I am glad to be in the Seanad tonight moving this Bill. I did not want to call it the dissolution Bill. Nobody in my Department wanted to call it the dissolution Bill as we were all of the opinion that it was a negative word and did not take account of what was a very happy arrangement and one that will prove very fruitful in the future. We went to the drafts people with it and to those who give us legal advice and we were told that that word "dissolution" had to be inserted.
On 1 June 1989 I was present in this House to introduce a Bill conferring university status on the then NIHE Limerick. The Bill now before the House represents another important step in the development of the university. Its importance though, I should emphasise, lies in the fact that it deals with teacher training courses. These courses, which up to now have been provided in Thomond College, will, when this Bill is passed, be provided in the University of Limerick.
The quality of the education we provide for our young people depends in the main on the quality of our teachers. In this regard we have been quite fortunate but this quality does not simply happen, it is planned for and aimed at in our teacher training colleges.
In 1966 grave disquiet was expressed in the Investment in Education report regarding arrangements for the training of rural science, metalwork and woodwork teachers. The report also noted the absence of any facility for the training of male physical education teachers. This disquiet was echoed the following year by the Commission on Higher Education. At that time our male physical education teachers were either trained in England or were former military physical education instructors and our female physical education teachers were trained in two colleges in Dublin, Ling and St. Raphael's. Trainee teachers for the other subjects I referred to pursued courses of varying standards at centres in Cork Galway, Dublin and Gorey.
In early 1969, the newly established Higher Education Authority set up a working party to examine the position in relation to these courses. In their findings which were published in September 1970, the Authority endorsed the earlier opinions that the courses were unnecessarily dispersed throughout the country and recommended that they be concentrated in a single institution. They also recommended that any such new institution should be sited in Limerick.
The first step towards regularising the situation was taken in January 1971 when a site adjoining the then National Institute for Higher Education was purchased and the new institution commenced operating as the National College of Physical Education in January 1973. It may seem unusual that a third level institution should commence operations in the middle of the academic year but it had a readymade student body consisting of a group of male students who had commenced a teacher education course at Twickenham and two groups of female students who had commenced their courses at the two Dublin colleges I referred to earlier.
In 1979 courses for metalwork, woodwork and rural science teachers commenced in the college and, the following year, with the passing of the Thomond College of Education Act, 1980, it commenced operating as an institution with statutorily defined powers and functions.
That the initiative in centralising these courses in one institution has been successful is attested to on a daily basis in our second level schools in that graduates of the college are held nationally and internationally in high regard as teachers. There is little doubt that the general ambience of a sense of purpose which prevails in the college contributes in no small way to this success.
The importance of our teacher training courses, however, is emphasised by the fact that the demand/supply situation for teachers has to be continually monitored. During the eighties, for example, we began to experience a falling birth rate and this has had a major effect on the teacher training colleges. Thomond College was built to accommodate 1,100 students but has a total enrolment of only 392 students. There is an increasing demand across the board for all types of third level education.
The fact that the college and the university share a common campus led to the ease with which the merger was considered and brought about. I met with the authorities of the two institutions with a view to commencing a dialogue on the linking of the institutions. Arising from these talks a committee were set up comprising of representatives of the Higher Education Authority, Thomond College, the University of Limerick and the Department of Education, to consider how the resources of the two institutions could best be utilised in view of the outlook for the requirement for teachers in the years ahead and the demand for higher education places in general.
The committee were specifically asked in their terms of reference to consider how, within any proposed new institutional arrangement, the primary functions of Thomond — the training of teachers for service in schools and the provision of in-service training for teachers — could be discharged.
The committee issued their recommendations in October 1990. I pay tribute to that committee. They met and very swiftly brought out a report in October 1990. It is amazing that a report issued in 1990 is now being discussed in this House having passed through the Dáil. So often, not just in education but in other Departments, reports gather dust. Far from being tardy in this regard, we were in fact very swift and this was because there was such co-operation and determination from both groups. There was great goodwill and a genuine meeting of minds on the issue. Its main recommendation was that the college should be integrated with the university. They recommended that the Thomond College of Education Act should be repealed and that the management and academic structures of the university should be reorganised to facilitate the integration.
