House on that occasion. It is now three months since the Bill was first introduced. The Minister could have instructed his officials to produce an explanatory memorandum during that period, and I am quite sure that it would have been within their competence to do so regardless of the volume or otherwise of the legislation thrust upon them by the National Coalition Government. That we have not got it three months later is a sign of discourtesy to the many people who will be affected by the Bill.
It is essentially a Committee Stage Bill. I do not want to weary the House unduly on matters of detail, but there are a few observations which should be made at this stage. The first observation, which has already been made, relates to the naming of the first director in the Bill. I am aware that there is a precedent for this, probably in the 1908 Universities Act, for some kind of carry-over of function relating to somebody who was a member of one organisation that has been superseded by another and given a statutory basis. This section of the Bill is less than clear, and it would have taken very little to clarify it. Deputy Collins wondered how many Pádraig Mac Diarmadas there were in the country. I can tell him that none of them appears to be on the telephone, because there is not a single Pádraig Mac Diarmada in either the city or the country part of the telephone directory. There are 14 Patrick McDermotts in Dublin and three in the country, and he can take his choice from that.
There is another aspect relating to that which should be mentioned. I find it an oddity but perhaps the Minister can tell me why it should not be so. Apart from naming the director, there are no provisions for his remuneration, for his dismissal or for his retirement. This seems to be unusual. In terms of the public service generally it is not desirable. In politics we operate on the basis that none of us is indispensable. The same is true effectively of the public service. This is a principle which should be firmly stated in the Bill in relation to such an important person as a director.
I was sorry to find in November when we were beginning to discuss this Bill that, owing to some oversight which I am glad to say has since been rectified, the ad hoc National Council for Educational Awards had not made any of its annual reports available in the Library of the House. Apart from that, the NCEA with its ad hoc basis has performed a very difficult job, which was affected by changes in Government policy from time to time, with considerable application, and its members and the members of its boards of studies have given very generously of their time to the creation, organisation and rationalisation of a system of third level education outside the universities which can, and I am sure will, continue to hold its own with similar systems of education anywhere.
There are two main aspects in relation to the principle of the Bill that need to be mentioned. The first is a simple one, to make the National Council for Educational Awards a statutory body. There is no disagreement about that in this House. The second relates to the restoration to the NCEA of the power to award degrees. This decision relates in turn to another decision which is implicit in the Bill, and that is to plan at Governmental level for the development of third level education on a binary basis. Deputy Collins has expressed his regret that the Minister did not choose the comprehensive option. It is certainly true that in choosing the binary option the Minister has explicitly—he got the endorsement of the electorate for this, in a sense—rejected the comprehensive option chosen by the previous administration.
I suspect the Minister will agree that a cogent intellectual argument can be made for either form of development of third level education and that the final decision is possibly not one which is made initially in principle but on the basis of the particular circumstances of the case, the particular problems that institutions and the people who run them face in Ireland today. The decision by the previous Government to opt for the comprehensive system was taken in 1974. Late in 1975 I became a member of a party which supported that Government. I think anybody who scrutinises the pages of the journal I edited during that period will be under no illusion about my position and that in a sense—and this is true of anybody who joins any political party—one joins some political parties in spite of some decision they have taken rather than because of it.
I believed then and I still believe that on balance—and it is a very close balance—the binary system probably offers the best model for the development of third level education generally in this country for some time ahead. Our non-university sector is a thriving youngster, but still a youngster. It needs to grow and develop on its own terms. It needs to develop its particular strength, to sort out and solve the teething problems that may affect it. Then, hopefully, we might in the future be able to talk realistically again about the prospects of a comprehensive third level system. If that situation came to pass we would be talking about a comprehensive third level system on the basis of equality of partnership. There would be a great danger—a danger not entirely absent from the present Bill—that in a premature comprehensive system the non-university sector, partly because of institutional weakness, partly because of financial weakness and partly because of the ever present danger of academic escalation would find itself sucked into the university aura and its special strength and special charisms attenuated and ultimately negatived by the influence of a university system which does its own thing very well but which is not necessarily doing everything that a third level education system needs to do.
