Alan Kelly: Government needs a lesson on issues in education

The HEA is short members and plans to merge some institutes of technology are advancing despite concerns. The education minister must step up, writes Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly: Government needs a lesson on issues in education

Higher education institutions within Ireland have served the State well and have shown themselves to be at the forefront of both research and teaching excellence in recent years. However, as publically funded institutions, there are a number of serious questions that have been raised in recent months regarding effective governance within these institutions and effective regulation of the sector as a whole.

Recent media investigations and appearances by representatives of the higher education sector before the public accounts committee (PAC) have left many questions unanswered and to my mind raise serious concerns over the effective governance of both our universities and institutes of technology. Questions must be asked not only of our higher education institutions but also of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Department of Education and Skills.

Take, for example, the proposed establishment of technological universities in Ireland. As a general policy this is a good thing and has proven benefits in many countries across Europe, but serious questions must be answered about some of the proposed mergers of institutes of technology as a prelude to the establishment of technological universities.

Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and IT Tralee have been working towards a merger for a number of years with a view to the establishment of the Munster Technological University (MTU). However, recently disclosed documents reveal widespread unease surrounding the proposal. At a recent meeting of the PAC, I requested that the HEA publish the minutes of a special board meeting that had occurred in 2014. The minutes of meetings of the HEA are published on an ongoing basis yet the minutes of this particular meeting had never been published. As a public representative based in Munster, I had been aware for some time of the serious misgivings among staff at both CIT and IT Tralee regarding the proposed merger. What has now emerged is that those same concerns are shared by members of the HEA.

According to the minutes of the meeting, which considered the application for the establishment of the MTU, “the near unanimous opinion at the meeting was that the proposal should be rejected”.

According to the minutes, HEA members expressed serious and widely held concerns over the credibility of the proposal including insufficient costing, absence of adequate risk assessment and a lack of demonstration of a sustained level of research activity among staff.

The HEA is effectively the adviser to the Government on higher education policy within the State. With such a damning and withering assessment of the MTU proposal, a number of questions need answering: Why was the meeting documentation withheld from public view until the PAC requested its publication? Why is public money still being spent on a proposed merger when it is clear that it is not endorsed by the HEA board or supported by staff at the two institutions?

Further serious questions have also arisen regarding governance within CIT. Recently at the PAC, the answers that we received from the outgoing president of CIT, Brendan Murphy, proved less than satisfactory. In 2014, a number of anonymous complaints and allegations regarding CIT were received by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. These were then passed on to both the HEA and CIT and an investigation into the allegations was established. However, it only emerged at the recent PAC meeting that the terms of reference for the investigation were set by CIT’s own audit committee.

This again is not good enough. Allegations are made about a publicly funded institution and the institution itself sets the terms of reference for the investigation. This is not, and can never be, acceptable.

There are numerous other issues in CIT to be concerned about, in particular the whole relationship with the Maritime College and a number of companies that are partially owned by CIT. Who owns them and what’s their purpose? It is because of these concerns that the PAC have decided to have CIT back in front of them in the next term.

The recent hearings at the PAC and the investigation by Prime Time into the higher education sector reveal serious governance and supervisory failings. These failings have occurred across the sector, not just in institutes of technology but also in universities. The PAC’s concern regarding UCC’s purchase of the Irish Management Institute and the potential outlay to the taxpayer being an example of the latter.

We need more regulatory oversight but responsibility for the current lack of oversight rests firmly with Richard Bruton.

In two significant areas, he has failed to act to ensure greater compliance during his term as Minister for Education and Skills.

The HEA is the body tasked with regulating the sector yet the authority has been short members since January. In November 2016 its chairperson wrote to Mr Bruton advising that there would be eight vacancies by January yet no appointments were made at the time. I raised the matter with the minister in March and was informed that the appointment process was under way. To date, only two appointments have been made.

The HEA does not currently have the statutory minimum number of academic members yet the minister continues to ignore his legislative obligations.

Secondly, the minister and his department have continually delayed the publication of the Universities (Amendment) Bill despite the fact that the heads of the bill were brought to cabinet by my former colleague Ruairi Quinn in 2012. The bill, as proposed, specifically aims to ensure compliance with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the university sector. But, yet again, the minister appears to have little interest in seeking its enactment by the Oireachtas.

If the minister is in any way concerned about the lack of oversight then he must fill the current vacancies that exist on the HEA and enact the Universities (Amendment) Bill without delay.

Alan Kelly TD is vice-chairman of the public accounts committee.

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