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."

Last night I welcomed the fact the Institutes of Technology Bill has finally been introduced in the House. The legislation is generally welcomed by staff, students and members of governing bodies in the institutes of technology around the country. I also paid tribute to those who have developed the institutes to their current position. Institutes of technology have been very responsive to needs in their respective areas and have provided vital opportunities for students who might otherwise not have an opportunity to continue to third level. I also pay tribute to vocational education committees which allowed the institutes of technology sufficient flexibility to grow organically and develop in the manner they have.

It is important to take this opportunity to raise some questions regarding the legislation. The opportunities offered by the decision to bring the institutes of technology within the remit of the Higher Education Authority must be taken. The Labour Party by and large supports the legislation although I will raise one or two concerns about the Bill. My party and, I am sure, the Minister want it implemented as soon as possible and the colleges hope it will be passed in both Houses before the summer recess. As such, the Labour Party will facilitate the passage of the Bill in whatever way it can.

The first points I wish to make concern regional opportunities the institutes of technology provide and can continue to provide under their changing roles. They are uniquely situated to work with local communities and business organisations as well as collaborating with other educational institutions in their regions. They will have more opportunities to do so in future.

I recently participated in a forum at the Limerick Institute of Technology, which was organised by the institute's director, MariaHinfelaar. She invited representative stakeholders to discuss the needs of the region and how the institute of technology might be able to facilitate development issues across a variety of spheres. It was a most constructive meeting and I have no doubt that such events occur in other parts of the country as well. The institutes of technology have seized such opportunities in the past and will do so in the future.

In her speech, the Minister mentioned the strategic innovation fund which also provides collaborative opportunities. She referred specifically to "stronger inter-institutional collaboration in the development and delivery of programmes". I realise that there is a willingness to do that. Now that third level institutions are all under the aegis of the Higher Education Authority, it will facilitate universities and institutes of technology in working together.

There are more opportunities to bring people in from the workplace to work with local communities as well as providing second-chance opportunities for adults. All such opportunities should be grasped and the move towards modularisation will assist that process. However, the issue of fees for part-time students needs to be examined. The cost of going to college is a real issue for many part-time students and while the matter is not dealt with directly in this legislation, it needs to be addressed.

Elsewhere in her speech, the Minister mentioned the continuing growth in participation in third level education. She referred to the national admission rate of 55% in 2004, which was up from 44% in 1998. I have no doubt that is directly linked to the fact that tuition fees no longer apply to third level institutions. I know there is a cost involved but we should look at the obstacles facing some people who would otherwise like to participate in full-time third level education. Currently, they can only do so as part-time students so I hope that matter will be examined.

I will now refer to some of the issues that have been raised with me by staff and directors of the institutes of technology. By and large, there is a welcome for this legislation but some questions have been posed by those involved in the institutes. As regards the transition process, they have been micro-managed by the Department up to now but will soon be moving to a much freer system wherein they will have more control over their budgets. That is good but people are seeking more information about the overall timescale involved and practical issues such as when budgets will be determined. Will budgets be related to numbers in the institutions or to the cost base? Up to now, the budgets have been fixed to incremental increases. Will that system change or will the budgetary process continue as before? I do not know the answers to those questions but I would be interested to hear them from the Minister.

I was also asked whether some of the expert staff in the Department will continue to work on issues such as human resources and pensions, the normal budgeting matters that ITs had been doing with departmental staff. Will those matters now be taken over completely by the institutes and the HEA and, if not, how will the transition work?

Concerns have been raised by staff about section 13 and in particular the tenure of academic and other staff. This matter has been raised by the Teachers Union of Ireland. Up to now, if one worked in an institute of technology, the Minister had the final say if there was a question of someone being dismissed. As I understand it, that provision will be removed under the terms of the Bill. There is some concern about that. To some extent, it will bring matters in line with the Universities Act but university staff have security of tenure which, it appears, will not be available to staff in institutes of technology under this legislation. Current staff will not be affected but future staff may be. Will the Minister take these concerns on board? As I understand it, the conditions will not be as good as, or similar to, those in the university sector. The Minister should negotiate with representatives of workers in the institutes of technology to ensure that issue is addressed.

As for the strategic innovation fund, staff in universities and institutes of technology have raised the question of valuing different faculties and not simply valuing those that bring in the most students or attract the highest level of research grants. This matter has been raised particularly as it pertains to the humanities area. As Deputy Enright said in yesterday's debate, a variety of areas are dealt with in institutes of technology and, in some respects, their curriculum is broader than that of the university sector.

I am concerned about trades, for example, and other aspects of what is done in institutes of technology that have practical applications for the workplace and are much needed in the economy. In some cases, equipment may take up a lot of space and, therefore, one may not be able to fit as many students in a room as certain other disciplines. This issue arose a few years ago but it is one about which we need to be concerned to ensure that these important areas are not squeezed out by those which better fit the description of what attracts funding. That point must be borne in mind because we want to ensure that we value all the different disciplines and that we keep space for all of them. The institutes of technology have been practical in responding to the existing requirements in providing training and education for a variety of skills.

