PAC Meeting | Sept 24, 2015
Re: Waterford IT / IT Carlow merger; Department of Education called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I welcome Mr. Kelly back to the committee. I will start where he left off. The overriding point he makes in his report is that he gives affirmation and validation to the concept. He makes that very clear when it comes to policy and when he looks at the business model. Universally, people who have read the report would say it is a necessary step to restart this process. I think it has worked. That is all positive and good.
I think people in Waterford and the south east would probably expect me to ask what has happened since the report has been published and presented to both institutes. Maybe it is also a question for the HEA and the Department.
Mr. Michael Kelly [external consultant]: I certainly think others can comment on that, but I will provide an initial response to the Deputy. Based on my close contact with both institutes over quite a protracted period earlier in the year, I am confident there is a strong belief in both academic communities, and indeed among the staff more generally, in the concept of a technological university and in the value of doing that in the south east. Both institutes prepared very ambitious and well-informed vision statements setting out their stalls, as it were, as to how the TU might materialise. Alongside that, there were also indications of real stresses in relationships between the two institutes at many levels. There is a very strong rationale, therefore, for recommending a preliminary facilitation process in order to ventilate some of those problems from the past, to try and deal with them, to get them out of the way and to get on with the substantive business. A very strong recommendation in my report was that nothing substantive should commence before going through that preliminary stage in a serious way. My understanding - although the Department may be able to amplify this - is that the process is under way. I have no reason to believe it is not successfully grappling with the issues that should be addressed.
Deputy John Deasy: Would it be helpful and appropriate at this point to ask the Department what has happened with that particular recommendation?
Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú [Secretary General]: I thank the Deputy. The Minister met with Mr. Kelly on 2 July and talked through the report with him. Prior to publishing the report she met with the chairs and presidents of the two institutions. That was on 21 July and the report was published on 27 July. As was outlined at the time, it was agreed that a project plan for a process of facilitation would be developed for the consideration of the two governing bodies at the end of August, and that happened and was agreed upon. The facilitation process is now under way. A facilitator has been engaged and the initial meetings have taken place. The feedback we have got has been that there is good engagement at those meetings.
Deputy John Deasy: Can Mr. Ó Foghlú outline the specifics involved? How many meetings are there and who they are with? Mr. Kelly make some very specific recommendations and points with regard to why this has failed and what needs to happen.
Seán Ó Foghlú: Again, there is a facilitation under way to bring the two of them together. There have been meetings at senior level between the two institutions. I happen to know there have been meetings with the chairs and presidents but we are not aware of any more detail other than that those initial meetings have taken place. The aim is to complete an initial phase of that facilitation so that it can move to actual co-operation towards building towards the next stage.
Deputy John Deasy: That is fine. I think Mr. Ó Foghlú will understand where I am coming from when I ask the questions. This stems from the view which Mr. Kelly has in his report, that this could be completed within three years. That is critical for people looking in from the outside because of how long, laborious and painful the process has been up to this point. When I ask these questions, it is important the parties concerned understand that there is keen and constant oversight of this process from day one by the Department. What we have seen in the past ten, 12 or 14 years in which I have been a Deputy is that there have been lapses with regard to governance, not just in Waterford Institute of Technology - we can talk about those - but also in Dublin. It is just critical that there is this kind of constant attention. We will get to the financial side of this in a moment. Will the witness explain to the committee what he perceives to be his role as this process begins? Is it just about receiving the odd telephone call from the people involved saying that everything is grand and that meetings are taking place or is there somebody in the Department constantly checking to see how this process is evolving and whether Mr. Kelly's recommendations are being followed through on?
Seán Ó Foghlú: We have somebody in the Department who is constantly checking this but it is the responsibility of the institutions. We have engaged the facilitator and we engaged Mr. Kelly, so we are the engager of the facilitation. We are taking that role and engaging facilitation. We are getting informal feedback on a constant basis from both parties and the facilitator.
John Deasy: How long will this initial stage take?
