Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Vol. 619 No. 5

Institutes of Technology Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. As I speak, her presence will remind me that I should mention Tallaght because the Minister of State is a former Deputy for the area. If Deputy de Valera had not left Tallaght, one wonders where I would be today, but that is a long story.

Tallaght might be better served if she had not left.

That is as may be. However, I am well known as an admirer of the work of Deputy de Valera, which I am happy to acknowledge.

I warmly welcome the publication of the Bill. It marks a major step forward in the development of higher education. It is undoubtedly the most important Bill dealing with the institutes sector since the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992. The Bill is the culmination of a number of important reports and studies in recent years which considered higher education in Ireland and the institutes of technology in particular. Six years ago the Cromien report found that the Department was deeply involved in operational matters for the institutes and that this should be reduced. The report recommended that much of the work being done by the Department should be carried out by the institutes.

Three years ago the council of directors of the institutes of technology produced their own expert working group report on the future position and roles of the institutes. This report was followed in 2004 by the OECD review of higher education policy in Ireland. Both reports recommended many of the measures that the Minister and her Department have incorporated into the Bill, which will give the institutes greater freedom and autonomy.

In particular, the OECD review went to considerable lengths to stress that Irish tertiary education and research and innovative enterprises, have to become the new drivers of economic development and of the country's economic competitiveness. The approaches to resource allocation, financial management methods and accountability requirements, all issues the Bill addresses, are increasingly at odds with managing a productive higher education system.

The success of the institute sector needs to be nurtured and celebrated and it must be defined, with the university sector, as an equal partner in a dynamic higher education system that covers a diverse range of functions. The controls and the freedom of the institutes to manage themselves to meet institutional objectives must be reviewed with a view to drastically lightening the load of external regulation.

The Bill gives effect to these recommendations. It has at its heart, the transfer of a number of powers from the Department of Education and Science directly to the management of institutes. It also moves the granting of permission or approval for many administrative functions from the Department to the Higher Education Authority. Overall the changes proposed by the Bill will allow the institutes deliver what the OECD review identified as their pivotal role in addressing the knowledge economy. This will also enable the institutes to respond quickly and efficiently to national and regional needs. The institutes of technology have matured into fully integrated third level colleges offering qualifications across the full range of the national qualifications framework, from higher certificate to honours degree and to research PhDs. The institutes have all been internationally reviewed as part of the process for assessment for delegated authority to award their own degrees.

Under the new arrangement, institutes of technology will be able to exercise greater autonomy, flexibility and timeliness in their individual and collective responses to strategic goals and priorities. These will be tremendously important and welcome developments for Ireland's 14 institutes of technology, their management, staff and students.

The new look Higher Education Authority will now have responsibility for universities and institutes of technology under its roof. This should be the basis for the development of a more coherent national higher education policy. It is of critical importance to achieve a strong sense of collaboration between the organisations in a unitary system if the potential of higher education is to be fully maximised at a regional and national level.

I commend my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and her officials on not replicating the British model when preparing the Bill. Unlike the experience in the UK, where in 1992 the polytechnic sector was subsumed into the university sector, we have chosen to value and preserve the distinctive differences of universities and institutes of technology. The Higher Education Authority which, at present, is responsible only for the university sector will have its remit extended to include the institutes of technology. This should result in a more coherent policy focused national higher education sector. While the new operating arrangements are expected to value the differences in provision they will also deliver a fundamental change in the equality of the sector between its two strands.

I am glad to acknowledge that the institutes of technology have been the success story of Irish third level education. More than 50% of all first time admissions to third level are to the institutes. Currently there are of the order of 90,000 students registered in the sector. The institutes have also played a major part in widening access to higher education and in increasing participation rates from 20% in 1980 to 55% today. In addition to full-time students, more than 20,000 also study part time each year on campus and in the workplace, building credits towards internationally recognised qualifications. A further 1,200 students are engaged in fourth level programmes at masters and doctoral levels.

The institutes have done tremendous work in attracting students across the social spectrum. It is acknowledged that in Ireland, students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, students with disabilities and mature students are under represented in third level education. These are all issues the Minister is addressing through a range of measures.

I hope the new governance arrangements proposed in the Bill will further strengthen programmes such as the impressive access programme run by the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. This programme is specifically designed to encourage the participation of people from local disadvantaged areas and to support them during their time in the institute. Approximately 40% of first year students attending IT Tallaght are drawn from areas of Dublin where participation in third level is traditionally low.

I am always sensitive when speaking about Tallaght in any discussion or debate on national issues. Having listened to a number of colleagues this morning who mentioned Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford and I have no doubt Athlone and Roscommon will be mentioned, I presume I will be allowed to mention Tallaght.

