I am honoured to be in this House to introduce the Technological Universities Bill 2015. I am very pleased to be able to introduce a much strengthened Bill to the House on foot of a comprehensive consultation process with key stakeholders and a very co-operative and informed debate in the Dáil. I hope all Senators will agree that this is a very important Bill for the future of higher education in Ireland. It represents a sea change in the higher education landscape.
The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to a key element of the national strategy for higher education to 2030 in consolidating the institute of technology sector and establishing technological universities of increased scale and capacity. This bold move will enhance even further the performance of a sector that has always striven to deliver a first class service to students, enterprise and a range of local and regional stakeholders. Moreover, the establishment of institutions of increased scale and capacity will enable them to compete more successfully regionally and nationally. It will also allow them to progress an internationalisation agenda more competitively, bringing significant unique branding and marketing opportunities. In these contexts, the cachet of having "technological university" status cannot be overstated.
The mission and remit of these new institutions will be multi-focused. They will have a major role to play in regional development, engaging with local enterprises, especially SMEs. They will support innovation and research, nurture new business ideas and work closely with business and enterprise stakeholders to drive forward the skills agenda regionally and nationally, and productively utilise our precious human capital resource.
The Government’s objective is to deliver a modern, highly-flexible and responsive technological university model that seamlessly provides for traditional transitions and pathways from formal education but also caters for persons who return to education or seek to upskill through a more circuitous route. In this context, technological universities must balance their regional development responsibility with the provision of a wide range of disciplines and continue to develop their vital role in the facilitation of lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling in support of the individual learner. In this regard, they must also continue to forge and strengthen their links to the community, local interests and the widest possible range of stakeholders in the region in which their multi-campuses will operate. This aspect was the focus of much debate in the Dáil and I accepted some very helpful amendments in this context from my colleagues across the Chamber.
In achieving the necessary capacity and scale for a technological university, the Bill provides for two or more institutes of technology jointly making an application for technological university designation. However, I should highlight that the technological university approach is based on mutual consent and shared ambition and is not being enforced in an arbitrary or mandatory fashion on institutes of technology. Some institutes, for reasons of their own, will not seek technological university status. The Bill also provides for a single institute of technology to be subsequently incorporated into a technological university.
In conjunction with the potential merging, on establishment, of two or more institutes of technology, the Bill seeks to streamline the governing body structure of a technological university in order to make it more flexible and responsive and to predicate membership on an agreed competency basis relevant to the university’s functions.
The membership of the governing body should be equipped with the skill set necessary to guide the technological university to fulfil its maximum potential through the achievement of a broad range of functions and by addressing the needs of a wide range of stakeholders. The increasingly strategic approach required of an institution of much increased capacity and scale in this context is in line with international best practice as recommended by both the OECD and the national strategy for higher education to 2030.
In addition to the process for the establishment of technological universities and their functions and governance, the Bill also provides for several important reforms to streamline the governance and operation of existing institutes of technology. These institutes remain a crucial and valued part of the higher education infrastructure and allow for a range of delivery options in the provision of a high-class student experience, teaching excellence and research progression. The Bill marks a new departure in the development of the institute of technology sector which I am confident will bring major benefits to students, staff, individuals and local communities in the regions and to Irish society.
In terms of the Bill’s progression through the Dáil, I acknowledge a very constructive discussion on Committee Stage last November. Several amendments that strengthened certain provisions relating to meeting the needs of the community, local interests and stakeholders within the technological university process were agreed at that point. In response to stakeholder concerns that under the previous approach in the Bill institutes of technology could have merged but subsequently failed to gain technological university status, it has been amended to provide for the merging of two or more applicant institutes only upon their establishment as a technological university. This fundamental change significantly streamlines the application process. There will now be a single assessment by an expert advisory panel which will make a recommendation on an application to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, based on key eligibility criteria. The HEA will report to the Minister, who will make the final decision. In so doing, the Minister will take into consideration the needs of students, business enterprise, the professions and a range of community and related stakeholders. He or she will have regard to projected regional demand for higher education based on demographic trends, the sufficiency of the financial resources and financial viability of the applicant institutes and to compliance with Government policies on higher education. To ensure the most rigorous examination of applications, I accepted Opposition amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil to the effect that the advisory panel should contain not one but two persons with international level expertise in standards and practice in higher education. This rightly strengthens this key aspect of the Bill.
In line with the principles of gender equality, I also accepted an amendment which ensures that in making regulations relating to the membership of the academic council of a technological university, a governing body shall have regard to the objective that at least 40% of the members shall be women and 40% shall be men. This objective also applies to the composition of the governing body itself. In the broader context, technological universities must also prepare an equality statement and implement the policies set out therein.
