It is a huge privilege to have the time to tease out some of the issues involved in this legislation. I wish I had that time earlier for the Covid debate but I certainly welcome it for this very important topic. This is substantial legislation and I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the staff of the Department. A huge amount of work went into this, which I acknowledge. There are 124 pages, 128 sections, 18 Parts and four Schedules. I am going to come to the purpose of it, as well as perhaps a broader discussion of what education is about, academic freedom, where we are going and where that debate should take place.
It has been pointed out that we are changing legislation that is 51 years old. We talk about transformative action. Earlier today, Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett quoted from James Joyce’s Ulysses. That is probably the first time Ulysses was quoted in the Dáil, although maybe I am wrong. I want to use that in a different sense. I heard various comments on Ulysses and speakers talked about the transformative effect of Ulysses on literature. I would like to think we have come to the point where third level will have a transformative effect on our society because, really, we have no choice about that. After Covid and with climate change, we have no choice but to seek to have our third level institutions produce a transformative effect or, otherwise, we are finished.
Anyone who comes to the House as the final speaker is able to pick up and comment on different things, which is both fair and unfair, but that is the reward for waiting until the end. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan talked about the huge role that universities have had, which they have had, but they have also had a huge role in promoting inequality. They have also had a huge role in backing up an establishment that saw ongoing consumption as the model of behaviour, which has led to tremendous problems, not least of which is the existential crisis facing us with climate change. This is the time. If this is the beginning of a discussion, then I welcome it. It is certainly not the end of a discussion for me.
We have what we have been told and we have all read the explanatory memorandum and the purpose of the Bill. It is to reform the legislative framework for the higher education system, enabling improved oversight and regulation, and giving a legal basis to the powers that Údarás was using up to now. Now, however, they are underpinned by statute and, presumably, they are extended a little bit. We have to ask why we need this legislation before we get onto the bigger topic of what third level education is supposed to be doing. We need it because governance has utterly failed.
I had the privilege of going to university. I also had the privilege of coming from a large family, which was the biggest education I ever got. The range of experience, jobs and occupations extends from medical doctors and teachers to plumbers, carpenters and plasterers. That is the privilege of coming from a bigger family. Within that, there are always people to bring you up and bring you down, and when you are down, they will bring you up, and when you are up too far, they will bring you down very quickly. I have always had a huge problem with the in-built snobbery in Irish society, where third level was put up there - certainly the universities - to the detriment of society, not just to the detriment of our skilled people and the need for skilled people. We see it in the construction industry and across a whole range, but that was built into the system. I welcome that, theoretically, this is changing. I heard both Ministers make very positive comments and I welcome the national apprenticeship office that is being set up, if we are beginning to rebalance.
We are looking at governance. My real university education was on the Committee of Public Accounts. I have always publicly paid tribute to the staff in particular and to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who are certainly excellent public servants. It was at that committee that I began to get a real university education when I saw what was coming before me. I have to say my biggest disappointment at the time was the seven male leaders of the seven universities. I have said it. I have to put the word "educated" in inverted commas. They had a complete inability to reflect on or openly discuss where universities had gone into a cul-de-sac in terms of public space being used for the development of companies for private gain, which is one issue, and the role of unaccountable foundations - those are my words - particularly in Galway, where there is a substantial amount of money in the accounts of that foundation.
That foundation has boards managing it in New York and in Galway, in Ireland, including everything from Goldman Sachs to Coca-Cola. It was all new to me that foundations, described by the university as benign, are given such an important role in the development of our building in Galway. It may be good or bad. It is good if it is done in an open and accountable way, but not so good if it is not. More and more buildings are being put up for particular subjects as opposed to other subjects, with no student accommodation and so on.
I mentioned Galway. The issues there included precariousness of employment, which is repeated in all universities and is dominated by females. The brave Sheehy-Skeffington took a case. The new president is sorting out the legacy cases. In my own city, I was partly aware and partly unaware of what the university was like for many staff, who had no tenure. The more "untenured" the position, the more likely it was to be dominated by females. Whistle-blowers came before us from Limerick and other places, who enlightened us in a painful way about the repeated failure of governance in all of these universities. That is why we are here tonight.
I know I am not to mention names but this is all public. Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor in the school of mathematics and statistics in UCD. In fact, it was the last university to admit a woman. Galway was one of the first. Alice Perry was the first woman to qualify as an engineer in Europe, so Galway was slightly better. UCD distinguished itself by being the last university to let women go in. In the 21st century, we have Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin courageously reporting repeated sexual harassment over two years, from May 2015 until July 2017 by a professor, who has been named publicly, Hans-Benjamin Braun. He has been convicted of harassment and there is a barring order against him regarding contact with the assistant professor for five years. This has all been publicly reported. She repeatedly reported the incidents to UCD's human resources department. It was reported to the gardaí. The harassment lasted for two years after she first brought it to the attention of the university. She then made a formal complaint and was dissuaded from doing that. It went on, until, finally, Dr. Ní Shúilleabháin went public with her experience and requested action plans against sexual violence and harassment. That is just one example. The research quoted here tonight shows how difficult the experience of women and sometimes men is when it comes to violence in universities. That is the background to this legislation.
I welcome this legislation. That said, it needs much more discussion and amendments.
Is cúis mhór díomá dom í nach bhfuil ach píosa beag amháin ó thaobh na Gaeilge de sa Bhille; ag cur in iúl go bhfuil an t-údarás taobh thiar den Ghaeilge. There is a tiny bit about the Irish language, which is a huge disappointment to me. I would like this to be teased out further, if possible, because in that substantial, 124-page Bill, there are two lines on the Irish language. One of the objects is promoting it. "Objects" is a funny word, as opposed to objectives, purposes or aims. Under that, amid something else, it states that we will promote the Irish language. That causes serious worry for me.
