I am pleased to bring the Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 before the House. I am also pleased to say that during its passage through the other House, there was widespread acknowledgment of the success of our institutes of technology, as well as cross-party support for this legislation.
The Bill is being considered at a period of profound change and importance for higher education. A fortnight ago, the Government launched the strategy for science, technology and innovation and our higher education institutions will have a key role in delivering that strategy. Last Monday, the Minister for Education and Science authorised the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to issue a formal "call for proposals" from universities and institutes of technology under the strategic innovation fund. Together, these initiatives represent an investment of more than €4 billion.
In making these major investments, the Government recognises the imperative of high-quality third and fourth level education if we are to succeed in today's highly-competitive, global knowledge environment. Our future economic and social prosperity will undoubtedly depend on the strength of our research and development base and on our ability to produce new and better products and to provide highly educated creative people. This is the context for this legislation. It is an explicit recognition of the importance and value of the institutes of technology to our citizens and our overall education system.
To maximise the contribution of higher education to the social and economic progress of our nation, the institutes of technology must be supported to achieve their full potential. Under this legislation, they will have greater autonomy to fulfil their missions. They will also be brought within the remit of the HEA, which will provide for a more integrated and cohesive strategic approach to the development of higher education in line with national priorities.
While the institutes of technology are a relatively recent addition to higher education, they have been a major success story. It is only in recent decades that they first appeared on the education scene and even more recently that they were put on a statutory footing with the 1992 enactment of the Regional Technical Colleges Act and the Dublin Institute of Technology Act. The separate legislative instruments reflect the difference in genesis of the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, to the other institutes.
A brief consideration of the history of the institutes is useful in illustrating how far they have come and how rapidly they have attained their current position in higher education. Several appraisals of Irish education were carried out in the 1960s. Two of these, a 1964 OECD study, Technician Training in Ireland, and the Investment in Education report of 1965, concluded that urgent attention was required in the area of advanced technical education to produce technically qualified people against a backdrop of new planning for industrial development.
The response of the Government was to announce the establishment of several regional technical colleges, RTCs. The Minister of the day then set up a steering committee on technical education to advise him on the role of these new educational establishments. In its 1967 report, the committee concluded that the brief for these new institutions should be to educate "for trade and industry over a broad spectrum of occupations ranging from craft to professional level, notably in engineering and science, but also in commercial, linguistic and other specialties". The first regional technical colleges commenced operations in 1970. There were 11 of them when they were put on a statutory footing with the 1992 Act and that number has since increased to 13.
In 1977, the City of Dublin VEC established the DIT, bringing together six colleges located across the city into a single entity. These colleges focused on applied education and training in a wide range of occupations, trades and skills, and were, up to the 1970s, almost the sole provider of technician and technological training and education. In the early days of the DIT, much of the activity was at second level, continuing the work of the previously separate colleges. Gradually, however, an increased third level provision evolved. Uniquely among the institutes of technology, the DIT has statutory power to make its own academic awards.
Following the enactment of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999, the establishment of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, the development of a national framework for qualifications by the NQAI and the provisions facilitating delegated authority for making academic awards provided institutes with the means to make their own awards. The majority of institutes can now make awards up to masters level — level nine on the national framework of qualifications — while four institutes have authority to make awards at level ten, which is doctorate level. This is indicative of the progress the institutes have made and is a clearly validated statement of the excellent academic standards in the sector. I am sure Members join with me in commending the institutes for these achievements, as well as acknowledging the critically important role played by the various VECs in the establishment and operation of the institutes.
A characteristic of the institutes that has remained strong is their regional focus. It is evident in the original title, regional technical college, that this focus was central to their mission. It is important to note that it has been retained through the significant developments that have taken place in the sector. As an example, the regional focus is expressed in the local representation provisions for governing bodies in the existing legislation and this is carried through into the Bill now before this House. The institutes have forged strong community and commercial links in their regions and this has been singularly successful. Examples of collaboration with industry based in an institute's region are many and have proven to be very successful and mutually beneficial. These collaborative activities help the institutes to develop and refine core strengths that, quite often, are unique and will help to develop centres of excellence comparable with any in the higher education domain. These links are critically important for industry, for institutes of technology, for regions and for the country's social and economic progress.
One of the most obvious features of the higher education system in Ireland is what we know as the binary system, a university sector and an institute of technology sector. Successive Governments have made it a policy to maintain the system, recognising the importance of the distinctive role, mission and provision in both sectors. However, it has become apparent relatively recently that while preserving and valuing the differences of both, there is a need to better integrate the two components. As things stand, the strategic management of the universities differs from that of the institutes of technology in that the Higher Education Authority, HEA, operates as the funding and overseeing agency for the universities while the Department of Education and Science has very substantial statutory functions with regard to the operation of the institutes.