There is another consideration, however, which prompted the introduction of this Bill. Earlier this year we agreed the Programme for Economic and Social Progress. It represents a commitment to co-operation between the Government and the principal economic and social interests in society. In the introduction to it the Taoiseach pointed out that a small trading economy such as ours cannot prosper with divisive and competing interests.
No such programme, however, would be complete without provisions relating to the development of education. In paragraph 69(j) there is a specific commitment regarding the utilisation of spare capacity in the colleges of education, including Thomond. This is the first one which has got off the ground and will be the easier of the colleges of education in which to do this because it was directly set up by the Department and was relatively modern, etc. Talks are going on between the Department and the other institutions. I wish them well in that.
The Bill, therefore, will give effect to the integration as agreed of the two institutions and will also be a step towards meeting the obligation in the programme to provide extra third level places. What is proposed in this relatively simple Bill is the legislation necessary to give effect to the integration of Thomond into the University of Limerick. Consequently what we have to do is dissolve Thomond College as a legal entity, transfer the teaching training functions from the college to the university and transfer the staff, property, rights and liabilities of the college to the university.
In the drafting of this Bill I was anxious that there would be a provision which would ensure the continuance of the present high status given to the Irish language and culture in the college. I would direct attention, therefore, to section 10 of the Bill. To give the background to that, I met with the various interests before they started their talks with the HEA and afterwards, and then a couple of weeks ago I met with the main union involved.
Each group I met hoped there would be written into the Bill something quite specific regarding this matter and we were glad to do so. I have letters which I subsequently got from University College, Galway but mainly from staff in Thomond College and the University of Limerick specifically remarking on that measure in the Bill. They were appreciative that it was done. I know that this House expresses, and has always done, the same degree of need for positive measure in the Bill. They were appreciative that it was done. I know that this House expresses, and has always done, the same degree of need for positive measures such as this. When I was coming into the House I met with two of the Independent Senators who expressed the same view very positively to me.
There is a four year degree course in Irish and students taking this course achieve standards comparable to university graduates in Irish. This course is at present only available to physical education students as an "elective" or second subject. However, a mandatory three year course is taught to all students in the college to enable them to acquire the Department of Education's Irish language qualification for teachers. That came up in the debate in the Dáil. The college is also involved in providing various in-service courses for teachers and the earlier course to which I referred includes a mandatory three week Gaeltacht course for all students at the end of their first year.
In relation to the standard of Irish in the college it was very gratifying for me in the Dáil to hear Deputies Kemmy and McGinley quoting the view expressed by the external examiner, Professor Breandan Ó Madagáin of UCG. His view was "that the teaching of Irish to B.A. level in Thomond College is very impressive and well up to university standard both as regards language teaching of the literature courses. The teaching of the language itself, both oral and written deserves special commendation. One is impressed also by the spirit and enthusiasm among both staff and students, and the excellent rapport between them". I should add also that similar sentiments were expressed by his predecessor as external examiner, Professor Seán Ó Tuama of UCC.
As I stated earlier during the passage of the Bill through the Dáil last Wednesday there was a very useful discussion on section 10. The section as introduced in the Dáil read as follows:
The University in relation to the performance of its functions shall have due regard to the preservation and promotion of the Irish language and culture.
Two amendments were introduced and in deference to the sentiments expressed by Deputies J. Higgins and Tomás Mac Giolla I introduced a Ministerial amendment which encompassed, as far as possible, the views expressed
Section 10, therefore, as it stands is as it was amended in the Dáil and will apply to all the functions of the university and not just the teacher training functions. That is actually what is quite significant in that measure.
