Dáil Éireann - Volume 390 - 25 May, 1989

University of Limerick Bill, 1989: Second Stage.

Minister for Education (Mrs. O'Rourke): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

It gives me great pleasure to bring forward these two Bills — the Dublin City University Bill, 1989, and the University of Limerick Bill, 1989.

Ireland has a long and proud tradition in the area of education. Our educational system, to a large degree, has withstood the test of time and the standards it has achieved at all levels are the result of the dedication of successive Governments and the investment of time and effort by parents and those who work within the education system devoted to teaching, research and, in general, to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

It can be argued that the monasteries of Ireland were the precursors of the mediaeval university as seats of learning and scholarship. However, the university at Bologna, established in the 12th century, and, then, Paris are generally regarded as the first of the mediaeval universities. It was not surprising, therefore that attempts were made to establish a university of scholars in Dublin during the early part of the 14th century. The inchoate University of St. Patrick was established by Papal Bull of Pope Clement Vth in the following terms:

[1263] By our apostolic authority we decide that in the same city of Dublin... there should be a university of scholars and...in every lawful science and faculty...in which masters may have liberty to teach and students to hear lectures in the same faculties.

There is evidence that lectures were given and that there was a formal conferring of degrees on teachers and on students who had been educated elsewhere. However there seems to be little evidence of activity by the university after 1320. In 1465 a parliament held in Drogheda, presided over by Thomas, the eighth Earl of Desmond, passed an Act to the effect: “...that there be a University in the town of Drogheda in which may be made Bachelors, Masters and Doctors in all sciences and faculties ...”. Nothing came of the project, however. I hope nobody looks for that university now.

In 1475 a further attempt was made to establish a university in Dublin. Pope Sixtus IVth by Papal Bull of 27 April established a “university of theology and the liberal arts necessary for the knowledge thereof”. Again, this project failed to develop further. Finally, in 1568 an attempt was made to revive the University of St. Patrick; this attempt also failed.

University education in Ireland has a distinguished history, notwithstanding these early unsuccessful attempts. This extraordinarily learned and successful history formally commenced with the granting of the charter to the University of Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, in 1592.

Further university colleges were established in the middle of the 19th century; these included the Queen's Colleges in Cork, Galway, Belfast and the Catholic University in Dublin 1854. In 1908 the National University was constituted, comprised of University Colleges in Dublin, Cork and Galway; in 1910 St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, which had been established in the final years of the [1264] 18th century, became a recognised college of the National University of Ireland.

The other long established sector of Ireland's higher education system and of general education — the vocational education committee system of colleges — can trace its roots to the 19th century. It was given an added impetus and developed particularly strongly following on the passing of the Vocational Education Act, 1930. The colleges of technology of the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee — now the Dublin Institute of Technology — for instance, developed from trade schools to institutions offering programmes over a broad range of disciplines from apprentice, to technician, degree and professional level.

The sixties saw a major thrust towards the development of technical education following the publication of Investment in Education, 1962, Training of Technicians in Ireland, 1964, and the report of the Steering Committee on Technicians in Ireland, 1964, and the report of the Steering Committee on Technical Education on the Regional Technical Colleges, 1967. The latter report forms the basis for the establishment of a network of regional technical colleges complementing the existing colleges of technology in Dublin in providing technical/technological manpower to meet the needs of an evolving industrialised economy.

The Robbins Committee in the United Kingdom during the sixties identified, inter alia, a major missing dimension in the United Kingdom higher education system, namely, the absence of a sufficiently strong emphasis on technological education at university level. This missing dimension was also evident in Ireland. NIHE Limerick developed in the early seventies following the announcement in 1969 of the intent to establish it. The Minister for Education of the day, Deputy Brian Lenihan, spoke of his vision for the NIHE and his expectation that it would be a new initiative, of which the country would be proud.

[1265] NIHE Limerick enrolled its first students in autumn 1972 on programmes in business, engineering, humanities and science. Indeed, I recall the enthusiasm with which the Limerick University Project Committee pursued its goal in the sixties which led to the decision to establish the first NIHE in Limerick.