I have been involved in the project since its inception, having been a member of the County Dublin Vocational Education Committee from 1985 and had the opportunity and privilege to be a member of the interim board of the then Tallaght RTC project. I always took the view that the college in Tallaght came from a strong political and community campaign. It has often been stated that Tallaght is the third largest centre of population, that it has the population of a city but the status of a village. That has changed. Tallaght is a tremendous place and the college has become very much part of life there. I am glad to acknowledge that and the work of Dr. TimCreedon, the director of IT Tallaght, and Stella Browne, the director of communications, who do a tremendous job in reaching out to the community.

On the matter of the name of the college, frequently I get inquiries from Tallaght and elsewhere on the recent name change. Perhaps I can be allowed time to explain it. When the college was set up it was called the Tallaght Regional Technical College from 1992. The institute undertook a full review of its activities during 2004 and 2005 and examined its values and how its brand image reinforced those particular values. As part of that process the institute re-engineered the logo to reflect where it wished to be as an institute and the perception of those who interact with the institute. The college management say the students told them they value the management team and what is being done in that regard. They regard the management team as orientated, supportive, friendly, accessible, relevant and professional and that their designers captured these values into the group representation of the new logo. I know from regular visits to the college that many of those involved in the college and in the community are proud to be a central element of the development of the new and vibrant Tallaght. At the same time the college authorities recognise that being south Dublin's third largest institute they were part of and provided a service to the greater Dublin area and beyond. As one who lives in and represents Tallaght I am always delighted that people would come to Tallaght, which is made easier because of the Luas, and it is great that people do that. The college has said that to capture both ideals it redesigned the logo and now the college describes itself as IT Tallaght, while retaining the title Institute of Technology Tallaght. The abbreviated title is ITT Dublin and this is reflected in the logo in the English and Irish titles. I am glad to put that on the record because it is an important point.

I wish to speak about Tallaght for a moment. I represent not only Tallaght but Brittas, Firhouse, Templeogue and Greenhills. As the college is located in Tallaght I can be excused for speaking about Tallaght.

The Deputy will have to look at the tallies the next time.

I will be looking at the tallies. I am proud of what has been done in the third level college in Tallaght. As someone with a strong commitment to social inclusion, I am happy the Government is doing so much in that regard. We need to stress that ideal in terms of our colleges, with particular regard to the college in Tallaght. I understand there are 2,300 full-time students in that college now and 1,300 part-time students. Other courses are also offered. It is important we support the ongoing strong relationship the college has, which is duplicated in many other communities, with the fine second level schools in the region, including Greenhills, Willington, St. Mark's, from which many students come to the Tallaght institute, Terenure College, Firhouse, Oldbawn, Killinarden, Jobstown and Tallaght community school.

From visiting the college this week I learn it runs an exciting project with local primary schools. It brings young people in sixth class to the college, shows them around and lets them see what is involved, even at this early stage. It introduces them to science and other subjects. That is an important initiative. It is important that our colleges work with the wider community, local schools and young people.

The institute in Tallaght has developed a number of excellent programmes and support schemes to enhance participation. It works closely with second level schools, particularly in local disadvantaged areas, with colleges of further education and community education groups. Students, parents, teachers and local agencies are involved, and a partnership approach is used to maximise the input of all concerned.

The access programme provides students who attended the link schools with financial, academic and personal supports which include items like free textbooks, laptop computer loans, extra tuition and peer mentoring. I am told that in particular, the use of a personal laptop is a great benefit in giving students the freedom to do their course work in their own time and at their own pace.

The institute in Tallaght also holds regular information sessions with local and community education groups, particularly in west Tallaght, to introduce the concept of third level education as attainable via a variety of routes. In addition, the access programme includes students with disabilities and helps arrange supports and exam logistics for them which include extra tuition, personal assistants, transport and exam arrangements such as extra time allowances, provision of a reader or scribe and the use of computers or tape recorders.

While the institutes cater for students of all abilities, the new freedom and flexibility they will enjoy when this Bill is passed will allow them to develop further innovative outreach programmes for people traditionally excluded from third level. We should all promote that. I do not want to be flippant but I sometimes say to students I bring to visit the Dáil that it is important they appreciate education. I said to a group the other day that it is only when one leaves school, one realises how happy one was there. Not all may subscribe to that, but I believe it is true. I also stress that education is important and I sometimes joke that if I had been properly educated, I might now have a decent job. Maybe I should not let that slip.

We should encourage young people to appreciate education. Elsewhere today I heard a lot of talk about citizenship, and education is part of it. I visit all the educational institutions in my constituency on a fairly regular basis. It is important we give time to and show interest in primary, second and third level education centres. I am also happy to get good responses from young people. Young people can often be cynical about politics, which is a phase we probably all went through.