While the third level sector is being realigned, we should examine the various opportunities available. I refer to the further education sector, which other speakers have raised, along with the implications of the McIver report. As institutes of technology will now come within the ambit of the Higher Education Authority, it will define further the role of further education and the need for it to be structured properly. Staff and students who work in the sector should have reasonable opportunities and proper facilities, so I call on the Minister to implement the McIver report in this regard.

There is an opportunity to link a variety of levels, thus providing opportunities to those who have not taken the traditional route through primary and secondary education to third level. People who wish to study at third level should be facilitated to do so and the national qualifications framework will help in that regard.

Students need guidance at second and third level. Traditionally, there has been quite a high drop-out rate in institutes of technology. One of the reasons for that is that people sometimes pursue courses to which they are unsuited. They may have got their fourth or fifth choice on the CAO, but they did not research the course properly and after the first term, they realise they are in the wrong course. Students often find themselves on the wrong course. I spoke recently to leaving certificate students who felt strongly that they should be told the exact implications of the choices they make on their CAO forms.

When many students get to third level, they discover in their first term that they are not really where they want to be. Sometimes they can transfer but as they lose their grants if they do not transfer before a certain date in November, it can be financially impossible for them to transfer if they have left it too late. We must work out an easier system for students and inform them of it, so, if they have difficulties, they can decide the course is not for them and make use of other opportunities. The institutes of technology in particular provide a good opportunity for students to move on, for example, from certificate to diploma to degree courses, which is positive. However, there is a real problem with some students who may not be aware of what is available and with regard to overworked guidance staff in institutes of technology who need an improved level of staffing and support.

In general, the question of staffing is important. As we move towards increased rewards for research in third level institutions, we must make sure that the balance between time for teaching and time for research is maintained, that we value teaching as much as research and that we do not put too much pressure on staff. This area needs to be monitored, which is primarily a role for the Higher Education Authority but also includes policy issues, which are matters for the Minister for Education and Science. In many ways developments at third level are very exciting, and the fact that institutes will be under the same umbrella as universities will provide many opportunities. However, the area needs to be monitored to ensure too many pressures and difficulties do not arise.

By and large, institutes of technology have been able to develop but some have been held back by physical problems. There was a hold-up in capital funds to third level, although that has been relieved to an extent and some institutes are benefiting. It is important to make sure that the institutes have the appropriate facilities.

The Joint Committee on Education and Science recently discussed the changes in the EU granting system for research, which poses problems for third level institutions with regard to how they audit their accounts and allocate funding for teaching, research and so on. This will probably be an issue for the institutes of technology also and I hope whatever assistance they require will be provided by the Department of Education and Science.

The question of Seanad votes for graduates is one that might be appropriate in this context. With the institutes of technology and the universities all under the umbrella of the Higher Education Authority, it becomes increasingly anomalous that only NUI and TCD graduates have votes in the Seanad. This issue has been around for a long time but nothing has been done to deal with it. The introduction of the Bill is a good time for it to be revived. There is no reason graduates of other universities and institutes of technology should not be afforded a voice in the Seanad given that NUI and TCD graduates have such a voice. I realise broader issues arise with regard to reform of the Seanad and how Senators are and should be elected but while we have the current system, we should have equality. I am not sure the Minister has a role in this regard but the issue should be raised and should be one to which the Government pays attention.

I support Deputy Enright on several issues she raised earlier in the debate, in particular with regard to clarity of roles for the governing body and the director. The matter is fairly clear in the Bill but there may be some doubt as to the exact roles of the two different bodies. Deputy Enright noted that the directors of the institutes cannot discuss or criticise policy in the context of, for example, coming before the Joint Committee on Education and Science. While this restriction is contained in other legislation, it would be healthy if people could raise issues related to their own experience. Deputy Enright also referred to governing bodies being able to appoint their own chair, which is a more democratic way to proceed. Perhaps the Minister could examine these issues. I congratulate the recently appointed chairperson of the Limerick Institute of Technology, which is in my home area.

There are great opportunities for all of the institutes of technology to contribute in perhaps a clearer way than in the past, and with more flexibility in responding to local needs. They have been proactive in how they have taken opportunities in the past, although sometimes with certain restrictions.

I welcome the Bill. I ask the Minister to consider the specific issues I raised with regard to the transition from one system to another, in particular with regard to security of tenure for staff. The Bill could be used as a starting point for creating greater opportunities for people to participate in third level education given that the institutes of technology have a unique role. This role can be developed and can bring more people into the knowledge economy, which is necessary if we are to meet the economic and social goals such as those in the Lisbon Agenda and pronounced by a variety of bodies, including Forfás, the ESRI and others. We have unique opportunities to bring more people into the education sector. We should grasp those opportunities and if there are obstacles in the way, they should be cleared.

We need to have more interdepartmental joined-up thinking in terms of creating opportunities, particularly for adults. I hope the Minister will discuss this with her colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Bodies sometimes operate through parallel systems. A person could do a course through FÁS and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and another through the Department of Education and Science. The system often does not come together in ways that work for the individual trying to develop himself or herself. The Minister should consider this issue. I welcome the Bill.