In fact in the mid-19th century the then Mayor of Limerick, Pierce Shannon, led a delegation to Westminster to present their case for a university for Limerick. The demand and thrust for a university in Limerick has been fairly constant since that time.

The establishment of NIHE Dublin was embodied in a set of decisions made and promulgated in 1974 by the then Government regarding the restructuring of the higher education system. Specifically, it was stated that NIHE Dublin “should be a recognised College of the National University of Ireland with a capacity to evolve into a constituent college or to become an autonomous degree awarding institution”.

As a result of the 1974 Government decisions the NIHE Limerick was established as a recognised college of the National University of Ireland in March 1976. The first degrees were awarded by the Chancellor of the University. However, the Government subsequently decided to establish the NIHEs as independent statutory bodies under the Higher Education Authority and also introduced legislation providing the National Council for Educational Awards with the degree-awarding function.

The National Institutes, established in Limerick and then in Dublin, were challenged to develop programmes of teaching and research at international standards equivalent to those of the established universities, while giving special attention to Ireland's emerging needs in the fields of science, technology and business.

The Government, on the advice of the Higher Education Authority, wished to ensure that there would also be a significant element of the humanities present, and from the outset programmes [1266] of study commenced, not only in science, engineering and business, but also in the arts. Indeed, Ireland's first arts degree in European studies commenced in Limerick in 1972. Degree programmes in communications and in languages and a postgraduate programme in journalism were developed in the NIHE Dublin. This development in Ireland paralleled the growth of new universities, some of them formally named technological universities, throughout Europe. The two institutes were established on a statutory basis under the NIHE, Limerick, Act, 1980, and the NIHE, Dublin, Act, 1980. Degrees, diplomas and certificates are awarded by the National Council for Educational Awards under its Act of 1979.

It is now 16 years since the first students were admitted to the National Institute in Limerick, and nine years since they were admitted to the National Institute in Dublin. Since then both bodies have emerged as institutions of high standing, both nationally and internationally. Time has permitted their graduates to demonstrate their abilities in a wide range of disciplines from the arts to the sciences, and at the highest academic level up to and including the doctorate.

The recognition of the achievements of the NIHEs is well known to parents and students and is reflected in the high level of competition for admission, the high quality of those students admitted and by the high demand for graduates. The breadth and depth of their academic standing is also attested to by the success with which they pursue postgraduate study at other universities, both within European Community countries and further afield.

The NIHEs have played their anticipated role in stimulating economic development, introducing educational innovation and, indeed, have been both directly and indirectly responsible for a wide range of new enterprises which have been attracted to this country, or been created by their graduates.

Some years ago it was proposed to Government that they should consider conferring a more appropriate title and [1267] granting the right to award degrees to the NIHEs, clearly defining the university level standing of the NIHEs internationally. In order rigorously to establish the justification for such a proposal, a distinguished panel of national and international experts was invited to examine the standing of both NIHEs and to advise the Government on the proposal to combine both NIHEs into a national technological university. The group's unambiguous findings have established that both NIHEs clearly operate at university level, whether viewed from a national or an international perspective and fully justify the conferring of university status. Furthermore, the international team recognised that the range of activities within both NIHEs encompassed not only the sciences, technology and business, but also the arts, and concluded that the national technological university title would not adequately reflect this comprehensive range. The team also advised that it would be more appropriate to establish each NIHE as an independent university with the power to award degrees and with the normal functions of a university.

When the Government decision was announced last January to set up the two NIHEs as universities the activities of the technological commission may not have got the attention which they warrant by the nature of their work and their findings. It was the previous Government who decided to set up the technological commission, composed of people internationally recognised and renowned in the field of study. The commission worked speedily and reported to the then Minister, Deputy Cooney. When I came into office the report was formally presented to me.

