On 22 January 2014, Minister for Education and Skills, introduced the General Scheme of the Technological Universities Bill setting out a legislative basis for merging existing institutes of technology and establishing new technological universities. The proposed developments follow the recommendations of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (also known as the Hunt Report) and the Higher Education Authority’s Landscape Report. The newly established technological universities will be distinct from the existing universities, retaining the career-centred ethos of the current institutes of technology, with an emphasis on industry-based research and work-focused learning. The General Scheme of the Bill has specific provisions dealing with Dublin Institute of Technology, the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown and the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. These provisions are addressed further in this update.
Merging institutes of technology
Following a legal merger, the General Scheme of the Bill provides that amalgamated institutes of technology shall be given statutory footing by a ministerial order, which will dissolve the existing institutes, and immediately merge them to form a joined legal entity. On establishment of the new entity, all rights, liabilities, property and employees of the former institutes shall transfer to the newly formed entity. Employees will transfer to the new entity and their continuity of service shall be preserved. Employees shall not be subject to less favourable remuneration conditions by virtue of the transfer, except in accordance with a collective agreement. The General Scheme of the Bill provides that the Minister may introduce procedures governing the transfer of employees. Superannuation provisions for employees are dealt with separately in the General Scheme of the Bill, and provide that members of the Single Public Service Pension Scheme shall continue to be a member of the scheme, and those who are not members of this scheme shall become members of the Education Sector Superannuation Scheme.
Each of the amalgamated institutes will remain at its current location, forming multi-campus institutes, which will be overseen by modernised, strengthened governing bodies.
The Minister has confirmed that the mergers shall be on a voluntary basis, however, institutes who wish to remain standalone institutes must participate fully within regional clusters and within thematic clusters with other education providers.
Establishment of Technological Universities
Part III of the General Scheme of the Bill details the mechanism for establishing technological universities. The Minister shall introduce regulations setting out the criteria by which merged institutes can apply for designation as a technological university. Certain criteria to be considered for designation are contained in the General Scheme of the Bill, including:
- the provision of programmes at all levels of higher education as per the National Framework of Qualifications;
- the profile of learners, which must contain a minimum percentage of enrolments to honours degree programmes, flexible learning programmes, professional or industry based programmes and mature learners;
- the profile of staff, and the qualifications of teaching staff;
- the quality of educational provision of the institute;
- high quality research with direct social and economic impacts in the particular region of the institute;
- capacity for support programmes and doctoral training in a minimum of three fields of knowledge/study at the time of application;
- high level engagement with local businesses, enterprises and professions;
- plans for internationalisation; and
- high standards of overall management and governance, in line with university standards.
Applications for designation as a technological university may only be made by merged institutes and any application must be based on a legally binding memorandum of understanding between each consortium of institutions describing their consolidation into a new single institution.
Applications for designation as a technological university shall be made to the Minister, who will direct the HEA to appoint an advisory panel who shall prepare a report on the application within four months of appointment. Following this, the HEA shall, within two months of receiving the report, provide a report to the Minister with recommendations.
The Department has also published a memorandum, setting out the four-stage application process. The steps are as follows:
- The merged institution submits an expression of interest to the HEA, including details of how the designation shall be financed;
- If the expression of interest is accepted, the merged institute of technology shall prepare a plan to meet the criteria for designation as a technological university;
- The plan is evaluated by the expert advisory panel by reference to specified criteria, including the capacity of the proposed consortium to meet the designation standards; and
- If the panel deems the plan to be credible and realisable the HEA will inform the merged institution who will make an application for designation. The expert panel will make a recommendation to the HEA, who will then advise the Minister.
Following the determination of university status, the merged institutes shall be dissolved, rights, liabilities property and employees of the merged institutes will transfer to the technological university.
Expansion of technological universities
The General Scheme of the Bill provides for the expansion of a technological university where the HEA considers that an existing institute of technology or education institution (or part thereof) should merge with the technological university. It is proposed that the HEA shall recommend that the Minster, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, provide that such an institution or part thereof is merged with a technological university.