Arising from the informed debate on Committee Stage in the Dáil, I brought forward a number of amendments to further strengthen certain references to the regional mission of the technological university in regard to the functions of the technological university, its strategic development plan and in terms of the eligibility criteria to be met upon applying for technological university designation. In that context, I sought to ensure the most inclusive wording is provided in regard to meeting the needs of, and forging strong social, creative and cultural links with, the community, local interests and other stakeholders regionally.
I wish to highlight key amendments agreed to on Report Stage that provide the Minister for Education and Skills with the power to appoint an investigator to report on any matter regarding the performance of its functions by a technological university. This power is also being provided in relation to institutes of technology, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and its constituent schools and the National College of Art and Design. For consistency across the higher education sector, it is also intended to extend this power in respect of universities. However, a number of important technical issues must be considered in respect of university governance, autonomy and control and their impact on the classification of universities in terms of wider national fiscal policy. These technical issues are being considered by the Department of Education and Skills in conjunction with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. The enactment of the Technological Universities Bill is a priority for the development of the higher education sector and I do not want to unnecessarily delay its passage. I am, therefore, proceeding with this new power in respect of technological universities, institutes of technology and the other publicly funded higher education institutions I have cited.
On Report Stage in the Dáil, in addition to the strengthening of provisions relating to the regional mission of a technological university, its interactions with local and community stakeholders and the support therefrom, following agreement with several Opposition Deputies, I also accepted a small number of technical amendments tabled by the Green Party. Following the debates in the Dáil and its passing of the Bill, I am confident that we now have a more nuanced and robust wording in several key sections that will further strengthen, in particular, the regional mission and gender equality requirements and the governance of technological universities.
Having detailed the passage of the Bill thus far, I turn to its contents. It comprises 101 sections divided into seven parts, which are followed by two Schedules. Part 1 provides for standard provisions relating to the Short Title, interpretation, orders, expenses, offences and consequential amendments.
Chapters 2 to 7 of Part 2 provide for the functions, governance, staffing, academic council, statements and finances of technological universities. In particular, section 9 sets out the general functions of a technological university, including providing programmes of education and training, engaging in research, collaborating with other higher education institutions inside and outside the State and with regional stakeholders and serving the community and public interest.
Sections 11 and 12 provide for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing body of a technological university. Section 12 details the revised composition of the governing body depending on whether it comprises either two or three institutes of technology or four or more institutes of technology. In the former case, a governing body shall have between 14 and 22 members, including the president of the technological university, a chairperson, staff and student representatives and nominees of the Minister for Education and Skills and of the relevant education and training boards, as well as between three and eight other external members. In the case of a technological university comprising not fewer than four institutes of technology, the governing body membership shall increase to between 15 and 26 members, with up to nine other external members. These external members will be appointed in accordance with a competency framework agreed with the Higher Education Authority.
Sections 13 and 14 provide for the appointment of the president and other staff of a technological university.
Section 15 relates to the superannuation provisions for newly appointed staff.
Sections 16 and 17 provide that each technological university shall have an academic council and details its functions. The functions and membership of the academic council reflect the enterprise and research focus of technological universities. This includes the involvement of business, enterprise and the professions but also the involvement of wider community and local interests and other stakeholders in the design and development of programmes of education and training. Importantly, the academic council will also include student representatives.
Sections 18 to 25, inclusive, relate to a range of governance issues, including the preparation of a strategic development plan, equality statements, budgets, accounts and annual reports, as well as matters relating to borrowing, the setting of fees and the establishment of companies. It should be noted that section 18 sets out the requirements of the strategic development plan of a technological university, including plans to provide adequate programmes of education and training for a wide variety of stakeholders and the development and promotion of strong social and cultural links, including links supporting creativity with the community.
Chapters 8 and 9 of Part 2 provide a mechanism as to how applicant institutes can apply for and, where successful, be established as a technological university. Section 26 provides a new power for the Minister for Education and Skills to appoint an investigator to carry out an investigation into any matter concerning the performance by a technological university of its functions. Section 27 provides that the Minister may request information from a governing body but may not do so during the period of an investigation under section 26.
Section 28 sets out the specific eligibility criteria with which applicant institutes must jointly comply before they can become a technological university by order of the Minister under section 36. These criteria set out a robust performance threshold for institutions wishing to become technological universities and include criteria relating to the composition of the student body, the composition of the academic staff, the doctoral level education and research activities and the ability to perform the functions of a technological university, with particular reference to its governance structures, links with regional stakeholders, quality assurance and enhancement, mobility of staff and students and collaboration with other higher education institutions.