Seán Ó Foghlú: It will take a number of months.
John Deasy: A number of months. Okay. Is it possible within the timeframe pointed out by Mr. Kelly of three years?
Seán Ó Foghlú: That is absolutely the Minister's aim.
John Deasy: Okay. Then again, Ministers come and go, as the witness knows. Mr. Ó Foghlú will be dealing with this after the current Minister and her successor. I am not trying to be smart but that is the reality.
Seán Ó Foghlú: It is the Department's aim as well. It is a policy, so it is the Minister's aim that is implemented. I was just trying to make that distinction.
Deputy John Deasy: That is grand.
Seán Ó Foghlú: I am not trying to separate them.
John Deasy: That is fair enough. As far as the Higher Education Authority, HEA, is concerned, there are a couple of roles. It adjudicates in the process to a certain extent but it is a facilitator. Does Mr. Boland have any comment with regard to that initial process that has been set up and how he sees the authority's role in this? The Department has explained that it has somebody on point who is facilitating in this instance and reporting back from both institutions. Will Mr. Boland explain the authority's ongoing role in this new process?
Mr. Tom Boland [Chairman, Higher Education Authority]: First, we welcome the new process. There is a sense in the HEA that, in a way, this project was not given a full chance on its first outing and this is an opportunity to put it back on track, as has been said. As a process, that is very valuable. The building of trust between the institutions at leadership level and more widely is absolutely crucial - ultimately, to a successful outcome - and the institutions want the successful outcome of a technological university in due course. For the reasons mentioned by the Deputy, we are the ultimate adjudicator of the process so I do not want to say anything to predict the outcome. Our interest is to see this project progress well in the interests, first, of the region, as the case has been well made for the social and economic benefit that would come from technological university there, but also in the interest of the institutes. As two very strong institutes serving their region, they cannot put resources and time on a very long-term basis into a project that will not succeed. Our wish is that there should be a fair wind behind the project.
We will be supportive, as we have been supportive with the other consortia. The Deputy mentioned that he may want to discuss finance. There is some limited - I stress that word - capacity for the HEA to provide a certain amount of funding to support the institutions as they do their planning. We had made some funding available before but that had to be paused when the process was paused. Overall, we welcome Mr. Kelly's report and, as a very constructive first step, the facilitation process. We are very positively disposed to an early positive outcome. With regard to the Deputy's other question, I assure him that we will keep in regular contact with the institutes at leadership level on what is happening exactly.
John Deasy: I thank Mr. Boland. Having served as a member of this committee for the past four years or so, I know we have received continual assurances that everything that could be done was being done from the HEA's standpoint, as well as that of the Department of Education and Skills. Nevertheless, the process collapsed and we are back here again. I suppose this is a question for Mr. Kelly. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone agrees with his analysis on cause and his recommendations, is there a utility for a check in the system as it goes along to see if the process is working and those recommendations are being implemented properly? That is where the problem is and has been in the past. This was abruptly ended by an e-mail in October 2014 from WIT which indicated that was it, it was done. My difficulty is I deal with officials in the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills who are trying to do their job but, frankly, the process did not work because they did not know what was going on. Mr. Kelly repeatedly makes the point in his report that while people were collaborating on the face of it, when we scratched the surface there was very little going on in the form of substantive and progressive work towards the ultimate goal. It was almost like a facade, and the process was self-serving. The outcome did not amount to a great deal.
Should there be a process whereby we all sit back after a particular point and ask if we have reached the milestones and recommendations set out? This could be after six months or a year. My fear is that no matter how good are the recommendations, I could be back in a year's time - if I am elected - and see the same situation. The witness can understand that, especially if we consider the historical recurrence of the issue over the past ten or 15 years.