I make this point in a deliberate fashion because it may emerge from subsequent contributions to the debate that there may not be on the part of other persons a full commitment to the idea of establishing these two colleges as universities. The Government of the day, foreseeing that it was such an important issue, took [1268] the advice of an international body of experts. The Government gave them their brief. They studied it and it was submitted to me. The group's unambiguous findings have established that both NIHEs clearly operate at university level whether viewed from a national or international perspective and fully justify the conferring of university status.

During the past year the recommendation has been given careful consideration culminating in the Government's decision to confer full university status on both NIHE, Limerick, and NIHE, Dublin, with power to award degrees, diplomas and certificates and undertake the normal functions of universities, inter alia, including research towards the advancement of knowledge and research and development in the interests of business, industrial and national development.

The Government are deeply conscious of the historic nature of these proposals in view of the fact that these two new universities will be the first to be established since the foundation of the State. Government are also conscious of the clear benefits which will derive from the enactment of this legislation. It will convey to the international community Ireland's seriousness regarding industrial and business development in an increasingly competitive world; it will serve to emphasise the importance which Ireland attaches to excellence in learning and it will highlight the capability of Ireland's higher education sector. The establishment of the new universities represents a further underlining of Government commitment to industrial development. It is also a vote of confidence in and will be a significant help to the development of the communities in which the new universities are located.

The legislation will enhance the NIHEs ability to develop research and academic links with European and other foreign universities, will enhance their access to research support from international sources, will increase the number and extent of student exchange programmes, a matter of considerable relevance with the [1269] prospect of the single market in 1992 and will enhance the development of credit transfer arrangements and joint teaching programmes with EC and other universities.

What is proposed, therefore, is minor amending legislation in respect of the NIHE, Limerick, Act, 1980, and the NIHE, Dublin, Act, 1980 in order to: change the titles of the institutes to universities, to change the titles of the directors to presidents, to confer the power to award degrees, diplomas and certificates on the new universities, to amplify the definitions of the functions of the universities, to give the governing bodies the authority to extend the functions of the universities, with the approval of the Minister for Education, and to extend the functions of the academic councils to make recommendations to the governing bodies on the conferment of degrees, diplomas and certificates.

The authorities of the institutes and the Irish Federation of University Teachers have been consulted and they concur with the proposal to introduce the amending legislation.

It is right that I pay due and proper tribute to the National Council for Educational Awards under whose aegis the NIHEs have developed. The acknowledgement of excellence which is the basis for this legislation is, at the same time, an endorsement of the quality and standing of the National Council for Educational Awards, its processes, its awards at all levels — certificate, diploma and degree — and also of the colleges and institutions which are designated institutions of NCEA.

As I have been at pains to do in any of the fora in which the development of the universities has been discussed, I want to pay formal tribute to the NCEA on their strong commitment and work with the NIHEs in their formative stages of growth. I have consulted also with the NCEA and they have many imaginative ideas on moving forward within their various areas of work. Should the occasion arise in the future to amend the NCEA Act to allow them to amplify their functions in whatever way is deemed to be [1270] proper by the Government of the day, they will be willingly listened to and their needs addressed by all concerned.

Given the historic nature of these proposals and the important development they represent for the third level education system of the country, I am sure the House will welcome the Government's initiative in introducing these Bills.

I welcome the broad agreement which emerged about these decisions when they were announced publicly last January in Limerick and Dublin by the representatives of the various parties who freely acknowledged the wisdom of the decisions and said they would participate in the passage of the legislation but would not seek to unduly hinder it because they saw the need for it and the dynamism of the action being taken.

I want to also put on record my acknowledgement of that generosity of spirit with which the news was greeted and the further generosity of all the parties in the House in facilitating us when we sought to have the legislation brought to the House this week. There were many reasons for that. Deputy Birmingham, the spokesman for the main Opposition Party, has been asking since January when it was introduced, when we would be bringing it to the House so that the young people being conferred in the autumn would be conferred from whatever would be the title of the two new universities. I pay tribute to the Deputy's tenacity in asking about that so many times. In the meantime, I was beavering away in my Department to produce the finished product. Deputy O'Malley also asked in the House on many occasions when the Bill was to be progressed, as did Deputy Higgins and Deputy De Rossa.