I wish to share time with Deputies Crowe and Connolly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the issue of Seanad votes. While there may be a more appropriate forum to discuss the issue, I agree with the Deputy with regard to votes for students in institutes of technology. If the current system is to be retained, it should extend to all students over the age of 18, be they repeat leaving certificate students or those in further education colleges, institutes of technology or universities. A democratic deficit exists in the operation of the Seanad at present but if the current system is to be retained, any adult who has studied at third level or post leaving certificate level should be allowed to have an input into the Oireachtas. The appropriate Minister should consider the issue.

I broadly welcome the publication of the Bill. As the Minister outlined, the Bill provides for the transfer of funding responsibilities from the Department of Education and Science to the Higher Education Authority, which we know was a major recommendation of the OECD report published two years ago. It provides for considerable positive changes which will transfer responsibilities related to funding, governance and other operations within institutes of technology. In theory this might empower the ITs to respond much more quickly in this globalised economy to the changing educational, social and other related economic requirements. It recognises the role ITs have played in the higher educational field and reflects their reputation as providers of a world class educational experience.

The OECD review was a spur but it goes back to the expert working group report on the future position and roles of institutes of technology which started the ball rolling. It is a welcome step to get this far, whatever about other debates on the need for a tertiary education authority. I do not wish to dwell on the specifics of the Bill because I agree with practically all of it. I may have some concerns about the amended section 7 and section 26 which substitutes Schedule 3 in respect of the provisions applying to the director but they can be expressed at a later stage.

Given that the HEA will have responsibility for both universities and institutes of technology, there is an opportunity to develop a more streamlined and coherent national higher education policy. We know that the funding has been provided because of the announcements made last year which are welcome. It is probably the only area of the education system that is getting the much-needed funding it deserves. In this context, given that funding is being provided and it is hoped the ITs will get their fair share, collaboration could be seen as the way forward. That the HEA will oversee the functions of both types of establishment should enhance co-operation nationally, in terms of shared strategic reserve projects, and to a lesser degree regionally.

There are many opportunities for a collaborative approach to reap awards. As a member of the Friends of Science group, under the remit of Science Foundation Ireland, I have seen several examples of this at a number of breakfast briefings. However, new challenges arise in the area of energy security, as my leader, Deputy Sargent, has pointed out to the Taoiseach. Certainly there is scope for the development of new, bigger and better alternative energy centres of excellence rather than being attached to existing ITs. These could be clustered and located in areas where they would create jobs along the coastline from Donegal to Kerry and could specialise in the development of wave energy. There are also issues of wind energy and biomass, some of which are being examined within our ITs and universities.

Given that Ireland is 80% dependent on the importation of fuel, we need to be self-sufficient down the line. That requires investment in our own research rather than being at the behest of foreign companies who will control these resources. We have the potential, in years to come, to be net exporters of electricity. In that context we need to be in control of our destiny. While the research can be collaborative on an international basis, it must be spurred from an Irish context and any spin-off companies must be Irish owned. Otherwise, if it is owned by an overseas entity, we would still be importing our energy, even if it comes from Ireland.

I will announce green initiatives down the line in conjunction with my colleague in the enterprise, trade and employment portfolio, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I am especially glad the Bill is receiving widespread support among the ITs, the students' unions and the wider academic community. It is also good to note broad cross-party support thus far for this important legislation. The Bill puts the 14 institutes on an equal footing with the seven universities. That is a message that is loud and clear. In that message there is a challenge to improve awareness among the public of the role of ITs and the wide range of academic options provided. The honours degrees and postgraduate qualifications are identical to those of universities as well as non-honours degrees and diplomas, qualifications which are all internationally recognised. There is also the added benefit of easier interchangeability and transference between courses.

I read with interest the article by Mr. Jim Devine, chairman of the council of directors of the institutes of technology, in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times. He pointed out that the IT sector is thriving but there is still an issue of parental prejudice and a communications problem. He pointed out that 50% of all students entering higher education attend ITs and more than 20,000 study part-time either on campus or in the workplace and can build credits towards the internationally recognised qualifications. Some 1,200 students are engaged in programmes at masters and doctorate levels and IT graduates have been pivotal in underpinning economic growth and in providing the knowledge, professionalism and skills base that continues to make Ireland a location of choice for inward investment. As Mr. Devine highlights, market research commissioned by the ITs shows that just over one third of people have an unprompted awareness of the sector.

The HEA report shows that of those who went to college in 2004, only 18% of students from Dublin went to ITs in 2004-05 — the lowest number in the country — while Sligo had the highest number at 34%. There is still some work to be done by the ITs and the Minister in promoting the sector. It is not taking away from the role of the ITs in terms of offering access to a wide social and academic mix of students, and increasing the access from families with no tradition of higher education.

It is one thing to invest in higher education and transfer responsibility for day-to-day management but it is another matter to ensure access is provided to students from all walks of life. For example, in my constituency, there has been a small improvement in areas of disadvantage such as Clondalkin, Bawnogue and Neilstown where the attendance rate at third level was 22.8% from 1998 to 2004. A closer look at the figures show that only 14% were an honours degree admission rate compared with 60.9% in Ballsbridge and Ringsend. It is one thing to facilitate the onward march of the ITs, which probably have the best record of access for people from disadvantaged areas, but another to maintain that level of work. As this matter will be discussed in the committee tomorrow, I will not dwell on it.

