Dáil Éireann - Volume 569 - 19 June, 2003

Adjournment Debate. - Universities Act.

  Mr. Gogarty: I have been trying to raise this matter on the Adjournment for some time. I have raised a variety of questions with the Minister for Education and Science on the wider Act and on one university in particular, Dublin City University, which I believe is in breach of the Act. However, the Labour Court recently decided that the adjudication of whether it was in breach of the Act and the matter of a union with which it had a difficulty is not a matter not that court.

  In response to my questions the Minister for Education and Science always returned to the [145]Universities Act 1997 stating that the Act confers autonomous statutory responsibilities on universities in the day to day management of their affairs and that the conduct of staff relations is a matter for each university in accordance with section 25 of the Act. No doubt the Minister of State will repeat that to me tonight, and he is welcome to do that. However, I believe there is a discrepancy in the Act which might suggest that it needs amending. It is important to highlight that there has been a serious dispute involving one member of staff in DCU who was dealt with by management in a manner not agreed with by SIPTU under the 1997 Act. This person was basically told by a rights commissioner that the university had no case. The Labour Court also upheld his appeal, yet DCU is still prevaricating to the extent that the individual concerned is in severe financial straits.

  There is a side story to this issue, which involves allegations of bribery by members of staff who encouraged students to give up the lecture on science and society this lecturer was giving in DCU. I met a student who stands over these claims. However, despite trying to raise this matter in a number of ways, to date there has been no joy in regard to it. I will leave it to other jurisdictions to decide what is the position in relation to the alleged bribery, but it is on record and DCU management is aware of it, yet nothing has been done to deal with the allegation.

  This raises a wider issue. The lecturer concerned was dismissed without agreements and procedures being made with SIPTU. Section 25(6) of the Act states, “A university may suspend or dismiss any employee but only in accordance with procedures, and subject to any conditions, specified in a statute made following consultation through normal industrial relations structures operating in the university with recognised staff associations or trade unions.” SIPTU contends such procedures have not been followed and normal consultation have not taken place with the university in question. It is for possibly another jurisdiction to decide that. However, I want to know who decides the procedures? Should a university decide to take it upon itself to interpret or police the Act, does that not make the university its own policeman? If that is the case, is there not a weakness in the Universities Act 1997, in that, should a union or an individual have a grievance or a contention that the Act was not adhered to, is it not up to the Minister to adjudicate in that case, or is it a matter for the courts?

  Will the Minister of State for an opinion on this matter? Perhaps he could give one in writing at a later stage following consultation with legal advisers. DCU seem to be the bad boy in this case. At some future date UCD, Maynooth and other universities could allegedly act in breach of the Act, but who is to say whether they are acting in breach of it. I ask the Minister that question. Who adjudicates whether a university is in breach of the Act? It is no good asking a university, [146]through the Higher Education Authority, whether it is in breach of the Act because its representatives will reply that the university is in not breach of it. That is not good enough. Somebody else must adjudicate when there is a contention over whether the Act is being followed, and that is the information I hope to get from the Minister of State tonight.

  Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Mr. N. Ahern): I can give the Deputy the up to date position on the matter, but I cannot give him an answer to the specific question he asked.

  The Universities Act 1997 provides a framework of legislation that is compatible with the role, function and operation of universities in modern society. The Act, which was the first Act of general application to all the university institutions since the foundation of the State, was a culmination of an extensive process of consultation and debate within and outside the Houses of the Oireachtas. The process began in 1992 with the publication of Education for a Changing World, the Green Paper on Education and was developed through the subsequent White Paper on Education, Charting our Education Future, published in 1995, which contained a commitment to legislate in this area.

  Among the significant features of the Act was the provision for revised governance structures for the universities which ensure that all major stake holders are represented on the university governing authority, the principal decision making body of the institutions. The establishment of more representative and democratic structures was also extended to the academic councils of the universities.

  The Act also sets out a framework for interaction between the universities and central government. This framework strikes a measured balance between the institutional autonomy of the universities and the requirements of public accountability. The Act explicitly recognises the centrality of academic freedom and institutional autonomy to the mission of the universities, while addressing the obligations of the institutions on equality of opportunity and access, quality assurance, the effective and efficient use of resources and the requirements of public accountability. The Higher Education Authority is given key functions in respect of these areas of the operation of the universities.

  Within this overall framework, universities operate in a very public context and come within the scope of a vast range of legislative and other requirements such as the Ethics in Public Office Act, the Freedom of Information Act, as well as the full range of employee protection and industrial relations legislation that applies to all employers.

  In November 2001, the Minister for Finance circulated a Code of Practice for the Governance of State bodies. The code aims to ensure that State bodies operate to the highest standards [147]applicable in the interests of transparency and accountability. While third level institutions are not best described as State bodies, the Minister for Education and Science has taken the view that an adopted form of the Code of Practice for the Governance of State bodies should apply and the Department of Education and Science is working with the sector in producing a code of practice appropriate to third level institutions that will further reinforce the good practice already exercised in the sector.

  The Universities Act 1997, in addition to providing for strengthened governance arrangements at an institutional level, also provides a wider public interest protection in cases where the Minister for Education and Science is of the opinion that there are reasonable grounds for contending that the functions of a university are being performed in a manner which prima facie constitutes breach of the laws, statutes, or ordinances applicable to the university.

  The Minister for Education and Science is aware that Deputy Gogarty has raised this issue previously in the context of a particular ongoing case involving a staff member in one university. The Minister does not propose to comment on that case and it would not be appropriate for him to do so, particularly as his understanding is that it is still going through due process.

  Mr. Gogarty: When that process is completed, will he send a visitor to the university?

  Mr. N. Ahern: The Minister is satisfied that all the legislative machinery of the State as it applies to employers generally, in respect of their obligations to staff, consumers and to public bodies in relation to best practice governance and accountability requirements, is applied and adhered to by the universities. The Universities Act goes further in terms of the governance arrangements that it provides for within the sector and in respect of the additional protection provided for in the role of the visitor and Minister where there is a prima facie cause for concern about any of these matters.

  In this context, I am glad to be able to assure the Deputy that all reasonable and necessary arrangements are in place for ensuring that universities exercise full compliance with all of the legislative and other requirements within which they operate on a daily basis. I accept what the Deputy is saying. I presume when he talks about all due process that includes the governing authority, and that the trade union he mentioned has at least one representative on that governing authority.

  Mr. Gogarty: It made representations at the Labour Court as well.

  Mr. N. Ahern: I will pass on to the Minister the Deputy's question about interpreting or adjudicating on the Act. He may well have asked that [148]question already, but I will inform the Minister of the specific point he is making.