The creation of technological universities (TUs) was suggested six years ago in the Hunt Report which set the agenda for higher education up to 2030.
Although a bill aimed at giving legal standing to the process to set them up was introduced in December 2015, Mr Bruton acknowledged last week a significant number of matters around it have been raised.
“It is my intention to consult with all of the relevant stakeholders in relation to both the matters raised during the legislative process and the commitments contained in the Programme for Government,” he said in reply to a Dáil question.
The minister now plans to advance the bill after forming a position on any matters arising from those consultations.
One of the key concerns about previous education minister Jan O’Sullivan’s bill is the requirement for two or more institutes of technology (ITs) to merge before seeking designation as a TU. That requirement has been in place since the Higher Education Authority set out rules governing the process to achieve TU status in 2012.
Plans are already being drawn up on that basis by management of the ITs in Cork and Tralee, and by three in Dublin to formally merge. Work is less advanced between Waterford and Carlow, and between the Galway-Mayo, Letterkenny and Sligo (ITs).
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents 4,000 academic staff at ITs, opposes mandatory mergers and claimed they are more about saving costs than any educational considerations. Its members have been on low-scale industrial action since last April to demonstrate their concerns. “In its current form, the bill poses a number of significant threats to the institute of technology sector, its regional remit and the working conditions of academic staff,” TUI president Joanne Irwin said.
“We are deeply concerned by the threats posed to national collective bargaining and the terms and conditions of our members,” she said.
A crux in the policy around mergers could come from last year’s Programme for Government between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance. While promising support for the creation of TUs, it says the merger requirement can be reviewed if it can be proven that, for geographical reasons, a merger is not feasible.