Michael Kelly: Let me rewind a little. With respect to the motives of the two institutes from the beginning of the process, I have no doubt that both entered this with enthusiasm and got on with what they felt had to be done in a conscientious way from the beginning. The stage 1 report they prepared bears testament to that. They then ran into difficulties and some of those were occasioned by what I term "external events"; they were external to this process and caused interruptions. I can contrast my experience with the Dublin consortium with what I have observed retrospectively with respect to the south east. In Dublin, from the beginning, the momentum flowed consistently, led very much by the three presidents in the colleges. I chair the steering group, and that is where the dynamic for pushing ahead needs to emerge.
At the end of the day in any of these consortia, the people who decide whether it happens are from the institutes concerned. We cannot make that happen. I am absolutely of a view, based on what I have observed in the south east, that given a chance to ventilate some of the issues from the past and given a proper framework within which they can progress their stage two business plan, this is perfectly achievable. Rather than a whip hand from outside, the incentives need to be of a more positive kind and they need to be around understanding what will support the process, propel it and incentivise people to go the extra mile. That is what is required; we require extra effort in addition to the day job in order to do everything that needs to be done.
Deputy John Deasy: Effectively, by extension, Mr. Kelly is saying he has faith in the people in the leadership positions in both of these institutions to do that. Does Mr. Kelly believe the leadership is there for that to occur?
Michael Kelly: Yes. I have made careful recommendations around the construction of the steering group, for example, and the project team that should be in place. The main competency I would seek is enthusiasm. Again, based on the experience in Dublin, enthusiasm from the top and in the project team is what propels something such as this forward. Beyond that, an amount of material support must be provided to make it happen.
Deputy John Deasy: I will pick up on that. In Mr. Kelly's report and opening statement, he referred to the competing demands throughout the education sector. It surprised me, and Mr. Kelly is very strong on it. Mr. Ó Foghlú deals with the entire education sector and has me constantly pestering him about national schools in west Waterford. I understand how busy and demanding the education sector can be. A couple of days ago, I met with the INTO with a list of reasonable issues, as does every Deputy. What popped out of the report was how critical the proper resourcing of the process is. An example to which Mr. Kelly pointed was that when he puts together the steering groups and the key groups of people engaged in the process, they must be taken out of their regular day jobs and there is an issue regarding compensation and funding. Can Mr. Kelly talk about it, where it may have fallen down in the past and what funding and resources we need to make it work?
Michael Kelly: Let us examine the evidence. The evidence on which I rely comes from the report I mentioned in my statement, which comes from examining the experience of this type of process across the EU during the past 15 years. My interpretation of the evidence is that the rationale for working with the merging and consolidation of institutes is not about knocking things together but building stronger capability. It is through, for example, cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, stronger quality processes and so on in the larger institution that we can achieve, not just efficiency gain, which should be part of the agenda, but also a step change in quality of outcomes in terms of the student experience, the quality of graduates, research excellence and the engagement the institutions have with their local communities and in responding to real needs.
When we start from there, the other message that comes through in the evidence is that one pays for this sooner or later, at the start or in lower-than-expected quality outcomes later. When we put a university brand on any Irish institution, we need to do it with great care, and this is reflected in the standard, in the very exacting designation criteria, for example. This also needs to be reflected in the preparation we put in. In the Dublin context, we have taken three years thinking it through and beginning to action some of the pieces of it. It will take much investment, and although finding this investment within the overall higher education budget is challenging, we cannot rely on institutions to find the great majority of what needs to be invested from existing pools, given that they would have to take it out of something that is already happening.
Deputy John Deasy: There are practical issues surrounding WIT regarding managing legacy debt. Major strains still exist. We are talking about funding this critical measure with all those issues still remaining, and it requires support from the Department and the HEA.
Michael Kelly: It does, and it is beyond my brief.
Deputy John Deasy: I am not saying something Mr. Kelly does not know. It would be useful, and many people working in WIT would ask this question of the Department. They would have a concern about the appropriate funding of the process as it continues.
