Thursday, 21 January 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the following issue: the decision of the Minister for Education and Science to dissolve the National University of Ireland, NUI, without meaningful consultation with the four constituent universities, namely, UCC, UCD, NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth, and the five recognised colleges to which the NUI makes awards, namely, the Royal College of Surgeons, the National College of Art and Design, the Institute of Public Administration, the Shannon College of Hotel Management and the Milltown Institute; having regard to the absence of the publication of the draft legislation, qualifications (education and training) Bill, which is not due to be published until the end of 2010; in advance of the publication of the report of the Hunt group established in February 2009, which is reviewing the overall strategy for third level education; and in the absence of a vibrant and coherent Government policy to promote Ireland internationally as a centre of excellence for third level education.
The promised legislative changes will be incorporated in Seanad reform legislation under the guidance of a Department that cannot get its own legislative act together. The notion that it will hitch this wagon of institutional reform to the much more dubious train of Seanad reform is absolute nonsense.
What the Department of Education and Science has done is to create an atmosphere of complete instability and uncertainty as to the future of these institutions. It promised that change will be delivered through a most dubious vehicle, that of Seanad reform, which if it is to go the direction that all of us believe will probably be necessary will also require a constitutional referendum.
It is illogical and inexplicable that this instant and unilateral announcement was made yesterday at three minutes to midnight in terms of the consultation process. The chancellor and the registrar of the NUI were summoned at 11 a.m. yesterday by the officials of the Minister for Education and Science to be told by the Minister that this was going ahead. Many people in some of our key universities received no advance knowledge that this was likely to happen.
The Minister of State has a good record on educational matters and by virtue of his professional background has a very clear understanding of this. If we want to become a knowledge economy, which is a shared aspiration throughout the House, and if we want to use the resources of our educational institutions which have an international reputation then dismantling the brand of the National University of Ireland is not the way to go. Already, damage has been done by the Department of Education and Science in scaling down the marketing efforts associated with promoting Ireland as a centre of international educational excellence. The education Ireland Bill has been demoted to the point where it will not be brought forward. This admission has been made by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. In addition, his suggestion that responsibility for the marketing abroad of Irish educational excellence at third level, which came to his attention during a recent visit to China, should be carried out by Enterprise Ireland has not been picked up by that body.
To add insult to injury, and chaos and uncertainty to a clear well-established situation which the current occupants want to retain and which on its abolition will deliver no saving of any significance to the State, the Minister has introduced this announcement and I ask him to withdraw it and to reconsider what the future should be.
Deputy Dick Roche: I have a lengthy reply from the Department of Education and Science but I will draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns expressed by Deputy Quinn. I am taking the Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, who apologises for his inability to be here.
As Deputy Quinn is well aware, the Government has been considering the role of the NUI in the context both of the establishment of the new qualifications and quality assurance and the recommendation on dissolution contained in the McCarthy report. The qualifications and quality assurance landscape was examined with a view to simplifying the many relationships between colleges and agencies and the Government recently approved the general scheme of the legislation bringing the functions of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Irish Universities Quality Board, HETAC and FETAC into a new single agency. I must say that the proliferation of agencies has left me a little in the cold.
In the October 2008 budget, the Government announced that the NUI’s functions would be considered in the context of the establishment of an amalgamated qualifications and quality assurance agency and there was a consultation paper issued on the issues and submissions were received. At the same time a consultative process on the future of the higher education sector has been under way. There has been ample opportunity for all interested parties to make their views known.
Since the enactment of the Universities Act 1997, the NUI has not been a federal university in any real sense. While the NUI supplies some shared services, all significant powers ordinarily associated with a university are directly assigned to the four constituent universities. They make their own awards and have their own quality assurance procedures which are externally reviewed not by the NUI but by the Irish Universities Quality Board. While the NUI senate provides a forum for discussion on most major issues the universities themselves make the decisions.
New partnerships between universities and institutions are evidence that the agenda on collaboration between higher education institutions has moved on and that the NUI is becoming less relevant. The current arrangement where a separate awarding and quality assurance framework is maintained by NUI for only five recognised colleges is not sustainable. Some of these recognised colleges are exploring alternatives themselves. The recognised colleges could enter a quality assurance and award making relationship with the new agency or with an existing university.
The dissolution of the NUI is not primarily a matter of saving money. The net savings arising from dissolution may be in the region of €1 million. Rather it is a matter of being unable to support the continuation of the NUI to carry out its remaining functions, the bulk of which will now most likely be performed by the constituent universities themselves. The Minister for Education and Science concluded that having a separate institution make awards for a small and reducing number of recognised colleges and to deliver certain shared services for some of the universities is neither strategic nor sustainable. It is in this context that the Government has decided to dissolve the National University of Ireland. There is no need to delay while the higher education strategy is being finalised.
As Deputy Quinn stated, the NUI has made an enormous contribution over the past 100 years to our cultural life and national development. The decision to dissolve the NUI was not taken lightly. The NUI brand enjoys respect and recognition domestically and internationally. The awards made by the NUI’s constituent universities are entitled awards of the NUI, and will continue to be so. The Minister is open to discussing with the constituent universities an appropriate mechanism to ensure the protection of the integrity and international reputation of the NUI degree, which is the core issue raised by Deputy Quinn.
Deputy Dick Roche: The legislation amalgamating the qualifications and quality assurance bodies will include provision for the amalgamated agency to establish a code of practice and quality mark for the provision of educational services to international students. Education and training providers will be able to apply for the quality mark based on their compliance with the code of practice, which will cover such issues as treatment of fees and support services for international students. Additional measures will apply to providers of English language courses. The quality mark will be a valuable promotional tool for education and training providers, and it is a necessary tool.
In addition, under new arrangements recently put in place by the Minister to promote Ireland as a centre for international education, Enterprise Ireland has been given operational responsibility, under his authority, for the marketing and promotion of the “Education Ireland” brand overseas and the development, promotion and marketing of international higher education. I was surprised at the Deputy’s comments in this regard because on a number of recent visits I was aware of Enterprise Ireland having an input. It may differ from place to place, I am not sure.
Co-ordination of our national effort is hugely important. That is why the Minister has established a high level group on international education, which will co-ordinate the efforts of the education sector and the national agencies. This group will meet for the first time next week.
The Minister is confident these initiatives will further strengthen Ireland’s reputation for educational excellence and help to ensure that we can take fullest advantage of the growing market in international education.
Work will now begin on determining, in consultation with the NUI and the constituent universities, the most appropriate arrangements for distributing NUI functions. On the question of the NUI’s role in the election of members of Seanad Éireann, the Minister will work closely with his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the context of wider plans for Seanad reform. Like Deputy Quinn I have some experience of this and I wish them both well. It is intended that appropriate legislative provision for dissolution will be made in legislation amalgamating the qualifications and quality assurance bodies. That is from where the reference to Seanad Éireann comes. I will ensure that the Minister is aware of the Deputy’s concerns because I believe that the NUI has made a very valuable contribution to graduates. However, I must also make the point that I believe the educational landscape in Ireland has changed out of all recognition in recent years.
Deputy Dick Roche: We provide world-class education and whatever institution looks after the quality mark and the marketing we should get on with it because phenomenal opportunities exist for Ireland.
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