There is another aspect of the Bill which could escape attention. Section 3 transfers the teacher training functions of the college to the university and states that they "shall be performed by the University in accordance with such terms and conditions as the Minister, after consultation with the Governing Body, directs". This section would allow the Minister for Education of the day to ensure, for example, that the current level of Irish in the teacher training courses is maintained and developed. It will also allow the Minister to ensure that the current Irish entry requirement for the teacher training courses is maintained. In the Second Stage debate that was a fear expressed by two or three of the speakers. It was not put to a vote or anything like that because I was able to point out that if it was brought to my attention that the level of commitment was not maintained the Minister would have the right to see that it would be so done as laid down in the legislation. These things are necessary because if they are not copperfastened nobody then has the right to intervene because people point to the rule book which in this case would be the legislation.
The success and prestige which Thomond College has achieved over the years is due in so small way to the dedication and guidance given by its director, Mr. Jim Christian, and the other senior members and indeed all members of his staff. I pay them due tribute. They have built up expertise in areas such as education, sport, science, leisure and recreation, biological science and metal and wood technology. These areas have a particular potential to contribute to the excellence and relevance of Limerick University.
The word "dissolution" is used in the Bill as a legal drafting requirement and, while it indicates a degree of finality, it does not fully reflect the true situation. The functions and objectives of Thomond College will continue to be pursued but within the wider remit of the University of Limerick.
Section 6 of the Bill amends the National Council for Educational Awards Act, 1979. In effect, this means that students who commenced their courses as students of the college will have their degrees awarded by the University of Limerick and not the NCEA. The basis for the legislation, therefore, is an acknowledgement of the excellence and the endorsement of the quality and standing of the NCEA, its awards and processes. The views of the external examiners bear out this point.
The Thomond College Act, 1980 provided for a governing body consisting of chairman, director and 23 ordinary members. Apart from the director all the other members acted in an unpaid capacity. That these men and women gave freely of their time over the years to build up the success and prestige of the college cannot go without due and proper tribute being paid to them and I am pleased to record my acknowledgement of their contribution.
It has often struck me that people who serve on education boards, be it their local school, university or whatever, are contributing to the smooth, proper and efficient running of the college. They bring the expertise from whatever stratum of life by represent to bear upon the activities of the board. So often people overlook that. I pay tribute to the various boards of Thomond College and, in a wider sense, to all who serve on such boards around the country from the smallest primary school to the largest university. There is no real glory in it but there is a recognition that one is providing a valuable service and in that sense serving one's country.
This Bill, like the quality of mercy, could be said to be twice blessed in that it provides for the fusion of two excellent institutions from which both will gain. The university has always seen its mission as the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research to the highest level, particularly in areas adjuged to be of strategic benefit to the economic and social development of the country. The integration will provide an extra 600 to 700 places and will allow expansion in the areas where the university has built up a particular expertise such as science, engineering and business studies.
There has always been a significant element of the arts and humanities present in the university and the further infusion of the courses being transferred will broaden and expand this element. It is worth recalling, too, that with typical foresightedness Ireland's first arts degree in European studies commenced in Limerick in 1972. I was in Limerick on Monday at the laying of the cornerstone of the new Limerick University Foundation. A trust has been set up and a board established. There is American Irish and State investment involved in a building project of the order of £13 million.
Many tributes were paid to the excellence of the college, to its president and to the work done in it. It is a state of the art college and the entrepreneurship and enterprise of its president is quite considerable. I took the occasion to point out that, of course, one pursues excellence and relevance and this is the true basis for education. The thrust of education, while recognising its economic importance, should always be the development of the person, the development of his or her sense of confidence, the sense of at being one with oneself and with other people, the garnering of knowledge so that one is fulfilled in one's own right and to use whatever knowledge one gains to serve others. Education would have no point if that were not so.
The fusion of many of the courses, particularly those in the humanities, will be of benefit. The University of Limerick will gain from this. Given that the proposals in the Bill represent another important development in the third level education system of the country and Limerick in particular I am confident the House will welcome the Bill and, accordingly, I commend it to the House.