The presence of my good friend from Limerick, the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, reminds me to emphasise the point I made earlier about the importance of accessibility. I have listened to his contributions over the past few days and he spoke strongly about his role in looking after the disabled. I applaud his efforts as it is important the disabled have a champion. We must ensure they are properly represented and they know they have an open door where the Minister of State, Deputy O'Malley, is concerned. I wish him well in that regard.

The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 will make an enormous contribution to improving the structures for higher education throughout the country and will give the institutes the operational freedom and flexibility they need to produce the skilled workforce to meet the challenges ahead for our economy and our society. I look forward to supporting the Bill and I am glad to hear a good deal of support for it even from the Opposition benches.

I welcome Deputy O'Connor's contribution. He should think about doing stand-up comedy. He is good at it and should stick at it.

I cannot remember jokes.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I want to raise a particular issue and I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, is in attendance as I hope he might relay the matter to his colleague, the Tánaiste.

In my area of Roscommon-south Leitrim, we are lucky to have three institutes of technology quite close to us — GMIT, which is based on two campuses in Galway and Mayo, Sligo Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology, on the edge of the county. They provide an excellent service throughout the region. Talking in particular of the BMW region and regional balance, we only have one third level university in the BMW region. That will be a serious challenge for the Government in the future.

Since the foundation of the institutes of technology, they have remained a poorer cousin in the third level system and have been driven to distinguish themselves by being innovative and responsive to students and to employer needs. They have rarely been afforded the luxury of being presented or offered the protective custody of an inherent right or privilege to establish and deliver specific courses and programmes. Because of that, the three institutes of technology in my constituency, GMIT, Athlone and Sligo, have adapted and have looked at where the needs are and how they can develop programmes.

Since the mid-1990s, as a country we have recognised that the educational and economic risk associated with the decline in the uptake of science programmes, especially at third level, would have a major impact on the development of our economy. Science programmes in the institutes of technology have probably always been more at risk than in universities because as the Central Applications Office points fell in universities and the institutes, students tended to go to universities where, as they saw it, there were opportunities to get a higher status degree, issued from a university, rather than going to the institutes of technology. As a consequence, the institutes of technology have had to innovate and provide a new range of subjects. The institute I know best, the institute of technology in Athlone, is a good example of this. There are other examples in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology and Sligo IT.

Athlone has produced core important undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in chemistry, toxicology, biotechnology and the pharmaceutical sciences and provides direct support and training to industry. As the health care sector, particularly in the midlands, has expanded over recent years, support has been given to the pharmaceutical industry locally. In addition to clinical nurse training, Athlone now provides veterinary nursing, dental nursing and pharmacy technician courses.

After listening to the Minister's comments last night I considered it important to contribute to the debate. She said that the Bill is a highly significant development for the future of Ireland's education system, especially the higher education system. She described it as an explicit recognition of the importance and value of the institutes of technology to citizens and the education system. That comment annoyed me because that is not the case, although it is probably not intentional on the part of the Minister.

I am anxious to bring two matters to the Minister's attention. The first is something she dealt with in the House when I raised it some time ago. It was a proposal developed in Athlone Institute of Technology, with a number of other bodies, to establish a national institute for bioprocessing research and training. IDA Ireland had invited proposals in 2004 for collaborative groups of academic institutions to undertake this development. The three main functions of the new institute would be training and education in bioprocessing, research in bioprocessing technologies and scale-up capabilities for the stakeholder institutions.

One of the key elements of the proposal related to the location of the institute. Athlone Institute of Technology, together with DCU, NUI Galway and a number of other institutions, made a submission to IDA Ireland a number of years ago to establish that institute in Athlone. This was supported and encouraged by IDA Ireland at the time and Mr. Sean Dorgan, its chief executive, publicly indicated that the project would be developed on the Athlone campus. The four local authorities in the midlands also supported the project.

However, a number of the larger universities and biopharmaceutical companies in the Dublin region got wind of what was happening and kicked up a stink, with the result that the competition was expanded. The Government subsequently designated UCD as the preferred bidder and that centre is being located in Dublin. Although it had been developed by Athlone Institute of Technology, the other universities decided it was a good idea so they took it up.

Another area where Athlone Institute of Technology put forward a good proposal was in podiatry training. There is no such training school at present. The FÁS health care skills monitoring report in August 2005 stated that it is unsatisfactory that no podiatry course is provided in the education sector, particularly given that chiropodists will require formal qualification when statutory registration is introduced. At present, Ireland has only one third the number of registered podiatrists Scotland has. That country produces 90 podiatrists per year from two schools of podiatry in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Ireland does not have any such course.

