To a certain extent, this is a theoretical exercise. I do not believe for a second that the Minister of State is going to accept a single amendment from this House. She is smiling so I am obviously right. It is a theoretical exercise. We are setting out the arguments but I hope they will be taken up in the other House.
Senator Ruane has demonstrated a very clear reason for the Minister of State to accept the proposal. There is nothing whatever in the Minister of State's position to militate against amendment No. 3, which concerns election by students. As the Senator has pointed out so effectively, it is in the Universities Act, which the Minister of State has been consistently quoting. Therefore, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If we must slavishly adhere to the definition of "student union" contained in the Universities Act, the least we could do is give the full definition. This will be a critical test case. If the Minister of State refuses to accept amendment No. 3, it will be perfectly obvious that what we are doing here this afternoon is an academic exercise. What the students are looking for is autonomy, independence and democratic accountability. That is not a great deal to expect from an Irish Minister of State in 2018.
I have received quite a lot of correspondence on this matter. I will put just two emails on the record of the House. The first is from a gentleman called Mr. Kieran McNulty, who from 2016 to 2017 was the president of the student union in Trinity College, where I used to teach. After a little preamble, he states:
Autonomy is always an issue for students' unions. TCDSU is lucky to have a loud voice in the governance of Trinity and thus students are able to engage in the running of the university. We are by far the largest stakeholders in the college. Indeed last year, we passed a historic student partnership agreement which cemented students as partners in Trinity governance. [Well done Trinity.] This would not have been possible if we did not sit on committees and were not recognised as student representatives. Please support the amendments to this bill, in regards to the definition of a Students' Union and 'Student representation on Academic Council'. They make sense and ensure that students' unions can do their job of representing students, without the bureaucratic hurdles they may face if they are not recognised as legitimate. This is crucial for the student voice.
This email was from somebody who was president of one of the most important student bodies in Ireland.
I have another email, this time from the president of the Union of Students in Ireland, Mr. Michael Kerrigan. Here again we are hearing a representative of the student voice. These are the democratically elected people. These are the people with whom the Minister of State is posing as being in discussion and to whose arguments she says she is listening. It is a bit like dialogue with the Vatican, as if to say: "Sit down and shut up. I am the Minister and you are just a collection of little brats." Mr. Kerrigan states:
The engagement of students in Higher Education in Ireland has changed rapidly in recent years, with internationally recognised initiatives such as the National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP), the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (NFETL) and the creation of National Quality Assurance Guidelines by the QQI all strengthening the role of students as partners in their education.
A lot of legislation is going in the direction of increasing the participation and recognition of student unions but this Bill is going against that. It is contradicting that movement. To contradict the Minister of State's very sotto voce denial, which I am sure the microphone did not pick up, the very next paragraph of the letter states: "Unfortunately, the Technological Universities Bill, as it stands, does not value students as equal partners in their education." This is what the Union of Students in Ireland is saying.
The email also states:
USI have engaged with the Department and Ministers in the process of developing Technological Universities for a number of years, with many of our concerns being ignored. [There is the dialogue. They talk and nobody listens.] We have found the past number of months frustrating as a large number of amendments have been either thrown out or rejected on disputable technicalities. Today, we are asking for your support on a number of amendments as the Bill reaches the Report Stage in the Seanad. The current definition of a Students' Union in the Bill outlines that the SU must be recognised by the TU. There is, however, no mention of this body being recognised, governed or elected by students. [Students are just left out of the definition.] The first amendment does not make huge changes to the definition, but adds certainty that this body will be democratically elected by students. [There is the nub of the matter.] On several occasions to date, amendments on an increase in student representation on the Governing Body have been thrown out due to a possible cost to the state. Currently, there are no cases of students receiving payments for sitting on this body, however, if a Governing Body is held on a satellite campus, they may be entitled to expenses. That this amendment was thrown out on such a technicality shows how little the student voice is valued.
It also demonstrates how little Seanad Éireann is valued. It is utter nonsense that one can throw out an amendment because it makes some kind of putative charge, however small and insignificant. It means that, theoretically, one could disbar any amendment whatever because there is a cost to every amendment. It may be tiny or marginal but even the cost of printing an amendment is a cost on the Exchequer. Therefore, Seanad Éireann, under the Constitution and Standing Orders of this House, as currently held, has no right to make any amendment whatsoever.
If we were to adhere strictly to the formulation of words that governs amendments in this House, we would never have an amendment allowed. Every amendment carries a charge. The question of how small or insignificant the charge is does not matter to the application of this rule. The very fact that the charge is created on the Exchequer rules the amendment out of order.
Therefore, no amendments whatever should be allowed in Seanad Éireann. That is the kind of nonsense we are confronted with and the sooner we clear up this matter the better. I will strongly support these amendments. I am not sure whether Senator Ruane is expecting a positive response. If I may make a sexist comment, I note she is wearing very becoming lipstick and so perhaps she is expecting a positive result to the amendments. In any case I think they are very well argued and I will strongly support them.