I make these points not in a placatory sense but to show that there are occasions when legislation is right for the time. From my discussions with the interested groups and the various political parties it seems there is agreement. I hope that will not preclude a lively and informed debate on the review and scrutiny of the amendments before us and the various [1271] other suggestions which may come forward in the Second Stage debate and into the Committee and Report Stages.

I wish to put on record my thanks for that generosity of spirit and my appreciation of the speed with which everybody, not least my own Department, the Attorney General's Office and the draftspeople concerned, got their work done. This was not a decision plucked out of the sky. It was a very carefully considered decision. The NIHEs have evolved over a very long time. They have won their spurs. They have shown what they can do. They have far outstripped their brief. As is the way with all educational institutions particularly the ones who want to prove themselves, they went beyond their brief in many cases to the chagrin perhaps of other establishments and the Department of Education who would have noted that they had roamed far and wide. In doing so they have won the admiration and respect of the country.

I want to lay to rest that this is in any way detrimental to any other university. It seems that frissons have emerged in the debate on the role of NIHEs and their academic standing. I will go no further than to say that by their fruits one should know them and certainly the fruits of the NIHEs have proved them. They have travelled a long road since the idea was introduced 20 years ago following on various reports in the sixties. We had very wide expert technological advice from the expert committee set up by the previous Government and it has shown unequivocally that the NIHEs have established themselves not just in technological, science and allied areas but in the arts, the humanities, research and development and in all the areas which are proper to universities and to the pursuit of advancement of knowledge.

The Chair may think I have laboured these points. There will be time to return to them later in the debate. It was necessary to make these points. The Government see the setting up of these universities as part of a pattern of evolving third level university education, a pattern which will also arise from the [1272] technological commission relating to the colleges Bill for the whole of the country.

I am greatly privileged and honoured that it falls on me to bring forward and to steer successfully through the House a Bill to create the new universities for this country. The titles proposed for the new universities are Ollscoil Chathair Bhaile Átha Cliath, Dublin City University and Ollscoil Luimnigh, University of Limerick. I commend these Bills to the House.

Mr. Birmingham: I intend to be brief. I wish that the longest speech to be made from this side of the House will be made by my colleague, Deputy Garret FitzGerald. Far be it from me to say that he should make a long speech — I do not want to encourage him unduly.

Mr. D. O'Malley: He does not need encouragement.

Mr. Birmingham: I simply want to say that——

(Interruptions.)

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I would remind the Deputy that both himself and Deputy FitzGerald will have——

Mr. Birmingham: Forty-five minutes between us.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: You will have half an hour between you.

(Interruptions.)

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Birmingham will have 30 minutes and then we will move on to the next spokesperson. If the Deputy wants to give some of his 30 minutes to Deputy Fitz-Gerald——

Mr. Birmingham: I was hoping that I would be able to speak for 15 minutes and that Deputy FitzGerald could make [1273] the 30 minute speech on behalf of my party.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: No.

Dr. FitzGerald: I do not need it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The order indicates that the spokesperson will have 30 minutes and we must cater for other spokespersons before we go into the area of subdivision.

Mr. Birmingham: Very well, I will share my time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Will the Deputy indicate now what he proposes to do?

Mr. Birmingham: I will give 15 minutes to Deputy FitzGerald.

This is probably the last occasion on which I will be speaking in the House as an Opposition spokesman on education in this Dáil. I hope I will not be playing that role in the next. I take the opportunity now to thank the Minister for the courtesy which she and her officials extended to me during the period in which I have held that role. I thank particularly the people in her private office and her excellent private secretary whose promotion came through recently, a promotion which was long overdue.

By any standards this is a fairly curious debate. In a matter of hours we are putting through the Dáil legislation to create two new universities, the first new universities to be created in the history of the State. The fact that there should be such a degree of co-operation nails the lie about any suggestion by the Taoiseach or anyone else that the Government are not facilitated in passing legislation through the House. It is hard to see what Government in any parliament could expect that degree of co-operation from Opposition parties. As the Minister has generously acknowledged, that co-operation was not just on the basis that a dissolution is imminent but was offered shortly after the decision was announced.