Let us consider the substantial cost to the health service of diabetes. There is a significant demand and need for podiatrists. There is also a major problem in the west with transport services for people to attend clinics in the region. They cannot access such services. With the proposal from Athlone, it would be possible to bring podiatrists into the region, train more of them and have an easily accessible service. Representatives of the college met the Tánaiste about the proposal, on which the institute has done much of the background work.

However, what really annoyed them was the reply the Tánaiste gave me yesterday: "I understand that the HSE is of the view that the school of podiatry would be best located in a large centre of population, one that is associated with a multidisciplinary health professional environment and which is linked to a major teaching hospital". This is a shock to the health service staff dealing with Athlone Institute of Technology on the matter. This institute has found a niche, developed the course and conducted a significant amount of research but has discovered it cannot be located in Athlone and must be in a major centre of population. That decision is being taken by the Health Service Executive, although the staff working with Athlone Institute of Technology on this issue knew nothing about it.

The Tánaiste said that the final decision on the location of the school will be a matter for the Minister for Education and Science. It is hugely frustrating for the staff of Athlone Institute of Technology who have developed nursing programmes, established strong relationships with the Health Service Executive over recent years and are seeking to develop niche disciplines such as podiatry. They have been told Athlone will not get the podiatry school because it is not a major population centre.

In the US and the UK, podiatry is offered both within and outside a traditional medical training environment. In the UK, a number of former polytechnics — the equivalent of our institutes of technology — are successfully engaged in the provision of podiatric medicine education. In 2003 in the UK, when there was a review of podiatry training in the country, it appeared that London, the capital, would be without any training school for podiatry medicine. The argument that the location of podiatry training in Ireland should be limited to major centres of population appears quite farcical.

Athlone Institute of Technology developed a BSc programme in podiatry two years ago but has encountered numerous barriers to offering this programme through the CAO system. The institute effectively instigated the research and development of a BSc in podiatry in Ireland. During that research, representatives of the institute visited three podiatry schools in Brighton, Jordanstown and Caledonian University. None of these schools is attached to medical teaching hospitals, which is the recommendation mentioned by the Tánaiste.

The Tánaiste visited Athlone Institute of Technology 15 months ago and, on her advice, the institute developed the clinical training model, including training in Tallaght Hospital because it is recognised as having the best endocrine podiatry clinic in the country. The institute defined the clinical training needs of the students based on the UK Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists quality assurance committee for podiatry handbook. It has a building on the campus which would be a suitable location for a clinic. The registration requirements stipulate that there must be 1,000 hours of clinical training but the institute's programme will have 1,600 hours of such training.

Athlone Institute of Technology is ready to get the programme up and running. It can take in undergraduate students from 1 September next. However, it is being prevented from doing so by the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science. For that reason it was most frustrating to hear the Minister speak last night about encouraging, promoting and developing the institutes of technology when the two Departments are dragging their heels on this issue. There is an attempt behind the scenes to relocate that school in Dublin. The midlands will lose out again because pressure will be put on Ministers to switch the investment to Dublin.

It will be six years before a qualified podiatrist will emerge from the universities in Dublin. That means a six-year delay for a service that is needed and which the Tánaiste acknowledges is important. The provision of acute services due to the lack of specific treatment for people with diabetes and podiatry problems makes up 10% of the overall health service demand. One can only imagine the impact having properly accessible podiatry services would have on the demands on the health service. More than 3,000 people in the midlands come under the diabetic programme requiring access to podiatry care. Athlone Institute of Technology offers a multidisciplinary health professional environment for general and psychiatric nurse training. The institute offers courses for dental nurses and pharmacy technicians. It has research staff working at doctoral level in pharmacology, chemistry, molecular biology, tissue engineering, nursing toxicology, sterilisation technologies, environmental science, nursing software and materials. It has the critical mass, the academic support and the demands for these courses. It does not, however, have the support of the universities or the major teaching hospitals. As a result its podiatry school is slowly being undermined.

Athlone, which is centrally located, is ideal for the national treatment of podiatry patients. This is the opportunity for the Government to show if it is serious about decentralisation and giving the opportunity for the institutes of technology to develop and be innovative. The Government has already turned its back on Athlone Institute of Technology with its decision on the location of the National Institute of Bioprocessing, Research and Training. Although a commitment to locate it in Athlone was given by IDA Ireland, the Government decided to alter it. Although the school of podiatry was encouraged and promoted by the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children during a visit to the institute, it is now being undermined and the centre will have to be based in Dublin.