Functions of the technological universities
The proposed objects and functions of the newly established technological universities are set out in Chapter 4 of the General Scheme of the Bill. The educational focus of the technological universities shall be on industrial and business matters, with an emphasis on supporting local, national and international business development. The technological universities shall be entitled to award degrees, establish trading, research and other corporations, facilitate research programmes, and provide academic courses and collaborate with other entities.
Governing bodies will comprise of a between 11 and 20 members, including a Chief Officer and a Chairperson. The governing body shall elect an external Chairperson, as is current practice internationally and in existing universities in Ireland. A competency framework for the governing body will be drawn up by each institute, which will make provision for the inclusion of financial, legal, human resources skillsets. The governing bodies of the technological universities shall be required to comply with directions of the Minister in respect of remuneration, which is broadly defined as relating to cash in kind, salary, superannuation and payments on appointment and termination.
Appointment of an inspector/commission to technological universities
The General Scheme of the Bill provides that the HEA has the authority to appoint an inspector, following consultation with the Minister, to report on any matters regarding the operation of a technological university.
Where the HEA determines that the technological university’s affairs are not being managed effectively, it can, in consultation with the Minister, appoint a Commission to carry out the functions of the governing body, the Chief Officer or the Chairman (or any of them) for a period not exceeding two years. The Commission shall be paid out of funds provided by the Oireachtas. The body or persons whose functions are taken over by the Commission shall be entitled to make submissions to the Minister on why the functions vested in the Commission should not have been so vested and can request that that those functions be returned.
This is an extensive authority, permitting the HEA to appoint a Commission where the governing body is not operating ‘effectively’ and opposed to where it has been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Appointment of staff
Staff shall be appointed in accordance with public funding policy, government pay policy and guidelines issued by the HEA. Following consultation with the Chief Officer, the HEA is empowered to issue guidelines on the number and grades of employees and the proportion of the budget to be applied to different activities of the technological university. The technological university will be required to provide the HEA with any information requested relating to its employees.
The General Scheme of the Bill provides that the technological university may determine and charge fees of such amounts for student registration, courses, lectures, examinations etc. The HEA shall have authority to review fees charged and, in consultation with the Minister, advise of level of fees to be charged.
Three groups of institutes have already publically expressed in interest in merging and applying for university status. Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology, Tallaght and Blanchardstown Institute of Technology are in advanced stages of merging with Chapter 1 of the General Scheme of the Bill specifically making provision for their establishment into a new enlarged Dublin Institute of Technology. Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Tralee and also Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology have also expressed interest in merging under the proposals. It has been suggested that institutes of technology in Connaught and Ulster, including Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Sligo Institute of Technology and Letterkenny Institute of Technology will develop stronger alliance in the future.
The rationalisation of institutes of technology into regional clusters and the formation of a new type of university will significantly alter Ireland’s higher education structure. The Minister has stated that the main purpose of the proposed mergers is to improve the quality of teaching, research and academic courses through effective collaborations.
In announcing the General Scheme of the Bill, the Minister commented that it “represents an essential milestone in the modernisation and reform agenda for higher education institutions…Through mergers they can achieve the critical mass to allow them to reach the scale and level of performance required to compete on the world stage with other similar institutions.”
While the mergers envisaged in the General Scheme of the Bill are voluntary, it remains to be seen how matters evolve given the apparent enthusiasm for consolidation, as both a cost-saving and education-advancement measure.
In April 2014, the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection issued a report on the General Scheme of the Technological Universities Bill. The Joint Committee made eleven of recommendations based on the submissions of a number of stakeholders, namely Dublin Technological University Alliance, Institutes of Technology Ireland, Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Limerick Institute of Technology, Higher Education Authority, Irish Universities Association, Teachers Union of Ireland, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, IMPACT, Dublin IT Students Union, in conjunction with the Students’ Union at IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght, Enterprise Ireland, Association of County and City Councils, IDA Ireland and IBEC.
Publication of the Bill is expected in 2015.