I suspect, in spite of the fact that the decision to restore degree awarding powers to the NCEA was effectively a part of the Government's pre-election commitment, that it was not really an election issue and that here, as in so many other cases, it is the interplay of interest groups and politicians on a comparatively small basis that often form the basis for wide-ranging decisions relating to future development in education or elsewhere. It was a natural corollary of the Government's decision to opt for the binary system that they should restore degree-awarding powers to the NCEA, and I hope that the binary system which the Government are intent on statutorily recognising here and, hopefully, developing financially with adequate resources will always be an open one, one in which the university and the non-university sector of our third level system remain open to each other, not one in which the virus of academic escalation takes root or in which the two parts of the system will close in upon each other.
There are two other basic points of principle to which I would like to refer. The first relates to the overwhelmingly institutional character of the Bill. It deals with institutions; it empowers the NCEA to deal with institutions. It designates institutes. It does not take sufficient or any cognisance of the fact that there may be situations in which in order to do full justice to the development of third level education there may be some institutions which might not be designated by the Minister but which organise courses which the NCEA might see fit to recognise.
In section 3 of the Bill there is reference to the recognition of degrees, diplomas, certificates or other educational awards. It states that the council may:
confer, grant or give degrees, diplomas, certificates or other educational awards to or on persons who—
(i) the Council is satisfied have attended or otherwise pursued or followed courses of study or instruction conducted by, or provided under the supervision of, an institution to which this Act applies....
In the definition section we are given a list of the institutions to which this Act applies. Generally speaking the institutions concerned are technological institutions teaching at third level. Unless I am mistaken, there is already at least one institution to which this Act does not apply and to which the Minister has not given any indication of designation, which has been in touch with the ad hoc National Council for Educational Awards and which has had a course validated by the NCEA. I am referring to the Irish School of Ecumenics which as far as I know has recognition for a qualification in ecumenical theology. This is a classic example of an institution which does not need to be designated by the Minister but which has the right to apply to the NCEA for validation of a particular course. There may be many other such institutions. I am concerned at this point that the Minister should not close the door to the possibility that any such institution, without having to go through the perhaps complicated necessity of being designated by the Minister officially by order, should be able to submit courses that they consider of appropriate standard to the NCEA and have them validated by that council.
The other main point that might be made at this juncture is that there does not seem to be any restriction in the Bill in regard to the work of the NCEA effectively being carried on at third level. There is no specific reference to third level education as such or third level institutions as such. There are one or two references which could be open to the interpretation that the NCEA could, if they so wished, or if the Minister permitted, extend their activities downwards into second level, perhaps even taking over the leaving certificate. That might not be an unmixed blessing, but I wonder what the Minister has in mind as a possibility for the NCEA. This is what I mean when I say that the Bill is something of a Trojan horse. There are all sorts of grey areas; all sorts of portmanteau powers are being given to the NCEA and we do not know whether the Minister intends seriously giving them this kind of power or whether he is aware that this section of the Bill might be open to the kind of interpretation.
I turn to the question of the function of the NCEA and their powers. Here one must express some reservation about the very wide nature of the powers being given to the NCEA, particularly in relation to the regional technical colleges. Section 3 (1) of the Bill says:
The functions of the Council shall be generally to encourage, facilitate, promote, co-ordinate and develop technical, industrial, scientific, technological and commercial education provided outside the universities, whether professional, vocational or technical, and in association with the aforesaid education to encourage and promote liberal education.
Subsection (2) of that section goes into considerable detail about the council's functions but it is prefaced by a sentence which says:
Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section,...
That means effectively that, even if the council want to do something which is not specifically authorised under subsection (2), it is their business to appeal to subsection (1). It might have been simpler to put in an entirely new subsection saying that the council may do almost anything they like, because effectively that is the implication of that first phrase in subsection (2), and that phrase has enormous implications for the development of third level education, especially in the regional technical colleges.