Each year 90 podiatrists graduate in Scotland with its population of approximately 5 million people. Ireland, with a population of 4.2 million people, does not train any podiatrists. Even though the demand exists, only 30% of it is being met. It is unacceptable that we will have to wait another six years before there will be home-trained podiatrists. I ask the Minister of State to utilise the opportunity afforded by Athlone Institute of Technology.

The institutes of technology must be complimented on the practical training of their students. Having worked with people trained in the institutes of technology, I admit their hands-on training in the sciences was far better than that which I received at university. Research and development needs more funding, particularly in the agrifood sector. It is disappointing the investment is not being made. The agrifood sector accounts for €7 billion per annum, yet only 4% of the research and development budget will be spent on it. No funding allocation for research and development was announced when the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, published the Agrivision 2015 report. It shows a lack of interest in developing the agrifood sector, a key indigenous sector in the economy.

I accept foreign direct investment is necessary for the economy. The institutes of technology have been crucial in bringing green field investment. Meanwhile, the indigenous agrifood sector has not developed. A corporate decision made in the United States could result in a company relocating to India or another part of Asia. Indigenous companies, on the other hand, are tied into the country, especially those in the agrifood sector. The sector's development cannot be ignored. An EU report indicates that in Ireland research and development spending as a proportion of GDP fell between 1998 and 2004. This coupled with the ESRI's warning on Ireland's export market must lead to a complete audit by Enterprise Ireland of the research and development needs of the food and drink industry. The recently released ESRI report attempted to set off the alarm bells on the issue of Ireland's export market. It pointed out that Irish exports grew by only 1.8% last year, at a time when global exports are growing at more than 6% per annum. The investment has simply not taken place. Agrifood exports only grew by 0.7% last year. As we continue to ignore the development of our agrifood capabilities, we will not have the competitive agrifood sector that can meet consumers' demands for convenience and prepared foods. I hope the Government will reassess its decision on research and development in the agrifood sector. Such research and development can be carried out by the institutes of technology many of which already work with small indigenous companies.

I welcome the Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 and commend the Minister for Education and Science for its introduction. The legislation follows on from several Bills introduced for the education sector, particularly at third level, further enhancing its reputation. The OECD recently completed a review of higher education in Ireland in 2004. One key recommendation from the report was to maintain the differentiation between the university and institutes of technology sectors under the remit of a single authority for the purpose of achieving a unified higher education strategy.

The Bill provides for a mechanism for greater integration and cohesiveness in the higher education system. It introduces certain responsibilities and onuses, particularly on the institutes' directors and boards of directors. We are fortunate to have excellent directors in the institutes who are committed to the institutes and proud of those they represent. The legislation governing the institutes has been introduced in a timely manner. In the 1960s, the then Government recognised the numbers participating in third level education was far from encouraging. The numbers of students going on to second level education at that stage were disappointing but they were transformed in the late 1960s and early 1970s following the introduction of free education by Donogh O'Malley.

After the crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, with mass unemployment and young people having severe difficulties in finding jobs, it was sensible for successive Governments to encourage them into further education. The establishment of the regional technical colleges could not have come at a better time. They took up much of the slack in the sector, when young people who had finished second level were encouraged to enter third level education in the regional technical colleges with grant assistance.

The regional balance was important, with technical colleges in Athlone, Letterkenny, Sligo, Galway, Carlow, Dundalk, Waterford, Cork and Tralee. That ensured that young students from rural backgrounds could avail of third level education in their own locality. Not too many families could afford to send children to college in Dublin, Cork or Galway at that time. Even today many families would find it difficult to keep children in Dublin because of the huge increase in the costs of accommodation in the city. The regional technical colleges, institutes of technology as they are now, have been singularly successful and the Department of Education and Science and the Ministers who oversaw their development must take credit.

This legislation will give more power to individual colleges and they will be able to change with the times. Different colleges specialise in different areas, which is important, but they must be flexible enough to meet changing demands in society, the economy and the commercial sector. Recently some colleges have changed their accountancy procedures to take into account changes in practice, with more European and US-style practices coming in. The courses are changing to accommodate those new methods so graduates will be up to speed.

Carlow Institute of Technology has ensured that the town has seen the largest increase in the number of second level students going on to third level in the last year. Over 74% of those who complete their leaving certificate go on to third level.

Institutes of technology have accommodated individual contractors, particularly in the construction industry, in block release courses. Unfortunately, not everything is positive in this area. Carlow has seen the demise of the sugar industry, which was a great source of apprenticeships. Since the closure of sugar plant, apprentices will no longer be trained and we must find new industries to take up that slack.