Seán Ó Foghlú: One of the helpful aspects of Mr. Kelly's report was that it placed the project in an appropriate regional context and is trying to build up a regional rationale for it. The support in the region as a whole is a very important dimension. Mr. Kelly has outlined his recommendations for a project steering group or team and a regional stakeholder forum. When the facilitation is passed, putting such a structure in place will be very important. There was no question of resourcing in the past impacting on the situation, given that there was no lack of resources. More resources were available that they could have drawn down, but they were not in a position to do so given that they were not working together well enough and did not have the plans in place. We must recognise that there is a challenge for us and a need to resource it appropriately, particularly for the back filling and the change in the nature of institutions that is needed to enable the institutions to grow into an amalgamation This is part of the challenge we face in considering the future funding of higher education.
John Deasy: Administratively, where does the funding stream come from? Is it the HEA? Is it both?
Seán Ó Foghlú: We fund the HEA. The HEA provides a limited budget for these issues and a number of amalgamations and technological university applications are under way. There is an existing limited fund. The question is how we can seek to enhance it. For State funding, it is an estimates issue.
John Deasy: Some €381,000 was spent jointly, with €170,000 from the HEA. Ultimately, Mr. Ó Foghlú is saying it is his remit regarding the overall budget.
Seán Ó Foghlú: The Deputy mentioned the debt overhang. It was unfortunate that we had to loan WIT the money and we have had an investigation about it. Arising from the investigation, the Minister made a decision to invest the money. We recognise that WIT is in a difficult position and WIT has asked us to re-examine the repayment schedule. While we are examining it, we have not agreed a revised repayment schedule.
John Deasy: When will you make a decision about it?
Seán Ó Foghlú: In the near future, although it is not imminent this week or next week.
John Deasy: It would be a good idea to deal with it sensitively. It would send a message to everybody who works in WIT that the Department is taking seriously the funding issues in the institute. It would probably be a supportive measure if the Department were to deal with it differently.
Seán Ó Foghlú: We are aware of that.
John Deasy: Good... We know where we are with this. We have been down this road before to a certain extent. It is fair to say, and it should be acknowledged, that there are people with differences of opinion on any relationship between both institutions and there are those opinions that exist and dwell in both institutions. However, the important point is that the report stresses that this is feasible, necessary and makes sense. That is why we are going to continue with this and move on. That is the overriding and overarching issue.
As a commentary, and this is not pointed towards anyone in this room, I have noticed that this became very fractious and emotive. It became very political. It became an issue everybody had a comment about. It would be naive of me to expect or try to prevent political representatives from commenting on this as the process is rolled out and develops, but it is worthwhile expressing the view that we should allow this process to grow without the political commentary that has existed and been harmful and damaging to this venture over the last ten years. That makes me suggest that it is incumbent on the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA to have a more committed role with regard to oversight of this process. We will be relying on them to do that. I will not get into the historical stuff with regard to what I think has not happened when it comes to oversight, in terms of dealing with this, over the past ten years. We have dealt with that sufficiently in this committee. It is incumbent on both organisations to provide that oversight. More keenly, that has occurred in the past to make this work. I thank Mr. Kelly. I appreciate his assistance.
Michael Kelly: I thank the Deputy.
PAC Meeting | May 14, 2015
Chairman: [John McGuinness TD]: . . . a number of reports were given to us by a whistleblower relating to Cork Insitute of Technology. I know this is a different matter but it is still part of the third level sector.
Then there were reports on Waterford Institute of Technology, there were problems in regard to the amalgamation of Carlow and Waterford ITs and Tralee and Cork ITs. Within what was said at those meetings, there were serious issues which have not been addressed in an adequate way.
We should not just remind the Department of Education and Skills but, if necessary, bring forward the date of our hearing with it if we do not get the appropriate replies. Extremely serious allegations were made but it seems to me that the Department has not taken them seriously.
In the context of the amalgamation of institutes at both Carlow and Waterford and Tralee and Cork, significant moneys are involved and the Department has not clarified the matter yet the amalgamations continue apace.
Again, it is a question of having the information before us, being able to make a decision and not allowing a process to continue that will further cloud the financial circumstances of the colleges involved so that we will never get to the end of the matter.