Because we have so little time we [1274] cannot address many of the questions which we would normally have addressed in a Bill such as this. It means that we have not got ample time to find out from the Government their thinking on the report of the commission chaired by Dr. Hardiman. That commission was on technological education in Ireland. There is a popular view that it was established to consider whether or not the NIHEs should acquire the status of universities. Its brief went well beyond that and they carried out a much more extensive examination and presented 20 recommendations. We would be interested to know the Government's thinking in relation to these. While it is true that this legislation has emerged without undue delay, once the decision was taken, which took long enough, the Government have been remarkably dilatory in responding to the other recommendations, many of them of considerable importance. There are recommendations about the role of the Dublin Institute of Technology colleges. What do the Government think about that? What is the Government response to the suggestion that those colleges have established the case for a specific statutory base?

Mrs. O'Rourke: We will come back and tell you.

Mr. Birmingham: I rather suspect that Deputy O'Rourke will be asking questions about it, but that remains to be seen. This legislation clearly has indications for the way in which we organise higher education. What is the Government's thinking on that? How do the Government see the role of the National University of Ireland? Do they see it remaining as a federal structure? Do they see the individual colleges acquiring independence? Do they see perhaps a loosening of the federal bonds and what do they see happening in relation to Maynooth? One might have expected all of these questions to have been addressed, because they arise directly from the legislation before the House. That has not happened and the time limit we have means that it is unlikely that we will get [1275] the answers during the course of the afternoon.

I welcome these Bills for which I have been pressing, both before the Government's decision in January and since. The Minister pointed out that even if we are allocating only a brief time today, it is in fact the end of a very long road. The Minister mentioned the fact that the demand for a university in Limerick goes back to 1845 with the visit to London by the mayor of the day. I recall the first Fine Gael Ard-Fheis I attended in 1970 which was particularly noteworthy because it took place around the time of the dismissal of Deputy Haughey for suspected gun running by the Taoiseach of the day. I recall the contribution at that Ard-Fheis of the then Senator——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Perhaps the Deputy will get to the legislation before us instead of reminiscing. He should make a speech, in an appropriate manner, on what is before us.

Mr. Birmingham: I am sure, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you are not going to show yourself to be more partisan than you usually are or more defensive than you usually are.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I am not partisan and I would expect in a discussion of this kind we would have a contribution which would be in accordance with what we are discussing. I invite the Deputy, who indicated earlier that he did not have much to contribute, to at least give us the benefit of what he has to say and to let us proceed with the business.

Mr. Birmingham: With the greatest respect, that is an offensive and insulting remark which does you no credit.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Unfortunately, it is true.

Mr. Birmingham: It is an offensive and insulting remark that does you and the office you hold no credit whatever, [1276] though I can well understand the sensitivity which prompted it——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy should address himself to the legislation before the House.

Mr. Birmingham: I will. I was simply making the point that the demand for university status goes back a long way and indicated that I recall the contribution by the then Lord Mayor of Limerick, Senator Ted Russell, at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis in 1970 when he addressed this subject with very great passion. Since 1970, when the first 100 students were enrolled, much has happened, first in Limerick and more recently in Dublin.

I agree with the Minister when she says that both colleges have fulfilled their mandates and have established themselves as centres of scholarship and excellence particularly, in the technological and applied science areas, but in no sense exclusively, because their contributions in the humanities are of considerable note. I note the developments which have taken place in Dublin. There are now courses on international marketing which, it is fair to say, lead the way for many of the more traditional universities. I also note their considerable success in forging a relationship with the business community and with industry. Again, it is fair to say that the more traditional colleges were not as quick to do this. We have seen the considerable success of the co-operative programme under which young undergraduates are given an opportunity to experience the world of industry, either at home or abroad.