We have, however, seen opportunities develop in other areas. The Air Corps has placed on permanent display for the college's use one of its Fuga jets which had been grounded. The Minister for Defence and the Chief of Staff of the time must be commended for their foresight in ensuring the plane can still make a contribution to education. It is now used by Carlow IT to train electronics graduates in aeronautic electronics. Private companies in shipping or other sectors could also be asked to make contributions to the institutes.

We must not forget the VECs, which have supported the regional technical colleges. There were some farsighted CEOs in vocational education committees who moved on from the technical school sector, bringing their expertise into third level when the institutes of technology were created.

This Bill is a milestone in education legislation and the Minister is to be commended for it. Cases have been made for various institutes to seek university status. Any claim for such status for the south east must include Carlow IT. Waterford has made a lot of noise about university status but it may not be to its credit that it has not been as all-embracing as it could have been towards the institute in Carlow. It is unfair in that it is calling for an institute for the south east when it is in Munster. One of the last institutes to secure university status was the University of Limerick. Granting such status to Waterford to the exclusion of Carlow would be unfair as it would mean there would be three universities in Munster. With the demographics we will see in the census, Leinster clearly deserves a new university. It would go against demographic trends to talk about a new institute in Waterford and it is not well serviced on an infrastructural basis. Also, it is on the coast; a university should have a hinterland in all directions to draw students.

The proposal, however, to convert any institute of technology to a university goes against the first of the 52 recommendations in the recent OECD review of third level education. I hope the Government is not considering granting university status to Waterford. Siting three universities in Munster to the exclusion of Leinster would be wrong. I was disappointed by the lack of round table discussions between Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology. A recent decision by the south-east regional authority fell down on county lines, with the majority of the authority supporting Waterford and Carlow being left high and dry because of the paucity of its representation on the authority.

It would make more sense to build a case for using the existing infrastructure and a multi-campus approach where each county contributes. A model akin to that of the University of Ulster, which involves using a multi-campus approach and where each campus has equal status, should be considered. It has worked very successfully for that university so I do not see why it would not work in the south east. An institution created as part of a multi-campus approach would have a much better chance of being regarded as a real university which served the needs of the south east than an institution in Waterford which put a new sign on the door but which was regarded as an otherwise unchanged institution. Such an institution would not be a real university. I doubt whether a new university in Waterford would have the full range of courses, such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy.

It is not timely for Waterford Institute of Technology to make such a pitch because it has been singularly unsuccessful to date in convincing the public of the rightness of its case. I ask the Minister and Department to weigh the merits of having a university in Waterford very carefully and to consider other institutes of technology in the south east, such as Carlow Institute of Technology which has outreach centres in Wexford and Kilkenny. It is interesting to note that CAO applications to Waterford Institute of Technology have declined by over 20% in the last two years, while CAO applications to Carlow Institute of Technology have increased by 15%. If this is indicative of what is taking place locally, the case for granting university status to Waterford is not very strong.

I welcome the Bill because it marks a further stage of development of the non-university sector by investing more authority and responsibility in institutes of technology for the conduct of their day-to-day affairs. It is quite clear in the Bill that the directors of the institutes of technology will play a much greater role.

It is important to outline the historical context in which our present system of technical and technological education evolved. An organised system of technical instruction did not develop in Ireland until the early years of the 20th century. However, from the second half of the 19th century, a number of individual institutions made contributions to this field. The report of the Recess Committee in 1896 called for reform and recommended that technical education be made the responsibility of a new Department which would administer State aid to agriculture and industry. It is important to remember that the Department of Agriculture played a major role in the education system until it was passed over to the Department of Education.

The Recess Committee was part of the Conservative Government's policy of killing home rule by kindness. The Irish people were to receive some very worthy measures, such as the Light Railways (Ireland) Act 1889, the Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act 1899 and the Congested Districts Boards (Ireland) Act 1899. With the help of these Acts, the Irish people were to be tranquillised and become subject to orders from the UK. We took all the powers given to us but kept marching onwards.

The Recess Committee also recommended the creation of a new type of second level school for agriculture and practical industry. The establishment of evening and continuation courses for those at work and of higher technical colleges arose out of this. It is interesting that the committee's view that the aim of practical education was essentially to aid the economic development of the country has not changed in over a century.

The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 set down the framework for a more organised local authorities structure for the country and enabled the new county and borough councils to levy rates for the support of technical education. This Act, coupled with the Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act 1899 which established the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, as envisaged by the Recess Committee, are two of the great landmarks in the development of technical education in Ireland. The Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act defined technical instruction as instruction in the principles of science and art applicable to industries and in the application of branches of science and art to specified industries for employment.

