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Other Questions - University Status

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 762 No. 1

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 9.  Deputy Paudie Coffey Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  since the publication of the criteria for technological university status, the steps he has taken to develop the heads of a Bill that will give legal effect to technological universities; the progress that has been made since the criteria’s publication for establishment of a technological university in the south east as outlined in the programme for Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19419/12]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn A clear, four stage process and criteria for designation as technological university was published in February of this year. Institutions proposing to merge and apply for designation as technological universities, including those in the south east, must submit a formal expression of interest within a six month period and will be advised within a further six months whether they can proceed to the second stage for designation. The drafting of legislative proposals to provide for the amalgamation of institutes of technology and the establishment of technological universities will be advanced in tandem with the designation process as part of the work which is under way on implementing the higher education strategy.

Deputy Pat Deering: Information on Patrick Deering Zoom on Patrick Deering I welcome the timescale of the process outlined by the Minister. Are heads of a Bill required to bring forward legislation to implement the process? There is a precedent. The University of Limerick was established in 1972 as the National Institute of Higher Education. Is it possible this precedent could be used in future? It is important that the matter is not kept off the agenda for an indefinite period. The south east is probably the largest area of the country with no university in the area and it has a population of approximately 500,000. I support the views of my colleagues in Waterford, including Deputy Coffey, who are keen to progress the idea in the south-east area, given the high unemployment situation there at the moment. We need an impetus such as a technological university to address this.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn As part of the process, the Higher Education Authority has written to all the institutions, including the institutes of technology and other third level colleges. The authority has given the institutions six months to respond to the recommendations of what is known as the Hunt report, the review of higher education that my predecessor and the Administration of which Deputy Smith was a member published in January 2011. They were given six months to indicate what they intended to do and where they envisaged their future, including whether the various institutes of technology wished to link with another institute of technology to pursue the prospect of becoming a technological university.

Ireland has seven universities and the Dublin Institute of Technology, which is assumed to be similar to a university although it does not have the categorisation or title of a university. The report recommended that we do not need any more universities given the population of 4.6 million in the State. However, there is merit in the concept of a technological university. The criteria required by an institution to reach the status of a technological university were published in the formal reply in February. It will be up to individual institutions to decide whether they want to have a crack at going for it. They will indicate whether they wish to do so within the six month period. The responses will be evaluated in the course of another six months. Therefore, 12 months from having received the letter, they will either get the go-ahead to go to the next stage or otherwise. If we get an indication from an institution that it wishes to proceed and the proposal is credible, then the necessary legislative frameworks will be put in place.

However, I emphasise that the decision to confer technological university status on any group or cluster of technological colleges will not be made in the House and it will not be decided politically. It will be decided by an international review panel that will review the application by [84]any group or groupings. It will examine the criteria we set out in advance. These are available if anyone wishes to examine them. A decision will be made by the international advisory group established on objective criteria and the group will advise the Minister of the day.

I wish to explain the political thinking behind this. In Britain, Maggie Thatcher re-labelled every polytechnic as a university. One can come across the University of East Lancashire and so on. In the process, this devalued university status among the mainstream universities in the United Kingdom. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge will always be “Oxford” and “Cambridge” and the University of London and the London School of Economics will have their status, just as Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin have a certain status here. However, the other universities will be devalued by a political decision, as happened in Britain. I have no intention of going down that road. Institutions should be granted the status on merit. I hope Members share that view. The process has been laid out. The expectation is that the south-east colleges will come together. I am aware informally that this is their intention. However, a process must be adhered to and I have laid it out.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I agree with the approach of the Minister. We have discussed previously in the House the utmost importance of safeguarding academic standards. That goes without saying. It is important that the HEA brings in an internationally renowned panel of experts. I know from speaking to members of my political party in the south east and other interested parties that the people in the south east are passionate with regard to bringing an additional resource to their area. I fully understand this view. The Minister will recall that previously Deputy Seamus Kirk commented on the position in the north east. Are potential constituent colleges from outside the jurisdiction eligible to apply as part of a clustering arrangement with colleges and third level institutes in our State?

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I am unsure of the precise technical answer to that question but let me offer an opinion. I have established a good working relationship with my counterpart in Northern Ireland who now has total responsibility for higher level education. This was previously the remit of another Minister in the Executive there. He has the same range as I have now. We are considering cross-Border collaboration in several ways.

I imagine a university recognised by two separate, legal jurisdictions would require the co-operation and agreement of both. I am not averse to it. There are seven universities here as well as the Dublin Institute of Technology and there are two universities in Northern Ireland. The report calls for collaboration and I support this call. When I met the presidents and chairpersons of the 14 institutes of technology I indicated they should consider an all-Ireland collaborative approach to third level provision in future. If that collaboration moves in the direction of a technological university then I do not envisage the Border as a barrier. However, any institution would have to meet the academic criteria and the standards set out. If this means collaboration between Belfast and Dublin to achieve it, I am open to that. I am offering this to the Deputy as an opinion; it has not, as yet, come about. If the Higher Education Authority were to decide after six months that such a joint approach is a credible one and should be facilitated, then we would have to take the steps — between Belfast and Dublin and possibly London, although that is unlikely — to allow it to happen.

Deputy Pat Deering: Information on Patrick Deering Zoom on Patrick Deering I concur with Deputy Smith in regard to the importance of maintaining academic standards. We will never sort out our unemployment situation, whether in the south east or anywhere else, merely by changing the name over the door of a university. We must strive to improve standards into the future in order to achieve our objectives.

[85]Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Coming from south Ulster I am anxious that we drive forward the North-South agenda to a greater degree. Significant numbers of students from Cavan and Monaghan go to colleges in the North, with students from the Six Counties moving in the other direction as well. There is potential to drive that type of cross-Border facilitation forward. Dundalk Institute of Technology has made a huge effort to provide access to young people from disadvantaged homes and less well-off backgrounds, with the percentage of students coming from families in which they are the first to proceed to third level being particularly high. It would be extremely bad for our education system if Dundalk Institute of Technology were to be left out on a limb and unable to maximise its potential.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Unfortunately, we do not have time to tour the entire country at Question Time.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe Zoom on Sean Crowe The dead hand, if it comes, will not come from the Minister or the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, on this matter. One would have assumed there would be greater support from the European Union for cross-Border initiatives of this type.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I have embarked on a survey in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Mr. John O’Dowd, of parents of children at both primary and post-primary level living along a corridor 30 km wide from Derry to Newry with a view to determining the degree of demand for sending children across the Border to school for whatever reason, whether ethos, convenience, catchment area or place of employment. If there is sufficient expression of interest, the objective is that, effective from September 2013, people living, for example, in the Finn Valley can opt to send their children across the Finn river to Cavan or Monaghan, and vice versa. The configuration of the Border tends to follow natural geographical features such as rivers, which does not necessarily correlate with the catchment area of the population. We would then do a reconciliation on a per capita basis between pupils on either side.

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