We should express our concern directly to the Department about these matters that have been raised. If we do not receive a comprehensive reply to the queries raised by members and whistleblowers, then we should have an earlier than planned meeting with the Department, the Higher Education Authority and representatives from the different colleges concerned.
Deputies could deal with the issues raised in the correspondence supplied by the Department at that meeting. The allegations are far too serious for this committee to ignore.
Deputy John Deasy: We should wait until Mr. Michael Kelly finishes his report. It might be more useful to have him in when we meet the HEA and the Department. I have spoken to him and he has agreed to meet the Committee of Public Accounts once he has finalised his report.
My understanding is that he is taking a look at some of the issues you raised as well. He has had to wait until the two governing bodies in Waterford and Carlow met and until they have been put together before he issues his report.
There has been a delay because of that and I believe that is reasonable. However, if we are asking in the Higher Education Authority with the Department of Education and Skills then I believe it would be useful to bring him in and discuss his report and findings as well, because he is examining the issues you have raised.
Chairman [John McGuinness]: I have no difficulty with that, Deputy Deasy, save to say that what Deputy Costello has raised and what I have raised are almost separate from the particular issue of Waterford and Carlow ITs.
Deputy John Deasy: Yes, that's grand.
Chairman: It is a broader issue of governance and reporting between the colleges and the Department, and, in turn, reporting between the Department, the HEA and the Committee of Public Accounts. It is obvious that we are not getting the information. It is clear to me that there is almost an attempt not to give us full information, and that is not acceptable.
Deputy John Deasy: That is fair enough. He is probably the one person who has been tasked with independently reviewing the governance matters that you are talking about. Therefore, if we are going to have a meeting on the matter it might be useful to have him before the committee to talk about his findings when it comes to the governance and the stream of information between the Department, the Committee of Public Accounts and the HEA.
PAC Meeting | March 26, 2015
Chairman: I think we should discuss No. 4, lapses in controls at Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT. The issues raised there had to do also with Carlow, Cork and Tralee. We should put it on the agenda for our next meeting.
Deputy John Deasy: There has been significant movement in regard to Carlow, Waterford, the HEA and education. I understand the President of Waterford IT has left and is now working with the Higher Education Authority.
Mr. Michael Kelly who is carrying out a report on the merger between Waterford and Carlow ITs is probably finalising that work. Would it be useful to invite Mr. Kelly to present to committee after he makes his report?
Chairman: I understand the report has to go to the Minister before it is available to us. We have already agreed to bring back the Department and the HEA and we can ask them to invite in Mr. Kelly to discuss his report.
Then, we could perhaps bring into that discussion the report here relating to the WIT and the reports on the other institutes. We are still awaiting the report from the Department on the Vocational Education Committees, which is before the Minister.
Deputy John Deasy: It would be useful to have Mr. Kelly come before us. I believe the hearing we had with the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills woke some people up and that some issues were resolved after that hearing.
We should continue with that to bring this to a conclusion, if possible. Having Mr. Kelly appear would be useful in that regard.
Chairman: We do not have a date set for that meeting. If we can find out when the report will be available after the Minister completes her examination of it, we can set an early date for that hearing.
PAC Meeting | Jan 22, 2015
Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú (Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills), and Mr. Tom Boland (Chief Executive Officer, Higher Education Authority) called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: I welcome everyone to today's meeting. I am beginning to think we might have an oversight problem in the area of education generally. Obviously, the oversight or lack of oversight by the Higher Education Authority is the issue we are discussing here. The other members of the committee have dealt with that. I do not want to stick with that. I am going to get into the merger between the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow. The historic governance issues within Waterford Institute of Technology, which have been very well publicised over the past few years, have been dealt with by this committee for a number of years. We had recommendations issued to us a few months ago with regard to the institute. It is fair to say - we can ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to comment on this - that governance issues in the institute which have been going on for a couple of years have been dealt with, most recently last year. It seems to me that this being is the case - it is well known, documented and publicised - the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education and Skills would have paid particular attention to a merger process that has amounted to €380,000 or €400,000. I was struck by the fact that the merger process involving Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Tralee has cost significantly less than that. By all accounts, the merger process in the Cork and Tralee case is more successful and is continuing.