As well as the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, the Act provided for a board of technical instruction to advise on all relevant matters submitted to it by the Department. The borough, urban district and county councils set up local statutory committees which prepared schemes of technical instruction for their areas for approval and provided the necessary local funding which was a prerequisite for securing financial assistance from central funds.

It is important to remember where we came from. The one lesson we should learn from our history is that we are living in a time of change. I hope the Minister and her successors will continue to examine the changes in our economy and society and our educational needs. I hope this Bill will provide directors and boards of institutes of technology with the freedom they need to provide the best possible education for our young population.

In general, the Labour Party welcomes this Bill. Institutes of technology, including the Dublin Institute of Technology of which I was a member of staff for a long time, have played an important role in contributing to access to third level education, to the production of very high calibre graduates and, increasingly, to research and the various Government-sponsored initiatives in scientific research and development. The Minister should clarify matters relating to the latter point. I believe all the parties in the House agree that such scientific initiatives are vital for our continued economic success and development.

I welcome the Bill but the Minister should clarify a number of areas. Deputy Power and others noted that, in many ways, the motivation for this Bill arose from an OECD report produced a few years ago and presented to the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey. The former Minister was an enthusiastic advocate of the report until Fianna Fáil examined some of its recommendations. One recommendation called for the return of third level fees through appropriate mechanisms. While the former Minister conducted a campaign in the media to bring back third level fees, the Taoiseach realised this was not necessarily the best course of action and Fianna Fáil backed away from it. It is important to remember that this recommendation was a key element of the OECD review of third level education in Ireland.

Another aspect of the report to which I object was the insinuation that institutes of technology should concentrate on teaching and producing undergraduates and granting diplomas and certificates. The report was, therefore, hostile to the idea of institutes of technology conducting active and expanding programmes of research and did not favour the expansion of degree awarding powers to institutes of technology. This was a mistake. The Minister must clarify her approach to this vital issue in the context of this Bill.

My colleague, Deputy Carey, who is present, was involved in VEC matters for a long time. The examinations and evaluations carried out around the country by independent bodies, including distinguished institutions of engineers, for example, have repeatedly rated the courses provided by institutes of technology such as DIT and the Cork Institute of Technology higher than those provided by universities, particularly in the engineering fields. This is partly due to the approach to innovative research in the third and fourth years of many of their engineering degrees. It is important that we acknowledge this strength.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether the institutes of technology will be encouraged to compete for research funding through the SFI and PRTLI initiatives under this Bill? They have done so successfully to date. It is one of the most positive aspects of the development of the colleges and should be expanded on. As the Minister of State is aware, this is critical to retaining and attracting high calibre staff. Currently, people at PhD level are applying to become assistant lecturers because it would allow them to begin their academic careers in secure employment. They are attracted to those institutes of technology where there is a significant research base through which they can not only become actively involved in teaching, but continue their academic research studies.

One should bear in mind that, particularly in the greater Dublin area, these factors have often been allied to a fruitful interaction with high-tech industries such as Intel and Hewlett Packard, which have welcomed the active research by institutes of technology that complement the type of work they carry out in Ireland. A momentum and a synthesis have been created whereby various institutes of technology, particularly DIT and those in Tallaght, Blanchardstown, Cork, Waterford, Sligo, Tralee in terms of the food industry, and a number of other institutes have built up active linkages with industry. This involves supplying appropriate graduates and encouraging high calibre staff to compete for research programme funding. It is important that the Minister for Education and Science clarifies her commitment to the expansion of this positive feature of third level development.

In this context, a section of the Bill clarifying and expanding on legislation in respect of DIT bothers me. Part 3 provides for appropriate amendments to that legislation and confirms DIT's absolute higher degree-awarding powers. In her speech, the Minister said that the institutes of technology will continue to have degree-awarding powers through the appropriate qualifications authority, as it were, but should we not create a track for particularly outstanding institutes? Cork and Waterford have the lead in this regard and should be considered for the same powers.

Deputy Nolan said that Government policy and the OECD report commend the binary system. The Deputy told the House that everyone believes in that system, but I favour a long-term move towards a unified system. For this reason, I welcome the inclusion of the institutes of technology in the HEA framework. However, I do not want the Minister to solidify an approach that views universities as the premier league and institutes as something else. There are different paths to development and different ladders in education but the objectives should be clear. We want the widest level of opportunity and we want to keep encouraging the institutes to develop. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify her policy approach in respect of these issues.

When professional bodies evaluate the key skills of engineering and science, computers, business and entrepreneurship taught at DIT and other institutes, skills that are critical to our economy and jobs base, they often rank the institutes and various courses above comparative university courses. The institutes and DIT can proudly go into the HEA framework with this achievement. They should be acknowledged for it instead of going in as the little brother to a big brother, that is, the universities. This is a critical factor in the Minister's philosophical approach to the area.