In regard to one of the larger ITs in Dublin and the Grangegorman Development Agency, the telephone calls and the e-mails have continued since the debate last year on the legislation. Dublin Institute of Technology students' union is adamant that it needs to have a role on the board, as does the local community. If there is any way of facilitating that request, despite what happened through the passing of the legislation, will the Minister consider it in order that all parties feel they are a stakeholder in the project?

There has been a broad welcome for the new legislation recently published by the Minister. I acknowledge the fact that a number of the issues I had previously raised at the Joint Committee on Education and Science in September 2004 have been addressed in this Bill, such as attempting to create a more even development between the IT and university sectors. I hope the legislation will be beneficial and helpful in securing the long-term sustainability of the colleges and will further embed these institutions in the wider community.

It is hoped that by bringing the institutes of technology, of which there are 14, under the control of the Higher Education Authority, they will benefit and be able to develop their roles further. Essentially a unified framework for higher education will be created with the 14 institutes and seven universities being under the control of the one body, namely, the HEA. Can the Minister ensure in such a binary system that the ITs will no longer be a junior partner to universities? I note that students' unions, staff and the HEA view the extension of significant new managerial and academic autonomy to the institutes as positive. I would like to think the legislation has been influenced by the OECD report on higher education in 2004 which recommended further freedom and autonomy for the institutes.

I commend those who have made the institutes of technology the success they are. Not only have the institutes provided a great boost to the development and economic infrastructure of towns and regions, but more importantly they have opened the doors of higher education to thousands of people. An ESRI report for the HEA indicated that ITs are making significant inroads to increase participation from lower socio-economic groups. By widening access and participation, students with modest to poor achievement in the leaving certificate can now participate in higher education.

However, widening access on its own is not enough. These students must be supported to complete their third level education. Supports in place for university students should also be available for IT students. Many students contact me regarding crèche facilities, particularly students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, and such facilities are essential. Counselling and other support mechanisms need to be built on. Greater flexibility also needs to be shown regarding the academic year for IT students because of the background many of them come from, and equal support has to be given in this area for universities and the institutes.

Institutes have been largely successful in their role of serving the very broad educational and vocational needs of this State, and there are now more than 90,000 full-time and part-time students pursuing studies in the institutes of technology. The OECD report of 2004 further identified institutes as having a pivotal role in addressing the knowledge economy. As well as helping attract direct foreign investment through supplying a pool of qualified graduates in the regions, ITs have supported the development of small and medium-sized enterprises and indigenous industry through a series of initiatives. Included among these is the M50 programme in my constituency, led by the IT in Tallaght — naturally, as a local Deputy, I would note that — in conjunction with the IT in Blanchardstown, with UCD and DCU.

There has been criticism in the past that under the control of the Department of Education and Science the institutes did not possess the freedom they needed to realise their full potential. The Union of Students in Ireland has regarded this control as placing institutes of technology in a straitjacket, and the union has strongly endorsed the new legislation. The OECD said the fragmentation of policy and policy implementation has stifled development, and this Bill will hopefully take a step towards integrating the components of our tertiary education system. Such collaboration in a unified system will hopefully reap benefits for all concerned. However, we must ensure this collaboration is extended to further education colleges with regard to widening access and lifelong learning.

In this respect I once more urge the Minister to implement the McIver report and ensure the future growth and success of PLCs. Institutes have called for the removal of managerial constraints, which they believe disadvantage them in comparison with universities. That was among the issues I raised at the Joint Committee on Education and Science in 2004. It is hoped these constraints will be addressed in the Bill, as indeed they are, to a large extent. In addition, ITs feel they are not on an equal footing with universities, stemming from the current need for ITs, unlike universities, to obtain approval from the Department of Education and Science before a new degree programme is initiated. Although the Minister will now place ITs alongside universities under the control of the HEA, the burning question from the ITs is whether the Minister will grant them the same level of freedom as universities were given under the Universities Act? The Minister might respond on this point.

A noticeable trend all over Europe, especially in Britain, is that governments are devolving responsibilities and freedoms to educational institutions. If such devolution is to be proceeded with by the Government, it should at least be balanced by tough accountability mechanisms. The institutes must not be allowed to lose their capacity for innovation which has seen them respond effectively to Ireland's economic and educational needs.

A recent survey showed that most of the public have an incomplete understanding of the wide range of academic options that ITs provide. Though the new Institutes of Technology Bill seems like an important step in addressing the lack of awareness of ITs, the Government must ensure that ITs have the financial resources to better communicate their wide range of academic options to the public. The institutes must be resourced to make people from families in areas of high disadvantage and with no tradition of higher education participation aware of the options ITs can give them.

I am interested in what the Minister will have to say with regard to the fears expressed by the Teachers Union of Ireland regarding the Bill. While the union is not opposed to the move of the institutes to the HEA, it is very concerned at certain aspects. For instance, the union says it will not countenance any erosion of members' conditions of service when the institutes come under the aegis of the HEA. There have been fears that the concept of permanency as traditionally understood is under threat.