Mention has already been made of the long-standing debate about exactly how far the powers of the NCEA extend. Deputy Collins, before he moved the adjournment before Christmas, noted that the power to plan third level education outside a university was not included. This afternoon he has gone on record as saying that he thinks that the power to plan would not be an appropriate power to give to a reconstituted NCEA. The Union of Students in Ireland have advocated the planning function for the NCEA, but I also believe that this function would not be appropriate for the council in the general context in which they are being asked to play a part in the development of third level education. The Irish Federation of University Teachers in their policy statement on the NCEA issued on 23 November commented on this issue as follows:
IFUT believes that there is a need for a single body which is competent and has the authority to plan the development of 3rd level education in both the university and non-university sector. It further believes that the Higher Education Authority, suitably modified, is the appropriate body to undertake this role. In order to carry out this enlarged function properly it will be necessary that the authority undergoes a significant expansion of its facilities. In addition it will be necessary that the membership of the Authority be adjusted to take account of its expanded role.
A corollary of this proposal is that the NCEA would revert to its original role as an academic validating body for the non-university sector.
One can agree with the federation that the basic function of the NCEA should be a validating one and, I would add, a co-ordinating one, without necessarily agreeing that in present circumstances at any rate and as presently constituted the HEA should be the planning authority for higher education in this country. I tend to believe that the Minister, advised by the Department of Education and the HEA, is probably the best planning authority for higher education here. I am speaking in general terms, not specific terms, because I believe that there can and ought to be a creative tension and dialogue between the HEA, the Department and the Minister for Education in relation to resource allocation for higher education. In that dialogue the voice of the NCEA would not be entirely absent, but its main input would be on the co-ordination and validation side. It is, of course, effectively impossible for the Minister properly to plan the development of third level education without paying attention to the views of the NCEA on co-ordination and validation, and I have no doubt that any responsible Minister will do at least as much. I will come back later to the question of the regional technical colleges when I talk about the question of the composition of the council.
There is one single problem which the Minister does not appear to have cleared up by this Bill, and it will continue to fester until he solves it. The problem is, that for all the attempted rationalisation that we had in this Bill we still have a situation in which as a matter of policy teacher qualifications will now be validated formally by two different validating bodies. The teachers who come from Thomond College in Limerick will receive an NCEA validation for their degrees, and most if not all of the other teachers will receive university validation for their academic and professional qualifications. This goes way back to 1968 when a tribunal established by the then Government and headed by Professor Ryan went into, among other things, the whole question of teacher remuneration and made a recommendation which broke parity between the teachers of the traditional, as they are rather slightingly called, hand and eye subjects—as if one could utilise one's hands and eyes without using one's brain—and the teachers who worked on the more academic side. A predecessor of the present Minister, Deputy Faulkner, suggested in 1971 that the NCEA should perhaps validate all teacher educational qualifications or at least that they should all be validated in the same way. We have here a failure to grasp that situation, which has, of course, implications in terms of paying teachers an appropriate wage, a situation which will help to put off the day when we will have a unified teaching profession, which is something that should not be delayed any longer than necessary, because it is something which will have a powerful influence on the development of national policy in relation to education and expenditure on education.
Reference has already been made to the question of standards to be expected for the degrees which are to be awarded by the National Council for Educational Awards after the passing of this Bill. The Minister in his original contribution pointed out that the advice of the Higher Educational Authority was to the effect that the establishment of a national council for educational awards should be accompanied by the safeguard that the standard of the diplomas and degrees awarded by them be in no way inferior to those of the universities. This is a kind of educational provincialism which implies that universities are the be-all and end-all of our educational aspirations and qualifications, and that we have to match up to the universities if we are to get any credence at all for anything we do outside. It was almost inevitable that the Higher Education Authority, given their composition, tended to take this point of view. I am sorry to see a Minister virtually adopting the same point of view and suggesting in circumstances where the comparison may not be relevant at all that we should match one kind of qualification against another. The idea that the university degree is the pinnacle of perfection is a 19th century attitude which we should have outgrown by now. We now know better the strengths of the non-university system and how to retain them. It is particularly anomalous that the Bill should imply that sub-degree work should be in some sense comparable to university standards. The universities have traditionally paid very little attention to sub-degree work. They rarely have diplomas or certificates that are studied for by any substantial number of their students. We are being asked here to tie the National Council for Educational Awards and their standards to standards which the universities have by and large not thought appropriate to even define. There may be an argument for allowing a certain correspondence at the degree level, but even here we must be careful, because over the years the curricular and syllabus content of many of our non-university degree level courses has diverged quite substantially for very good vocational and occupational reasons from the content courses organised by and held in the universities which are similarly titled. We must be very slow to allow the universities to continue or to extend hegemony in this area. The Bill will bear very close looking at in that regard at a later stage.