The initial micro-management of the institutes and, to a lesser extent, DIT by the VECs on behalf of the Department of Education and Science and lately by the Department itself means that the basis for calculating the cost ratios and Government payments has been different to the basis for universities. One must bear in mind that many universities were built and carry capacity for large class sizes in the fields of arts, law and commerce in particular. By and large, institutes of technology have not had that capacity.

If crude bases of measurement are used, this could mean that the institutes of technology under the HEA umbrella could find certain of their courses are disadvantaged from an economic point of view. It implies the Minister is required to specify policy to make transitional arrangements available as the institutes enter the HEA so that they are not disadvantaged in moving from one system to another. I expect the HEA will be aware of this aspect and will do its best to support the institutes. There are very specialist courses relating, for instance, to paramedical services, in the Dublin Institute of Technology, the nature of which are such that the number of students who can enrol is much smaller than would be the case at university level. The Minister must clarify matters in that regard.

I will discuss the origin of the institutes of technology and address an issue that arose during a recent political discussion programme on which I was a guest, "Tonight with Vincent Browne". It has become politically correct and fashionable, particularly following the views expressed by the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the publication of the OECD report, to damn as politically incorrect the abolition of third-level undergraduate fees. I was one of those in the Labour Party who championed the introduction of free undergraduate third-level education.

People have forgotten the history of the institutes of technology. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, various Governments wisely decided to invest a significant proportion of Ireland's European Social Fund in education. As a consequence, students on various courses at the institutes of technology were heavily funded by ESF grants. Not only did they receive grants, they also received a weekly stipend. Furthermore, the bureaucracy involved was extraordinarily simple in comparison to that involved in obtaining a third-level grant from the Department of Education and Science. It was very simple to qualify for an ESF grant. A student simply obtained a place on a course, signed up and attended classes, had his or her attendance certified and the money was issued.

For students from non-farming backgrounds, this was incredibly simple, direct and popular, compared to third-level education grants, which were, and still are, out of the range of most students whose parents are in paid employment. The son or daughter of a CIE bus driver, for example, is unlikely, even today, to qualify for a third-level grant, particularly if the parent has some overtime earnings. On the other hand, a student whose parents have a substantial holding of farmland is quite likely to qualify for a third-level grant. In the Fingal area of west and north Dublin, most third-level grants are issued to people with agricultural holdings or to self-employed people such as hauliers. The children of people who are employed, however, do not qualify for grants because the income threshold is too low.

The ESF grant system brought tens of thousands of students into the Irish third-level education system. It was the magic bullet that pushed our participation rates at third-level up from among the lowest in Europe to among the highest. When the Labour Party decided to abolish undergraduate tuition fees, it was against the background of the fact that ESF grants would be phased out because that stream of EU funding was coming to a natural end. At the same time, tax covenant schemes allowed wealthy people to write-off the college fees they paid, while the children of parents in paid employment, such as a CIE bus driver or a shop steward in a factory in Killarney, could not qualify for a third-level grant. When the Labour Party and the rainbow coalition Government made the historic decision to abolish undergraduate fees, they did so in the knowledge that it would contribute to the growth of the institutes of technology, particularly those outside Dublin and would open the door to third-level education to many thousands of additional students.

While the figures for participation have been very slow in coming through they are, nonetheless, improving. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, graciously acknowledged that yesterday when she pointed out that our participation rate at third-level has increased from 40% to 55%. That is as it should be, if we want to continue to be champions in terms of educational participation and our development as a knowledge-based economy.

I do not know who the author of the aforementioned OECD report was but whoever suggested that we reverse the abolition of undergraduate third-level fees had a very narrow view point. It is the same view point as that of the heads of the universities, who have funding issues with the Government and who also found that the fees mechanism gave them far greater control over their budgets than the current cheque in the post, as it were, from the Department of Education and Science, via the Higher Education Authority.

I wished to put these points on the record because criticism of the abolition of third level fees has become incredibly politically correct, particularly among the media and the chattering classes of south County Dublin. The latter have a surplus of private schools to which to send their children and are spending their money on second-level rather than third-level education. The rest of us live in the rest of the country. We do not live in Dublin 4 or south County Dublin. We live in places where those options are not available. In places like Galway and most of Connacht, for example, there are local schools which every child attends and that is all that is available.

I hope this Bill will mark an era of greater freedom for the institutes of technology and of growing equality with the universities. If institutes such as the Dublin Institute of Technology, my former college, or the Waterford Institute of Technology want to develop to university level and show they can meet the standards, I will cheer for them all the way.

Debate adjourned.