Concerns have also been expressed regarding amendments that alter the Colleges Act 1992 which originally affirmed that termination of a contract requires ministerial sanction. While the Minister has accepted that this protection will continue for existing members, worries have surfaced with regard to the same job security for future members. The section in question seems contentious in that the provision of consent where an IT wishes to dismiss a staff member remains as an existing function of the Minister for Education and Science, but only for staff members employed before the enactment of this Bill.

Another issue raised is the composition of the HEA. It is imperative that such an educational body is primarily influenced by educationalists. There must be an appropriate representation from the institutes of technology sector. Has the Minister any plans to introduce statutory staff representation on the HEA as with student representation?

The Institutes of Technology Bill possesses more positives than negatives for the parties concerned in this area of education. However, the Minister must ensure action is taken to allay the fears about job security expressed by the unions. She must also ensure that the public profile of ITs is enhanced to enable greater and fairer access.

I support the call made by a number of Deputies to allow Seanad representation to be extended to all third level colleges and ITs. Last week in this Chamber I asked for a debate on the issue, which is only right. If we are considering Seanad reform, such representation is one of the issues that should be debated and I support it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Institutes of Technology Bill 2006. In 1964 the OECD recommended that funding responsibility for the institutes of technology be transferred from the Department of Education, as it was then, to a higher education authority. That is 32 years ago, quite a long time ago. If the concept was right then, it remains right, however late we are getting there. No doubt many people have gone through the system and have now retired from it, but the fact that we are addressing the issue now is welcome. I am happy that the Bill provides for such a transfer and I welcome it as a landmark Bill in third level education in this country.

When we talk about education, it give us an opportunity to look at our own patch and what is happening there. From a BMW perspective, it has given me an opportunity to look at some figures and facts in Cavan and Monaghan, those counties being part of the BMW region. I noted that the numbers staying on there to sit the leaving certificate is, at 81%, quite high and that surprised me. I did not think we would be competing so well with the south-eastern region and I was pleased with that figure.

I also noted that if a high number of people complete their leaving certificate, this will have a knock-on effect on third level colleges. This is reflected in the number of people who go to colleges throughout the country, particularly in Northern Ireland. However, the fact that people have gone to colleges in Northern Ireland is not taken into account in the third level statistics from some of our colleges. That does not put some of our colleges, particularly the college I attended, St. McCartan's in Monaghan, in the same light as other colleges across the country. That is a bone of contention. When people are looking at statistics in future I hope they will take this into consideration. They should look at the number of people from that area who are going to college in Derry, Belfast, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and so forth.

Some of the counties in the BMW region are in the top ten in terms of sending people to third level education. That is very good for the region. However, what happens to these people when they qualify? They are well qualified people who have spent three or four years, and in some cases many more, in university. Consider the opportunities available to them in Cavan or Monaghan. There is a type of brain drain taking place in many of the counties in rural Ireland, particularly counties Cavan and Monaghan. The number of people employed who have gone through third level education is one in eight in each county. That means, to put it another way, that seven out of every eight people who have attained third level qualifications must leave those counties. That is a significant problem. It could be seen as a brain drain.

We must examine this issue seriously. I hope the social partners, when considering their talks and strategies for the years ahead, will examine how this situation can be redressed. Attempts are being made to move the Civil Service out of Dublin. Generally, 40% of these people get their first job on the east coast, more often than not in Dublin. It is expensive to put down roots in Dublin city but people get caught in the system. They get married and stay with the job. Now, we are trying to encourage these people to move and are having difficulty doing that.

The concept is correct and welcome for people in rural areas but we should start it with a step-by-step process. Perhaps we should consider whether it is possible to put certain sections of Departments in rural towns rather than utilising the big bang approach of, for example, moving FÁS or the Courts Service. The Taoiseach was correct to say that he had bitten off more than he could chew in this regard. It would be best to announce a new policy and take it step by step. It should be rebuilt from the rural side up, moving small sections of Departments to rural towns. It should not be announced that entire Departments are being moved because that is practically impossible.

In addition, there is the problem of losing expertise from within those Departments. There are enough people offering to move but, for example, where people in the Department of Education and Science offer to move there might not be posts in that Department so they move to another Department. These are important issues. We must examine the policies we are trying to promote. Decentralisation is the right policy because jobs must be returned to rural areas but it must be done on a step-by-step or piecemeal basis. That way there will be more satisfied customers and more satisfied employees in the system. To reverse the brain drain we must examine these situations. If people knew Departments were going to be moved to an area, they could gear their qualification for that. It also might entice them to stay at home and look after elderly parents. There would also be many other potential benefits.

The legislation provides an enhanced and coherent framework for third level education in Ireland and moves the country's 14 institutes of technology closer to the country's universities. From this will flow the type of collaboration and co-operation that will strengthen and maximise the potential of the third level education system. In their more than 30-year history, the institutes of technology, or the regional technical colleges as they were formerly known, have made a major contribution to the third level education system. I believe that the qualifications people are gaining in these colleges are on a par with those from universities and are sought after by employers. Often they are tailored to the market.