The House will be aware of the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland which was published in 2004. The review supported Ireland's strategic ambition of placing its higher education system at the front rank of the OECD in the context of the wider national objective of developing a world-leading knowledge economy and society. A key recommendation in the resulting report was that the differentiation in mission of the university and institute of technology sectors should be retained but that both sectors should be brought within the remit of a single authority in order to achieve a unified higher education strategy. A further recommendation stated that the extent of external regulation of the institutes of technology should be eased, which would give them greater managerial freedom to respond to the opportunities and challenges of supporting regional and national social and economic development.
Without doubt, the primary purpose of education at all levels is to help people to reach their full potential as individuals. However, it is also clear that a great benefit to society and societal well-being derives from education. Developing and enhancing our educational system in its entirety, particularly among marginalised groups, will serve to enhance that societal well-being, help to build a more inclusive society and be a key driver of our social and economic progress as a nation.
The OECD review summarised the importance of the economic dimension of education where it stated "Ireland was one of the first European countries to grasp the economic importance of education and economists suggest that this upskilling of the economy accounts for almost 1% of additional national output over the last decade or so". The Minister said in the other House that to acknowledge this fact is not, as some would represent it, to advocate a utilitarian approach to education. Instead, I regard it as clear evidence of the impact of investment in education. It is a virtuous circle. Investment in education generates economic growth which in turn provides us with more resources to invest and, in doing so, helps us to empower people and enhance their lives.
As greater numbers of people progress through the system to third level and beyond, the level and quality of the national skill set rises commensurately. This, in turn, serves to attract and retain those high quality, high skills and high value-adding jobs that are vital to our progressing to become a high technology, knowledge-based economy.
The rate of participation in higher education has increased consistently over the past 20 years. The most recent participation study confirms the continuing trend. It shows that the national admission rate was 55% in 2004 — up from 44% in 1998.
The Government has recognised that, collectively, our higher education institutions represent a highly valuable national resource. It is vital that we ensure that all the component parts of higher education are working together on a system-wide basis so we can build world class quality and strength in the system and, in doing so, leverage the resource that is the institutions to realise the full potential of the system.
In investing in the development of third and fourth level education to support wider social and economic goals, a central Government objective is to ensure that all our citizens have a fair and equal opportunity to share in the considerable personal benefits of participation at these levels. Improving access for societal groups that, for one reason or another, have not traditionally participated in higher education is one of our key objectives. The institute of technology sector has a strong record of opening up opportunity and this progress needs to be built on throughout the higher education system.
Recent surveys indicate significant improvements in participation rates from young people in the lower socioeconomic groups and from areas that traditionally have been under-represented. This is the result of a number of key targeted programmes and interventions. The goal of first, second and third level educational disadvantage and community education programmes funded by the Department of Education and Science has been to achieve tangible improvements in participation, progression and successful completion among both younger and older age cohorts from disadvantaged groups. A recent study completed for the institutes shows very substantial improvement in retention and completion rates in the institutes and I want to acknowledge the efforts made to achieve that progress.
The Action Plan 2005-2007, published in December 2004 by the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education, identifies a number of practical goals which will help to achieve further progress. Support for these innovative measures will be an important priority. Increasing numbers of students are also being encouraged and supported in making the choice to participate in higher education by improvements in the higher education grant scheme with priority for funding being given to students eligible for the top-up grants.
The changes introduced by this Bill are an essential element of this approach. The development of the Institutes of Technology has been governed by the various regional technical college, RTC, and Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, statutes since 1992. Prior to that various vocational educational committee, VEC, statutes applied. These statutes provided a tight prescription of what the institutes could and could not do and required the close involvement of the Department of Education and Science and the VECs in institutes' activities. I think it is fair to say that the legislation governing the institutes was of its time and appropriate. However, the evolution of the institutes as providers of third and, in some instances, fourth level education means that they have outgrown these rules. To further develop and to allow them to contribute to their full potential, new rules are needed.
While the Bill is a technical Bill, primarily amending previous legislation, its effects are far reaching. When enacted, it will have a very significant impact on the system of higher education in Ireland. Many of the amendments concern replacing the respective roles of the Department of Education and Science and the VEC with the HEA and there are improved governance provisions which will support the institutes in developing within the ambit of the HEA. I would like to outline some of the important features of the new Bill. Parts 2 and 3 contain similar provisions relating to the Institutes of Technology governed by the RTC Acts and the DIT Acts, respectively.
The Bill provides for the designation of the institutes of technology as institutes of higher education under the HEA by amending the Higher Education Authority Act 1971. This designation, and the amendments to the RTC Acts and the DIT Acts in the Bill mean that, in practice, the HEA and the institutes will engage and relate in a way that is very similar to the way the HEA and the universities engage.
There are a number of areas where the current operation of the institutes will alter as a consequence of the role of the HEA. One of the main areas where the Bill will impact is on budgets and finances. To date, the practice has been that the institutes' proposed budgets were submitted through the relevant VEC to the Department of Education and Science. The Department of Education and Science then determines a provisional allocation following examination and subsequently, taking any appeals into account, a final allocation. This Bill provides for new arrangements whereby the HEA, rather than the VEC and the Department of Education and Science, will approve an institute's budget and allocate money to the institute from the overall allocation made by the Department of Education and Science. The HEA will therefore determine an institute's budget in line with the funding relationship between the HEA and the universities.