We have a remit. We have absolute jurisdiction to ask what happened with regard to this merger process. What went wrong? Mr. Boland has characterised the case of the National College of Art and Design as "certainly not an attractive picture". I suggest there is more than one unattractive picture here. I am thinking of the now failed attempt to merge the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow. I will ask Mr. Ó Foghlú and Mr. Boland about that merger process. I want them to start by bringing us through it from point to point. Can they set out their personal, professional and organisational involvement? How did it begin? How did their involvement proceed? Why did it break down? It is particularly interesting for me because if I am correct - maybe the Comptroller and Auditor General can back me up - it was mentioned in a recommendation that the involvement of the Higher Education Authority was lacking in the case of previous issues, including financial issues, when it came to Waterford Institute of Technology. There was a lack of communication on a number of different fronts. As a substantial amount of public money was spent on the merger process, I need to ask what kind of interaction, communication, involvement and oversight occurred within the Higher Education Authority with regard to that process. I ask Mr. Ó Foghlú and Mr. Boland to run through where we are at.
Call it a brick wall or a Mexican stand-off that is where we are and it is not a good situation.
Tom Boland: I would not characterise this yet, and hopefully not at all, as a failed attempt at a merger. There is still scope and it is still a feasible project.
I will try to sketch out the history. We go back to the publication of the Hunt report on the national strategy for higher education that recommended the establishment of technological universities as a positive way to allow institutes of technology develop to university level. One of the other objectives of that policy approach was to consolidate the institute of technology sector because there were several small institutions, in the interests of quality and scale. Moving on, and over a period of time, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, published a landscape for the higher education sector which included the potential for a number of technological universities to be formed, including a university of the south east encompassing Waterford and Carlow. That was accepted as ministerial and Government policy and therefore passed to the institutions for implementation.
One of the very important aspects of mergers of institutions, and it forms part of national policy, is that forced mergers of institutions do not work. We have seen how it does work. It is extremely important that the institutions themselves quickly develop a shared interest and vision for what the institution will ultimately be. The HEA has also had to be-----
Deputy John Deasy: Are you characterising this as a forced merger?
Tom Boland: No. I am getting to the point of whether the HEA could have forced these institutions to do certain things. I am trying to emphasise the importance of the institutions themselves getting on with it and getting on with each other. The HEA, in the context of a technological university application, has to be somewhat hands off. We cannot be part of the development of a technological university because we have to review, make a decision and advise the Minister as to whether any particular entity should be a technological university. There would be a conflict of interest.
We have a very direct and lively interest in ensuring in the first instance that the merger of any of the institutes is done successfully. To that extent the HEA has allocated some funding, by no means the amount sought or required, for merger activity but in the context of the financial difficulties generally it cannot be and never will be enough.
In respect of Waterford-Carlow, as with all the other mergers, and not just the technological university but also the important merger of Dublin City University, St. Patrick's and Mater Dei, we have kept in close touch with the institutions to assess progress. While we were aware of some difficulties in this project up to a media announcement I was not aware that the discussions were going to break down. I had no expectation that would be the case. We had to stand back a bit but the Department appointed a facilitator to the group. Several efforts were made and many assurances were given to me as chief executive officer, to the Department and Ministers, by the presidents and chairpersons that things would work out. Ultimately, Waterford took a fairly dramatic action to withdraw from the process. I do not think it is a failed process.
Deputy John Deasy: What I said was it is a failed process to date and it is. Whatever happens in the future, that is what I am interested in. There is a process in bits. Let us be clear about the situation now.
Tom Boland: As matters stand it has not progressed at all well. It is a failed process to that extent. I agree with the Deputy.
Deputy John Deasy: So you were under no illusions with regard to negotiations or discussions between the two entities that there was a problem. Who was assuring you that there were no issues?