There is a problem in relation to the Dublin situation. Educationally the Dublin situation is something of a can of worms at the moment. There is so much uisce fé thalamh about it that it is rather difficult for the outsider to discern either the intentions of the various institutions involved in relation to the future organisation of higher education in Dublin or more importantly the intentions of the Minister. The Minister has in this Bill given himself the power to sort out the problem in part by designating colleges, but he has not given us any indication of how he proposes to do this or whether he proposes to designate any of the major institutions which we are talking about under this Bill. We are literally being asked to sign a blank cheque for the Minister in relation to the co-ordination and planning of higher education in Dublin. Just how blank a cheque it is can be seen by the fact that as the Bill is presently constituted the Minister has the power to designate colleges not presently designated without giving them any statutory right to representation on the council.
The Minister may say that he will never do such a thing; he may say he has the right to appoint persons to the council and that naturally he would not designate any college without making sure they had an appropriate degree of representation on the National Council for Educational Awards, but the Minister has only nine places on the National Council for Educational Awards and the calls on those places are mounting daily. There is no way in which the Minister can possibly reconcile all the demands, many of them very valid demands, and at the same time stick to his limited nine places. That must be looked at as well.
In relation to the Dublin problem, which is general and a classic symptom of which has been the refusal of the vocational colleges in all but a few cases to submit courses to the NCEA for validation. There is the other problem that some of the vocational third-level institutions have been submitting courses to university institutions—and one in particular—for validation. A question has been raised both inside and outside this House as to whether the Minister intends to stop this. I have examined this question in some detail and it appears that it is impossible for the Minister, within currently accepted definitions of the meaning of university autonomy, to prevent any university institution in this country from recognising any course they choose, whether or not it is provided by an institution designated under this Bill. There is one thing the Minister can do; he has quite recently given himself the power to do it. He can refuse to recognise such courses for grant purposes.
When some time ago we passed the innocent looking Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Bill, 1978, I examined the wording because it seemed to represent a change from the original Bill in a substantive aspect. Whereas before the passage of that Bill any university degree-level course was automatically eligible for grant purposes, after the passage of this Bill no university degree-level course is eligible for a grant unless the Minister specifically says it is so eligible. This effectively gives the Minister the possibility of choking off the development of such courses and of such links between university and non-university institutions without interfering with university autonomy. He simply declines to recognise the course for grant purposes for students who would otherwise be entitled. If I am right in my original suspicions, this is why the original Bill was passed in that form and why it came to us before this Bill. If this Bill had come to us first we would have seen more clearly the implications of the other Bill.
In this discussion of the relationship between the university and non-university sectors, there is one critical question. It is particularly critical in the light of the option to take the binary course. That is the question of whether or not, and the degree to which, students can transfer between institutions in the technological sector and between such institutions and the universities.
During his speech the Minister said:
I consider it also extremely important that arrangements should be worked out to facilitate the transfer of students as appropriate from one institution to another and the co-ordination of courses between the regional technical colleges and the national institutes for higher education, as well as where appropriate the National College of Art and Design, and, in certain instances, the universities, to facilitate the students and secure the maximum opportunities for advancement throughout the whole range of third-level education.
I could not agree more with this statement by the Minister but I must express the doubt and concern that it represents little more at this stage than a pious aspiration. It is an aspiration we all share but it is on the implementation of that aspiration, whether by the Minister or the NCEA or by whomsoever, that this decision to establish the binary system will stand or fall. At present there is virtually no statutory mechanism which will enable the NCEA, even under this Bill, to achieve the necessary degree of collaboration from the universities so that there can be transfers not only from the technological to the university sector but also, and perhaps in some cases more importantly, in the reverse direction so as to ensure that the talent and brains of this country are not wasted because people have been put into an educational cul de sac at the age of 17 or 18. We must not burn bridges between the two sectors but rather build bridges, but not on the basis of a slavish adherence to a nineteenth-century, old fashioned idea of the supremacy of the universities.
I now turn to the question of the competition and the representability of the NCEA. Shortly after the Bill was published the Minister received a letter from a friend saying it was the best possible Bill and would be more lasting than Brown's.