'Concerns of academic staff over Institute of Technology mergers must be addressed'

By TUI, Wednesday, 1st February 2017 | 0 comments

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) today warned that progress cannot be made on the development of technological universities unless the serious concerns of its members in the Institute of Technology sector are addressed.

Members are meeting today in Athlone to discuss the Technological Universities Bill.

Over 4,000 TUI members in the sector have not cooperated with any merger activities related to the proposed technological universities since April 2016. This followed a national ballot in which members voted by a margin of 85% to 15% to take industrial action, up to and including strike action, on deep concerns related to proposed mergers of Institutes of Technology.

Speaking today, TUI President Joanne Irwin said:

‘The views and concerns of academic staff within the institutes in relation to the Technological Universities Bill have not been addressed in a manner that is anywhere near satisfactory. However, real progress cannot and will not be made on the development of technological universities until these justified concerns have been addressed.

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.

As a trade union, we are deeply concerned by the threats posed to national collective bargaining and the terms and conditions of our members. Clear reassurance must be provided that both will be protected. What has been said to date does not provide the required reassurance.

Today, we once again urge the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and Institute management to engage with TUI to seek a manageable and sustainable resolution to our grave concerns.’

Merger requirement a ‘cost-saving’ measure

‘We believe that the artificial and unacceptable requirement that Institutes must merge before they can apply for technological university status is more related to an agenda of cost-saving and rationalisation than to any educational considerations based on the missions, values and ethos of particular institutes.

The HEA has already publicly stated that mergers must be carried out on a ‘shoestring’ basis. This is frankly ridiculous and unworkable at a time of an unprecedented funding crisis in the Irish higher education sector. Between 2008 and 2015, funding for the Institute of Technology sector fell by 35% while student numbers rose by a staggering 32% and lecturer numbers fell by 10%.

Clearly, the sector has already been hacked back to the bare bones by relentless cuts, yet there seems to be an expectation that more money will have to be found from what little remains to fund merger activities. As a result, students who are already experiencing larger class sizes, less access to laboratories and libraries and sharp cuts to tutorials and other supports as a result of cutbacks will suffer additional deficits to service. Such an approach is completely unacceptable to us.

Even if a proposed merger proceeds, this does not guarantee that the merged entity will subsequently attain technological university designation, which would leave the merged institute in an unenviable limbo that would inflict significant reputational damage. Clarification is needed in respect of this issue.’   

Serious risk of regional inequity

‘Academic staff have justified fears that regional access to certain courses may not be protected, which could lead to a dramatic increase in geographical inequity. The scourge of excessive centralisation is well documented in an Irish context and we should be at pains to avoid replicating past mistakes.

The mission of the sector has always been distinct, with a strong focus on meeting local and regional needs.

At a time when there is much public discourse and even a new national action plan around rural development, those towns and regions with an existing institute that is being coerced by the requirement to merge could see an invaluable part of their local economy and infrastructure asset-stripped or downgraded. TUI makes no apology for being driven by the democratic imperative of ensuring that all citizens have, to the greatest extent possible, equality of educational opportunity.’

Additional concerns

‘The Bill is excessively focused on the perceived concerns of business and enterprise. It would be a serious mistake to prioritise the short-term needs of employers over the long-term needs of students and society. An appropriate balance is required.

Other concerns include the weakening of staff and local representation on governing bodies and the marginalisation of the academic voice. Government is mistaken if it believes that either trend will enhance service or improve effectiveness.’

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