Tom Boland: No I did not say there were no issues. We were always aware that there were issues but in a merger of this kind there are bound to be issues. The assurance was that they could be worked out. I had every expectation that they would be.
Deputy John Deasy: This involved public money. Can you give us an idea what those issues were? Let us get down to the nitty-gritty.
Tom Boland: Some of the issues would have been around where the headquarters of the entity would be, the relative strengths of the institutions vis-à-vis some of the criteria for technological universities and the extent to which the institutions were or were not taking action to address that. That was an issue. None of these issues was impossible to work out. If memory serves, they had reached a level of agreement on many of these issues when to the surprise of a lot of people Waterford withdrew from the process.
Deputy John Deasy: I am getting a different story. The difficulty is that those assurances or opinions given to you by those individuals were wrong. I am afraid the HEA accepted those assurances or opinions and it was incorrect to do so. Perhaps the Secretary General could give the Department’s-----
Tom Boland: I do not accept that we were wrong to do so.
Deputy John Deasy: There is too much form here in respect of governance not to take a really forensic view of this merger. If I was in your position I would have kept a very close eye on everything that was occurring when it came to that merger between Waterford and Carlow. I do not think the HEA gave it the kind of oversight that was necessary. I want to hear from the Secretary General.
Tom Boland: We cannot make mergers happen. It has to be done by the institutions.
Deputy John Deasy: Okay.
Sean Ó Foghlú: Thank you Deputy Deasy. I wish to correct something Mr. Boland said, which I know was an accidental use of language. Waterford IT suspended its engagement with the process. It did not withdraw from the process. The process is not finished. Waterford suspended its engagement.
Deputy John Deasy: I have to correct you. Waterford has made it clear that it is not going to engage with regard to any other entity or Carlow and that it would prefer to go it alone.
Sean Ó Foghlú: No it has not. Waterford has suspended its engagement with the process. As far as I am aware that is its principal announcement in that regard. The technological university concept is Government policy, as is the process whereby criteria have to be met. There is a distance that has to be kept between the agents of Government in ensuring a fair and appropriate process is undertaken and the institutions which voluntarily put together applications, with a political background but voluntarily. It is their role to do that and they advance it in a combined way.
As Mr. Boland said, we were hearing on the grapevine that there were difficulties and there was a process put in place to bring them together. They moved away from having an external facilitator and the two institutes decided to work together without one but right down to two or three weeks prior to the announcement of the suspension by Waterford Institute of Technology the two presidents assured the Minister, and I was at the meeting, that the process was advancing.
Deputy John Deasy: That was two weeks before the announcement.
Seán Ó Foghlú: A couple of weeks. I do not have the exact date. There were difficulties. As officials, we must take the assurances that we are given. I do not agree with the Deputy that we get into micro-managing.
Deputy John Deasy: Was that a joint meeting between both presidents?
Seán Ó Foghlú: It was a joint meeting. We were informed by the two presidents that it was advancing and then at relatively short notice, there was an unravelling. Immediate action was taken on the unravelling. I was present at one of the meetings. I could not make the other. The Minister met either the chair or the vice chair and the presidents of both institutions and the process was put in place, which is led by Michael Kelly. This process is underway. Clearly we cannot be sure of the outcome of that process but dialogue is underway with Michael Kelly and we hope there will be a positive outcome for this endeavour.
Deputy John Deasy: I am aware of that and that is fine. I am really not concerned about Mr. Kelly at this point. I am concerned about the job that the Department and the HEA did with regard to this merger process and its involvement and oversight. I am not concerned about the Port, Hunt or Quigley reports. It is endless. What Mr. Ó Foghlú has outlined to the committee is very significant with regard to the meeting between the two presidents and what was imparted to the Minister - that there was progress and that there were no issues that could not be resolved.