Section 30 sets out the information to be included in an application, while section 31 provides for the appointment process for an independent, expert advisory panel to examine the application.
Sections 32 to 35, inclusive, detail the interlocking process of assessment and decision making whereby the advisory panel furnishes a report to the Higher Education Authority which in turn furnishes the report, its views on it and any other relevant information to the Minister on the application. Section 34 provides for the making of a proposed decision by the Minister, while section 35 provides that the Minister may impose conditions on applicant institutes where they do not jointly comply with all of the criteria set out in section 25.
Chapter 10 of Part 2 provides a broadly similar though streamlined mechanism for the subsequent application by and, where successful, incorporation of an institute of technology into an existing technological university.
Part 3 provides for appeals against certain decisions of the Minister by an independent appeals board.
Part 4 sets out a range of transitional provisions consequent on the making of orders under Part 2 which will ensure that functions, assets, liabilities, staff, etc., of dissolved bodies are appropriately transferred. Of particular note is section 53 which provides for the transfer of staff to the technological university. This section preserves the terms and conditions of transferring staff, including those relating to remuneration, while section 54 provides that such staff remain members of their relevant superannuation schemes.
Chapter 3 sets out arrangements consequent on an order under Part 2. Section 55 provides for the appointment by the Minister of the first governing body of a technological university. The Minister will appoint a chairperson, two external members nominated by the Minister and a nominee of the relevant education and training boards as members of the first governing body of the institutes concerned. The president of the technological university shall also be a member. Within six months, the first governing body is required to agree a competency framework with the Higher Education Authority for the appointment of external members, to establish procedures for the election of staff representatives and the appointment of external members and to conduct elections and make appointments to the governing body.
Section 56 provides for the appointment of the first president of a technological university. This person may be designated by the Minister together with his or her term of office which shall not exceed a period of ten years.
Section 57 provides for the arrangements for existing directors or presidents of a dissolved body who shall become fixed-term employees of the technological university for the duration of their contracts.
Section 58 provides for the compliance of a governing body of a technological university that has increased in size from three institutes of technology to four institutes of technology with the requirements for such enlarged governing bodies under section 12.
Sections 59 to 64, inclusive, provide for the continuation of arrangements relating to awarding, the international education mark, quality assurance and enhancement and access, transfer and progression following an order under Part 2.
Part 5 provides for a number of amendments to the governance arrangements of Dublin Institute of Technology and the institutes of technology under the Dublin Institute of Technology Act 1992 and the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, respectively. Of particular note are sections 68 and 82 which replace section 6 of each of those Acts with new sections that set out revised arrangements for the membership, terms of office, method of appointment and gender balance of the governing bodies of Dublin Institute of Technology and of an institute of technology along the same lines as the arrangements which will apply to technological universities under section 12.
Section 83 sets out procedures for the appointment of the first new governing body under the revised arrangements.
Sections 75 and 90 provide for new investigator and information powers of the Minister for Education and Skills relating to Dublin Institute of Technology and an institute of technology, respectively. In addition, Part 5 amends those Acts to revise the arrangements relating to the appointment and membership of the academic councils of those institutions, to revise and clarify the procedures for the recruitment and selection of staff, to repeal provisions which provide that certain members of staff may not be removed from office without the consent of the Minister, to revise and clarify arrangements relating to the determination of budgets and the borrowing of money, and to insert revised Second Schedules relating to the operation of the governing bodies of the relevant institutions into each Act.
Part 6 provides for the consequential amendment of a number of Acts to take account of the establishment of technological universities.
Part 7 provides for the amendment of the Acts of 1940 and 1971 to insert new investigator and information powers of the Minister for Education and Skills relating to, respectively, the Institute for Advanced Studies and its constituent schools and the National College of Art and Design.
Schedules 1 and 2 provide for matters relating to the governing bodies and presidents of technological universities, respectively.
The Technological Universities Bill is critical legislation for the higher education sector and another important step in the advancement of the national strategy for higher education. The establishment of multi-campus technological universities will bring significant additional benefits to the regions in which the campuses are located and will drive the regional development, research, innovation and skills agendas. Technological universities will also deliver a wide range of disciplines and enhanced learning experiences to students and provide enhanced opportunities for staff. These institutions will be embedded in their local and regional communities and forge even stronger links within those communities. This is important and long-awaited legislation. There are two consortia of institutes of technology in Dublin and Munster, respectively, which are waiting on the Bill’s enactment to make applications for technological university status in 2018. It is crucial that we carefully consider and discuss the Bill, but it is equally important that we do not unduly delay it given its long gestation.
I thank Senators for their invitation to the House and kind attention. I commend the Bill to the House.