I welcome the commitment to lifelong learning. I think it is the answer. How we measure that and ensure that there is open access are important. Some of my colleagues on the left have talked about opening up third level education. I agree with them. It should be explored and practical research should be done to see what the implications would be of opening up third level to everyone, regardless of the points they have in their leaving certificate. Rather than the idea being dismissed or sneered at, I think that it is important that it be researched. I understand that it has happened in other countries.
I have looked at various people when considering what university is all about. I will start with the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who gave an interesting speech on 8 June about academic freedom. Significantly, it was an address Scholars at Risk Ireland, a conference for all European academics. Among other issues, he looks at the danger posed to universities without academic freedom. What does academic freedom actually mean? It is certainly not synonymous with autonomy of the university. The university can have autonomy but that does not mean it has academic freedom. I do not have the time to go into it. I could not do it as Michael D. Higgins has done, but he has done so and raised significant issues regarding the purposes of our universities, what they are for, who they are serving, and what the dangers are.
Dr. Kathleen Lynch from UCD and her colleagues, as well as a colleague from Galway, Dr. Geraldine Mooney Simmie, have all raised questions about the commercialisation and marketisation of our system, and the aligning which we have done with Government policy that was produced in 2011, during times of austerity, when the strategic policy for third level education was produced. They have also raised the alignment of industry with university. I have a difficulty with that. I want Ireland to thrive and I want our economy to thrive. I want Galway city to lead the way as a green, thriving city. It must be sustainable. We are facing a biodiversity and climate change emergency, as well as Covid. We have had all those empty words about how we cannot go back to where we were and how we must change and learn, yet we have speaker after speaker praising the identification and alignment of industry with third level education. They praise a campus that put public funds, industry and university together as one, as a trinity. I seriously question that model.
I can think of no better way to highlight why we need universities to question than to look at the Nyberg report into the banking crisis, titled, Misjudging Risk: Causes of the Systemic Banking Crisis in Ireland. The report of the Commission of Investigation into the Banking Sector in Ireland was published in 2011. It was commissioned to provide answers and a number of institutions, private and public, acted in an imprudent manner. I can think of other adjectives apart from "imprudent". That imprudent manner continued to the occurrence of the Irish banking crisis. The report found herding, groupthink, consensus, silent observers and enablers. They were all the key words in the report about what allowed the banking crisis to happen without any questioning. The commission considers that this pervasive pressure for consensus may explain why so many different parties in Ireland were simultaneously willing to adopt specific policies and accepted practices that later proved unsound. It states that there was widespread lack of critical discussion within many banks and authorities indicates a tendency to groupthink. It states that something as basic as serious consideration of alternatives appeared to be modest or absent.
I could go on, but I will pick from a different speaker, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University. In commemoration of 1916, there was a series of talks in National University of Ireland Galway, which have been published in a book. Louise Richardson, an Irish woman, is vice-chancellor of Oxford University. She presented a paper, "The role of education in addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century" at a conference, Ireland 1916-2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty.
... if universities focus exclusively on training a skilled workforce, we lose the opportunity to provide an education that is so much broader and more important. An education that produces a generation accustomed to thinking critically, acting ethically and always questioning – whether it is the doctrines of the government of the day or the ideologies of those who wish to overthrow it – will ensure a generation that will question those proponents of violence. An education that teaches empathy with others, that exposes its students to a cosmopolitan community of scholars, that delights in dierence rather than fears it, and that inculcates the belief that truth is an aspiration not a possession, will produce a generation that will reject any eort to impose orthodoxy... If we want to master new technologies [not be mastered by technologies] we must educate not only those with the ability to make scientific discoveries and technological innovations, we must educate a generation with the moral sensitivity to think through the ethical implications of these discoveries and innovation for the rest of society.
I do not have the answers here but we must commit to the start of an open discussion and debate on the purpose of third level institutions; on how we have produced so many graduates who have an inability to think critically and who lack the courage to stand up and say "That is wrong, what is happening in this university is wrong"; and how we have allowed governance, practices and procedures to stay in place that add to the abuse suffered by various people. This raises the most serious questions as to what we are doing in our third level institutions. I am a graduate of a third level institution and I would go back to Galway and the governing body in Galway when the procedures, law and internal governance were changed by legislation. There was a large governing body and the big thing was to get governance right, not critical thinking but a consensus on doing away with the requirement for Irish, the details of which I forget at this stage. The important point is that consensus was important as opposed to cherishing critical debate, analysis of the subject and perhaps agreeing to differ on these issues.
While I welcome all of the work that has gone into this legislation, I share the concerns that have been laid out by people far more educated and articulate than me, including the President of Ireland and Professor Kathleen Lynch, who has gallantly struggled on with her colleagues for years highlighting all of these issues while also highlighting the alternatives that could be in place with collaborative research and research for research's sake, which seems to have died a death in universities because research now has to have a specific purpose.
I will finish on the issue of vaccines. Many times we have praised the pharmaceutical companies here but they have produced vaccines at an obscene profit with public funds and no risk. The risk was taken away from them completely and we carried that risk on public money. When we are praising research, let us analyse the purpose of it, who is behind it and who is paying for it. We must also ask when research is being done, what research is not being done. I think of a struggling PhD student in Galway who is trying to get money to look at an ecological corridor and red squirrels. That student is struggling to get money and recognition from a university for research into an ecological corridor which one would imagine a university would champion in the context of our biodiversity and climate crisis.