Tens of thousands of people, who might otherwise have been unable to go to a third level college, have been able to access higher education at these colleges. That is a major factor in many people from rural areas securing a third level education. Obviously, people would not have been able to afford to go to university in the cities. Places were limited in the universities but funds were also limited for people in rural areas, in terms of their ability to send their children to university. It is a major drain on the finances of a family. The institutes of technology filled that gap to an extent in that they provided an accessible third level education. I see the number of buses that travel each morning from Monaghan town to third level colleges. The beauty of these colleges is that they are accessible.

Some time ago I suggested that the universities, rather than expect people to come to the cities, should consider decentralising some of their departments. With a little imagination universities could greatly increase their intakes if, for example, they located sections of the universities in certain towns. Any of the universities would be most welcome in Monaghan town. Indeed, it would attract a large number of people, even from Northern Ireland. It would also generate new life in the town. Third level education should come to the people in the towns and make itself more accessible. This is how we should move forward. The other advantage is that children can remain at home and it is less expensive on parents. I talk a great deal about expense because I am doling out money on a regular basis and another child is due to go on the books shortly.

The economic infrastructure of the country's major towns and regions has received a major boost from institutes of technology, with the education briefs of the colleges being fashioned in line with the towns' economic strengths and aptitudes. Accordingly, the institutes have evolved in line with their locations' economic development and have made a significant contribution to Ireland's spectacular economic success in recent years.

In most developed countries the trend has, for some time, been towards a knowledge based economy. In such circumstances, intangible investment in knowledge production, transmission and transfer is instrumental in raising productivity and living standards. In a knowledge based economy, the prime function of all third level institutions is education, in which the universities have traditionally been supported by research. Education has driven the Celtic tiger. We were in the right place at the right time in terms of having a well educated workforce.

Institutes of technology have always wanted to be on a par with universities and this Bill gives them that opportunity. For that reason I welcome and the support the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. It is an opportunity to show the importance of the institutes of technology in the economic development of their regions. The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 is the culmination of a three-year process which began with the publication of the expert working group report on the future position and role of institutes of technology and continued with the 2004 OECD review of higher education policy in Ireland. Both reports recommended many of the measures included in the Bill that will give institutes of technology greater freedom and autonomy. The legislation proposes that the Higher Education Authority has responsibility for universities and institutes of technology. This should be the basis for the development of a more coherent national higher education policy. It is important to draw on the diverse strengths of the higher education institutes if their potential is to be fully maximised at regional and national level.

The Bill recognises the critical role the institutes of technology play in the delivery of a world class third level education. It also recognises their ability to respond quickly and efficiently to meet national and regional economic and social needs. The contribution of the institutes to regional development has been enormous. They have provided students with real transferable skills that enable them to adapt to the constant flux of the economy.

I compliment the director of Athlone Institute of Technology, Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, its staff and pupils for their great work in the institute. It is a repository of expertise in electronic, computer and software engineering. This obviously helps meet the need for quality graduates in the Athlone region. Through initiatives such as the Applied Software Research Centre and the Midlands Innovation and Research Centre, the institute is a driver of research and development and an incubator of technological and scientific creativity.

If we are serious about the creation of a fourth level Ireland, then we must welcome the Bill's measures. The new powers of governance for governing bodies and the new larger education arrangements are in line with international best practice, while the new budgetary structures are similar to those found in universities. The proposed legislation will facilitate the swift response of the institutes to environmental change. The greater autonomy it suggests will enable the institutes of technology to play an even greater role in the growth and development of their regions. The institutes of technology have met an important need over several decades. They have expanded from a position of educating technicians to being a driver of research at doctoral and post-doctoral level, a dramatic transformation in so short a period. The legislation is an important enabler in ensuring their continuing contribution to the economy, especially in the regions. There is no doubt about the commitment, dedication and expertise of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. All Members will agree with me when I give her top marks in her class.

According to Mr. Tom Boland, chief executive of the HEA:

When the history of Ireland of the past 30 years or more is written, the institutes of technology will occupy a prominent part. The institutes have not only opened the doors of higher education to literally thousands of people, they have also provided a massive boost to the economic infrastructure of towns and regions. They have played an essential part in the success story of modern Ireland.

The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 signals a major change in higher education. It creates a unified strategic framework for higher education by bringing the institutes of technology under the remit of the HEA. The authority was responsible for universities only. The Bill will also extend significant new managerial and academic autonomy to the institutes aimed at facilitating further development of their roles. The institutes of technology have been a major success story. By opening up new opportunities for educational access, they have been central to the dramatic growth achieved in the past 20 years in third level participation, a major factor in our economic success.

At a regional level, the institutes have been catalysts for economic development by actively responding to the skills needs of local industry and forging industry partnerships for research and the transfer of knowledge. The sector's student numbers have expanded and developed rapidly, along with the range and level of courses offered and the growth of concentrated research activity. More than 90,000 full-time and part-time students are pursuing studies in the institutes of technology, ranging from sub-degree level to PhD studies. The Bill will apply to the 13 institutes of technology established under the Regional Technical Colleges Acts and to the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland's largest third level institution.