The HEA will also assume a role in establishing formal arrangements to permit institutes to borrow or to underwrite borrowings, again in a manner similar to that prevailing in the university sector. This is an important managerial freedom in achieving a greater level of institutional flexibility and responsiveness.
The authority will approve the format of accounts maintained by the institutes. This removes the Department and the VEC from their existing roles, but the provisions relating to the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the laying of the accounts before the Houses of the Oireachtas remain. The Department's role with regard to the approval of research, consultancy or development work or the acquisition of land will devolve to the HEA. The HEA will now determine the procedures to be used for selection of a new director of an institute or president of the DIT when the post falls to be filled. It will consult with the governing body where a temporary appointment is to be made.
The net effect of these provisions will be to loosen the restrictive statutory controls under which the institutes currently operate. The new arrangements will provide for a more autonomous and strategic relationship with the Government through the HEA, reflecting the dynamic and competitive nature of the environment in which the institutes are now operating.
In terms of internal institutional governance and management, the Bill clarifies the respective functions of the governing body and director or president. It includes a specific provision requiring the institutes to contribute to the promotion of the economic, cultural and social development of the State and to respect the diversity of values, beliefs and traditions in Irish society.
The governing body will be empowered to require the director to prepare a strategic plan for the college, to approve this plan and to provide a copy of it to the HEA and the Minister. It will also require the director to prepare a statement of the policies of the college on access for underrepresented, disadvantaged and disabled persons and on equality, including gender equality. The governing body will be required to approve this statement of policies. It will also be obliged to establish written procedures for dispute resolution, other than industrial relations disputes which would fall to be dealt with under existing structures, following consultation with staff and student representative groups.
The director will manage and direct the academic, administrative, financial, personnel and other activities of the college. This will be carried out subject to the policies determined by the governing body and the director will be answerable to the governing body for the efficient and effective management of the college and his or her performance. The Bill designates the director, appointed by the governing body, as the accountable person. This means the director is the person who, when required, will give evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts of the regularity and propriety of college accounts, the economy and efficiency of the college in using its resources, the systems and procedures in place for evaluating the effectiveness of it operations and other matters.
Overall, these elements of the Bill provide for improved institutional governance at governing body level and give greater clarity to the oversight role of the governing body and management role of the director and president.
In addition, the Minister introduced an amendment on Committee Stage in the other House which provides for the tourism college in Killybegs, currently operating under the auspices of the County Donegal VEC, to be designated as a constituent school of the Letterkenny Institute of Technology. This has been agreed with the tourism college staff, the County Donegal VEC and the governing body of Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
I wish to refer to two issues that generated debate on Second and Committee Stages in the other House. The first of these is the request that the notion of tenure be introduced with regard to the academic staff of the institutes. Tenure is a concept which had its place when there was doubt over academic freedom and there was little in the way of employment protection legislation. Section 7 of the Bill introduces the principle of academic freedom to the institutes of technology for the first time and states that a member of the academic staff of an institute will not be disadvantaged for the exercise of that academic freedom. Given the strength of this provision and the substantial and progressive employment protection legislation available in this country, I am satisfied that these provisions represent robust protections for institute staff.
The second issue relates to the appearance of the accountable person, that is, a director or president of an institute, before the Committee of Public Accounts. The Bill contains a provision which prevents that person offering his or her opinion on the merits, or otherwise, of Government policy. It is important to emphasise that this prohibition exists solely with regard to appearances before the aforementioned committee and the director or president is free to give his or her views in any other forum. It is standard provision in legislation and reflects the role of the Committee of Public Accounts in investigating matters of financial probity and propriety.
In moving forward on these various fronts, the Government is taking a system-wide approach to the development of higher education. The various elements are interlinked and interrelated. In a country of Ireland's size, to produce maximum gain for society and the economy, the focus must be on aligning the various elements to achieve the system-wide quality improvement that will support our wider national goals.
The Institutes of Technology Bill 2006 is about modernising our approach to the governance and the strategic management of higher education. It presents new challenges and opportunities for the institutes of technology and for the HEA. We are charting a new course for higher education. I wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge the enormous contribution made by past and present students, staff, management, governing body members and VECs to bringing the institutes to this stage in their development. They have done the sector and the nation proud.
This legislation is a major milestone for the sector and for the development of higher education in Ireland. By bringing the institutes of technology and universities together under the remit of the HEA, we can achieve a more cohesive strategic approach that draws on the diverse strengths of all of our higher education institutions. The new managerial freedoms and supports provided for under this Bill will allow the institutes of technology to make their full contribution in that next stage of development. I trust the House will agree with me regarding the very positive benefits of this Bill and look forward to listening and to debating the various provisions with the Members of this House.