The colleges have shown themselves to be worthy of the confidence placed in them by the then Government in 1970, and which has continued to be placed in them by successive Governments. The Minister began her speech by saying it gave her great pleasure to introduce this legislation. I am sure it did, but I am sure it was increased by the fact that her brother, the Tánaiste, played a prominent role in bringing forward the original legislation. May I take this opportunity to say to her that all of us in the House, [1277] as my party leader commented, are very pleased that the operation went as well as it did.

Dr. G. FitzGerald: Hear, hear.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Thank you.

Mr. Birmingham: We are pleased with the legislation. When in Government we were approached by the colleges. The whole world knew that there was a vigorous campaign to have this status conferred on the colleges. We were determined that there would be no quick response, that it would not simply be a matter of saying that they could have university status and no one should think that university status was being allocated as a political sop or anything of that nature. We felt in fairness to the institutions and to university education that it was important that the appropriateness of the decision should be publicly validated. That is why we felt it appropriate to establish a commission of international standing. That is what we did and it was chaired by Dr. Hardiman with experts from the United States, Europe and Britain.

Their recommendation was clear and unambiguous and it was that, as these two colleges had firmly established themselves as centres of scholarship, they were properly entitled to university status. Accordingly, we were keen that the legislation should emerge as quickly as possible. I made clear that time was of the essence. I stated repeatedly in this House that it was appropriate that legislation be brought forward to benefit those sitting exams this summer. In saying this I knew there would be a downside. I knew it meant that the legislation would be less comprehensive than it might otherwise be, but it seemed that the best should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. It was imperative that legislation be brought before the House expeditiously and this justified producing legislation which was essentially minimalist.

That said, a number of aspects of this legislation cause us some concern. Even [1278] with the short time that will be available on Committee Stage we would hope to address them. We are concerned about the structures of the new universities. Essentially, the Bill maintains in place the governing structures of the existing NIHEs and elaborates in some respects on the academic council. In doing this the Minister has gone some way towards meeting the anxieties of the Irish Federation of University Teachers and others. I welcome such a move but I wish to see her go further. The position is that the governing bodies of the NIHEs, as provided for in the existing legislation, contain a very large number of ministerial nominees and only a very small number of representatives of the academic community in the colleges. This is undesirable and it is our intention on Committee Stage to move amendments to assert the principle of independence within a university and to do so by way of reducing the number of ministerial appointments on the governing body and increasing the number of academic appointments.

I know the Minister will say that this is a difficulty more apparent than real, but we are also concerned about the Minister's role under the NIHE Acts in relation to staffing. The position is that the Minister for Education, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, is given an interventionist role in relation to staffing appointments. The Minister for Education is required to give her consent on the number of appointments and the way in which appointments are made. There can be no problem with the number of appointments. Clearly in this day and age no legislation would do other than suggest that there would be financial control and control over the number of appointments. For a Minister to have even the theoretic ability to refuse the appointment of an individual on the basis of ministerial judgment of the individual's fitness for office is wholly inappropriate.

Let us give an example which might conceivably arise. Let us suppose in one of the humanities faculties that a professor comes forward who is seen to have [1279] revisionist views on the national question, can we be sure that there would never be a Minister who would say no to that appointment? It seems inappropriate, given the ancient and traditional nature of a university, that any Minister for Education should have that role in relation to appointments. I have no quarrel with a Minister having a role in relation to the number of appointments, but I do quarrel with a Minister having a role in relation to individual appointments.

The technological commission, while saying clearly that the two colleges are fully entitled to university status, indicated areas where they expected and looked for further development. They expressed concern about library facilities. I would like the Minister to tell us what is being done to meet those concerns. They also expressed a desire for the colleges to develop in the area of social science. I would also like the Minister to tell us what is being done to meet this desire.

This legislation is welcome. I hope we can improve it somewhat. We will be tabling amendments to focus attention on areas of concern rather than to obstruct or impede. On the day the Minister travelled from Limerick to Dublin to announce the decision, I indicated on behalf of my party that we would do everything to expedite passage of the legislation and to do nothing to obstruct its passage. That is the attitude we will be adopting between now and 7 p.m.

Debate adjourned.