Thursday, 17 April 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
4. Mr. Martin asked the Minister for Education the number of times the expert group established to consider the matter of the upgrading of regional technical colleges to the status of institutes of technology has met; when she expects the group to complete its report; and whether the process of upgrading a regional technical college to the status of an institute of technology will necessitate specific legislation or ministerial order. [10313/97]
I understand that the group has considered reports and documents relevant to its terms of reference. It has also received written submissions from each of the regional technical colleges and has engaged in lengthy discussions with senior representatives of the individual colleges over a period of two days.
As the Deputy knows, under the provisions of the Regional Technical Colleges Act, 1992 a regional technical college may be renamed by ministerial order. However, amending legislation would be required to enable a regional technical college to confer its own awards.
Mr. Martin: It appears that my tabling of this question has accelerated activity on this front. Does the Minister consider that this group having met on four occasions adequately demonstrates the urgency of this matter? Will she state whether it will be in a position to report by the end of this month, there being considerable speculation that the Dáil may be dissolved by then and whether  recommendations will be in place prior to the calling of a general election?
The high level group met on four occasions and studied submissions from each of the regional technical colleges. In the course of two full day meetings, the group met senior representatives of all of the colleges. I have not interfered in any way with its work. I promised to respond by establishing a high level group, stipulating that I wanted speedy but rigorous recommendations with systems put in place. I am satisfied the high level group has met people, spoken to all the colleges and studied submissions and documentation. If necessary I can list the colleges from Letterkenny to Dún Laoghaire. Approximately an hour to an hour and a half was spent with each college during which it heard a presentation of oral submissions made prior to their coming to the committee. I have not sought a response from the delegations. Given that the committee is independent it is expected to proceed in accordance with its terms of reference. I have asked for a report by the end of April and have no reason to expect otherwise. Far be it from me to be the person to speculate on any timetable.
Mr. Martin: Will the high level group be in a position to report by the end of April? Has the Minister received an indication it will have its work completed by then? That is the point I was trying to glean from her. When the Minister was in Cork recently with the Tánaiste I think commitments were given to a delegation from Cork Regional Technical College that it would be upgraded to an institute of technology. Will the Minister confirm where that promise stands? The Minister said legislation would be required to give degree awarding powers to any college. In her press statement, in relation to Waterford Regional Technical College, some months ago the Minister said she was conferring upon Waterford regional technical college the right to award its own degrees. Given that legislation will be required to do that, when is it expected to come before the House?
Ms Bhreathnach: The Deputy has asked three questions. First, on the question of whether I was satisfied I would receive the report by the end of April, I have had no indication otherwise. Second, the Deputy said I had promised that Cork Regional Technical College would become an institute. I was satisfied with the meeting we had with representatives of the regional technical college in Cork and that whatever evaluation system might be put in place or whatever criteria might be applied Cork Regional Technical College would be able to respond to a rigorous analysis of its activities. I did not commit myself — it  would not be my style — and it is important I am not on the record as confirming any promises given to the automatic upgrading of any college. I have a responsibility——
Ms Bhreathnach: The matter will be confirmed because the college is very involved in the process and, therefore, we are not responding to a glib promise. It is committed to a system being put in place which would allow for a rigorous evaluation of the activities of the college and the other colleges in the regional technical college sector and that there will be no delays. I am satisfied there are no delays. The level of work and commitment by this college and others indicates there is no delay on its side. Third, on the question of whether there will be legislation, we have had the recommendation from the special committee about the position of Waterford. The order to change name is one that can be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. On the degree awarding status of a college, that is provided for in Dublin Institute of Technology legislation but not for regional technical colleges. I said I will give careful consideration to the group's recommendations, including any legislative implications they may have.
Miss Coughlan: Ag eirí as an freagra a bhfuair muid leis an tAire, is it unfair of her to find a situation within the regional technical college sector to the detriment of the smaller colleges? Will she guarantee that the smaller colleges, for example, Letterkenny and Dundalk, will be able to compete and stay within the proper third level sector and will not be treated differently from Waterford, Dún Laoghaire or Cork? Will she advise as to when she anticipates bringing forward legislation in regard to Waterford?
Ms Bhreathnach: I refer the Deputy to the chapter in the White Paper where the future of the third level sector is clearly spelt out. It is an exciting sector and meets many needs from certificate to diploma to degree, some within the regional technical college sector which have degrees awarded for them. Given the investment in the college in Letterkenny one can be satisfied the Department of Education and the Government are committed to the continuing development of the sector which, after ten years of growth, is not being stymied or constrained and any facility that is available to colleges is being addressed through the regional technical college sector. In the case of Waterford, its activities had been examined by an expert group. On the recommendation of that group — it did not happen  quickly — because of the absence of degree awarding powers in the south east, I accepted its recommendation that the name be changed, following which I was put under extraordinary pressure. I did not believe, because I have seen it happen in other countries which are quite near, that what is perceived to be upgrading should happen without a rigorous appraisal and a process being put in place. My commitment is measured in the funding provided. All the colleges, including Letterkenny and the newest in Dún Laoghaire, met the high level group and I have committed myself to its recommendations, including legislation. This sector has not been constrained in any way by this or the previous Government.
Ms Bhreathnach: I have a record of doing it. When an expert group is given terms of reference and asked to make recommendations — I thank Professor Donnelly for accepting the chair of the group — for consideration by the Minister, the Department and the Government, I am committed to giving consideration to its recommendations which are awaited. That is what the group would expect. I guarantee to give the group the consideration I as Minister owe it for serving education and the development of education in this way.
Mr. Martin: I put it to the Minister, in the context of the background to all this, that the only reason the expert group was established and for the rigorous assessment is simply that the Minister issued a press release in relation to Waterford and took a decision in relation to Waterford in isolation from everybody else. Following the political outcry a damage limitation exercise had to be engaged in — hence the establishment of the expert group to bail the Minister out politically. I have no difficulty with the decision in relation to Waterford. The Minister made a commitment in relation to Waterford that it would have degree awarding powers, as contained in the press statement issued at the time. She indicated today that this would require legislation. When will it be introduced?
Ms Bhreathnach: I cannot confirm how people from Cork reacted to a press statement. The report on Waterford Regional Technical College was available to me from July 1996. It was produced by a committee of experts who made recommendations.
Ms Bhreathnach: The Deputy cannot put words in my mouth, although he may paint a picture that I do not see. It was publicly known that the Higher Education Authority had been asked to put together an expert group which met and  made recommendations according to a timetable. The recommendations by the steering group and the Higher Education Authority were put into the public arena.
There are other colleges under consideration, Cork being one. The development of the regional technical college sector is under review because legislative changes are promised to allow the Higher Education Authority to advise the Minister. I would refer the Deputy to the White Paper——
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