The Government is increasingly looking to higher education to support wider national objectives for social and economic development in the knowledge age. For that reason, a system-wide excellence in higher education must be built with reference to the best international standards. The institutes of technology have a vital role to play in this. They must be supported in developing their full potential in this role. By bringing the institutes under the remit of the HEA, the legislation will allow for a cohesive approach to the strategic development of higher education, drawing on the diverse strengths of all universities and institutes. This legislation is a milestone for the sector. It will empower the institutes of technology with the managerial freedoms and supports required for them to enter the next phase of development as a key part of Ireland's infrastructure for growth as a knowledge society in the 21st century.

The 2006 budget provided for a five-year investment package of €1.2 billion for the third level sector. Of this, €300 million will be allocated to a strategic innovation fund and €900 million has been allocated to a five-year capital programme. Ireland's economic performance has for the past several years attracted international attention. Our success can be attributed to a range of factors, including taxation policies, social partnership, the determination to pursue consistent policies for the creation of an attractive business environment and the availability of a talented, flexible and well-educated labour pool. In respect of the latter factor, the commitment of successive Governments over many years to the development of our education system at primary, secondary and third level has proved to be extremely far-sighted.

In seeking to develop and protect Ireland's future competitive strengths, we need to exercise similar vision now. The announcement in the budget of major new investment in higher education stems from a recognition that safeguarding our future growth and prosperity requires investment now in Ireland's knowledge, skills and innovation capacity. Our higher education system has become crucial to Ireland's national development objectives. Creativity, skills and knowledge are now our key sources of competitive advantage as we seek to position ourselves at the forefront of developed knowledge economies in the world.

To achieve success in this knowledge age and to enjoy the social dividends that flow from that, we need to produce quality, skilled graduates who can meet the high value jobs needs of the emerging sectors of the economy. We must achieve new levels of performance at third level. We especially need to develop a fourth level system of research that is benchmarked against the highest international standards. This will provide a platform for a national system of research and innovation that will be the engine of our future growth. Producing a supply of quality PhD graduates will act as a magnet for international investment here in the knowledge intensive industries. Investing in third level and fourth level is, therefore, a major national infrastructural priority.

Achieving the desired change is a complex and challenging task, it is not simply about volume and capacity, although they are very important. The fundamental challenge relates to quality. The transformation of third level education and the creation of a new fourth level tier that places Irish research activity at the global cutting edge are necessary.

The €300 million strategic innovation fund for universities and institutes of technology is intended to drive that transformation over the next five years. Its introduction is a landmark in the historical development of the sector in Ireland. As the president of UCD noted at the time:

We have reached a crossroads moment where significant investment is needed to support and advance the reform process at third level and to progress the development of an Irish fourth level sector which will make a huge impact nationally and internationally. We have been given the opportunity to transform the landscape of Irish higher education in an irreversible fashion. It is hard to think of a better legacy which we could pass on to the next generation.

The strategic innovation fund will emphasise the promotion of inter-institutional collaboration across the system. Knowledge is international and intellectual capital is highly mobile in nature. The quality of higher education in Ireland must be measured, therefore, against the highest standards across the world. As a small country, we need to maximise the collective strengths of our higher education institutions to achieve system-wide excellence in international terms at third level and to create a top performing fourth level sector. The experience of the PRTLI has illustrated that world class excellence can be created within the Irish system when we identify and draw together our best available talent and expertise.

The infrastructure developments planned under the capital envelope are an essential element of the Government's commitment. These are aimed at upgrading and modernising campus facilities throughout the country and addressing development needs in areas of national strategic importance. Investment in higher education will be identified as a central element of the next national development plan for the period 2007 to 2013. This represents a significant statement of its core strategic national importance.

The major impact of investments under the current national development plan can be seen across key areas of national infrastructure such as roads, public transport, water, waste and health services, and social housing. It has resulted in an unprecedented enhancement of our economic and social infrastructure. The next national development plan will build on that progress by strengthening further our core infrastructure to meet the economic and social challenges ahead.

The capacity of our human capital and the role of higher education in developing it will be central. The strategic innovation fund will enable the higher education system to achieve a new level of performance and will create a platform for effective return on the wider investments that will be made through to 2013, including investments under the ambitious national research plan which is shortly to be considered.

In my part of the country, Athlone Institute of Technology has made a vital contribution. New courses at the institute have been introduced and developed in line with changing regional, national and international needs. Emphasis on research activities and liaison with industrial and commercial organisations have helped to ensure the relevance and technological competence of courses at the institute and enhanced the employment prospects of graduates over the years. Courses in the school of science are undertaken through a programme of lectures, practical work and tutorials. Continuous assessment plays a major part in all courses and emphasis is placed on the development of practical skills as well as theoretical knowledge. Individual project work and-or industrial placements are an essential part of national diploma and degree programmes. The school has a wide range of advanced instrumentation available for such project work and in many cases the industrial placement provides the venue for students' full projects.

Computers play an important role in all courses, both for information processing and, increasingly, as learning tools. In addition to having access to the institute's extensive computer facilities, the school of science has its own range of state of the art personal computers housed in a purpose-built computer science laboratory, from which students can interface with the world of science via the Internet and e-mail.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome this legislation. It consolidates the institutes of technology under the auspices of the Higher Education Authority and acknowledges the vital role they have played, as outlined eloquently by Deputy Kelly in the case of Athlone. Carlow and Waterford have seen similar developments in the south east. Nobody can underestimate the far-reaching effect of the institutes of technology on entrepreneurial activity and the enterprise agenda of every community. Many examples of collaboration between industry and education achieved through the institutes of technology demonstrate the vital role played by the institutes in the economic progress the country has made, particularly over the past 15 to 20 years.

The directors and governing bodies of the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow have enhanced to the best of their ability the courses on offer and increased the numbers of people attending the institutes. Carlow Institute of Technology has made efforts to establish outreach facilities, particularly in locations like Kilkenny and Wexford. These outreach facilities bring the educational process closer to people, allowing greater access to education at less expense to the people involved. Compared to other regions, there is a low level of participation in third level education in the south east. The south east still depends on the weather and does not receive too many hand-outs from Departments. People in the south east do not appear to take advantage of opportunities to participate in third level education. This is the reason for the ongoing debate on the status of third level education and how we can increase participation rates and improve courses in the south east.

I am aware the Minister received many representations recently in respect of the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow and their future role. In particular, it is time we acknowledged the need for a university in the south east. I am sure there is resistance to such an idea in some places and among various statutory bodies but if we are to make progress in improving the participation rate in third level education, we must, at least, make a decision in principle that a university in the south east is required. I encourage the Minister to fast track this proposal through the various statutory processes to ensure university status is granted to a college in the south east or that a number of campuses for various university faculties are located in the south east. Waterford and Carlow Institutes of Technology have done the most they can within the legislation and a step forward is needed in the interests of the people and future students of the south east.

Various studies carried out by Forfás into the issue of skills have revealed that there is an urgent need for additional resources to produce graduates in science, engineering and the trades. In recent times, I have been critical of FÁS in respect of this issue. FÁS has a budget of up to €1 billion but we do not appear to make as much headway in the apprenticeship programme as we could. This issue also feeds into the institutes of technology in respect of certain trades. We must turn out more graduates in trades with labour shortages. People cannot find plumbers, electricians or household maintenance personnel because of a scarcity of supply in these trades.

Science, engineering and financial services are the areas that will allow us to ascend the value chain regularly referred to by the chief executive of the IDA. The threat to manufacturing and the high cost base for manufacturing in this jurisdiction means that we must diversify into other faculties and employment opportunities. This is where the educational and enterprise agenda coalesce.

Pupils who drop out of school after the junior certificate need the continuous assessment of the educational system to ensure they continue in some form of training. The Minister is aware of a range of studies indicating that if pupils or students can be kept in education or training for longer, they are less likely to become involved in anti-social behaviour or criminal activity. State intervention is critical in this regard and I am sure the State will continue to play a vital role in ensuring that teachers and intermediaries on behalf of the State through the educational process continue to allow students to participate in training and education for as long as possible through the system.

The outreach facilities to which I referred earlier have not worked well enough to make students confident that they are receiving a top class third level education through these facilities and must be reviewed. We must examine more meaningful ways of allowing students to engage in a wider variety of courses in various educational establishments which will not restrict the provision of genuine third level education to outreach centres.

Science Foundation Ireland has a large budget, which allows various experts in both Ireland and abroad to come to our universities and institutes of technology to generate new ideas for future enterprise activity. There appears to be a low level of commercialisation of research and development, whether it results from patenting arrangements, royalties or other impediment, in the context of the large-scale funding we are now deploying in universities and institutes of technology. We might have a number of good ideas emerging from research but they either do not reach the development stage or do not reach it quickly enough. A review of how we can commercialise research and development proposals from universities and institutes of technology is urgently required. Such a review could be undertaken by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Department of Education and Science as an external audit investigating how money is being spent to get the best value possible for the uptake of indigenous proposals to generate employment for communities arising from this large-scale State investment.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment announced the report of the small business forum yesterday. According to the report, the education system could play a greater role in terms of encouraging entrepreneurial skills, a point with which I agree. It is a pity the Minister turned down this suggestion from junior achievers who are trying, in a voluntary capacity, to enhance the enterprise and entrepreneurial skills agenda through the education system. The Minister was not in favour of such an approach when he met the group but I understand he has changed mind with the formation of the small business forum. I welcome the inclusion of that approach in the small business forum and hope it will be enshrined in policy terms in the Department of Education and Science.

I noticed that the National College of Art and Design is seeking a relocation from its premises on Thomas Street to Belfield. It has certainly flown the kite in respect of this proposal, although it might be on hold at the moment.

It has changed its mind.

Perhaps the Minister helped it change its mind. If the college is seeking a good location, it might look to the south east, which has a great tradition of art and design going back as far as 1963 when the then Minister for Education, Patrick Hillery, established the Kilkenny Design Workshops. This State entity was shut down by the Government in 1988 at a time when there was no money. Given that we now have money and given that real estate in Kilkenny is available, relocating the National College of Art and Design to Kilkenny would fit in the city's artistic tradition if this proposal re-emerges. The Minister should consider relocating the college to Kilkenny if she is serious about re-location and decentralisation. Simply moving the college up the road to Belfield is not enough. It is not necessary for the college to be located in our capital city when there is an opportunity for Kilkenny, given its tradition of art and design, to be considered as well. I welcome this Bill and the opportunity to speak on it.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.