Seán Ó Foghlú: I did not say that there were no issues. I said that there was progress. This is not the only merger process underway at the moment. There is a wide range of merger processes underway within higher education. The overall issue about how the merger processes are advancing has to be taken in the round rather than just in respect of one individual one. There are a number of different process within teacher education and the institutes of technology and in all of those processes, the institutions must take ownership to ensure they happen effectively. Even on Monday of this week, I met, as did Mr. Boland, with the presidents of the three institutes of technology in Dublin which are merging. They also have an independent facilitator in place and that merger is advancing very well.
Deputy John Deasy: Nobody is going to say that there will never be problems with anything. Mr. Boland said it is an unfinished process that has not failed completely. It is important that we discover the reasons why it has failed to date. Surely that is critical before we move in any new direction with regard to a merger or non-merger? If the two presidents were giving assurances two weeks before this broke down, we have a problem. It is not Mr. Ó Foghlú or Mr Boland's problem. We may have a problem that needs to dealt with. I am just trying to be fair here. Once both of them found that this process was broken, they obviously moved in and asked what the issues that led to that point were. What were they told?
Seán Ó Foghlú: Can I answer first? The process has not broken down. The process is suspended.
Deputy John Deasy: Fair enough.
Seán Ó Foghlú: We have a facilitator in place to reignite the process. Do I think it would be helpful to bring all the reasons why the process broke down into open public discussion and have a wide-ranging debate about it? No, I do not.
Tom Boland: Can I add to that because what the issues are and what the resolution might be are on the public record. If we look at the terms of reference given to Mr. Kelly, they relate in the first instance to the extent to which there can be a shared vision for the kind of institution that could be created in the south east. One then had the very important practical issue of the feasibility of implementing that vision. Those are the two crucial pillars on which success will rest, in particular, the extent to which the two institutions, their academic staff and their governance can have a shared vision of what they want to create.
Deputy John Deasy: So Mr. Ó Foghlú is not prepared to discuss the issues-----
Seán Ó Foghlú: I am not saying I am not prepared to. Deputy Deasy asked whether it would be helpful. I do not think that is helpful at this stage. The most important thing at this stage is to support the institutions in their engagement with Mr. Kelly. Both institutions are hurt and challenged and are going through considerations and seeking to engage in a real way with Mr. Kelly. If we had a public session with the two institutes about why they are at this place, it would not be helpful. We have a facilitator. I do not consider this process to be lost. We have a facilitator in place and I hope the facilitator's actions will lead to a positive outcome.
Deputy John Deasy: I am going to give Mr. Ó Foghlú an opinion more than anything else. It might be a question of sorts. If this happened on my watch, notwithstanding Mr. Kelly's prospective work, I would get the officials and possibly people from the governing body - the chairman has left Waterford Institute of Technology - in Mr. Ó Foghlú's offices. That did happen to some extent. Mr. Ó Foghlú passed the buck to Mr. Kelly. Both organisations should have moved in immediately and dealt with the two organisations singly and jointly, dealt with this once and for all and made a decision as to the best way forward for both institutions as opposed to passing it on for someone else to write a report - number four or five. Here we are waiting for another report with recommendations ad nauseam about Waterford and Carlow. This has continued for years. Notwithstanding what Mr. Ó Foghlú has said with regard to the reasons and the non-publication of the reasons why it failed or suspended, that is the approach. The public purse would probably have been better served in the long term if you did that. It is necessary at this point. It includes drilling down into the governing bodies and the people who manage both institutions to find out what can be rescued from this, if it is possible to re-merge and begin that process again.
From the standpoint of the city and the region I am dealing with it, it is a critical infrastructural component. Progress has been stagnant for a long time. One of the reasons has been that it has not reached that stage. The process has been put together. In fairness, it is successful in Dublin but up to now, it has failed in the south east. Extraordinary measures need to be taken outside of just appointing Mr. Kelly and frankly regurgitating stuff that we already know about. It is a suggestion. Given that we are the Committee of Public Accounts and given almost €400,000 that has been spent, we will be re-engaging the public purse if this process begins again and the money needs to be better spent than it was in the past couple of years.
Seán Ó Foghlú: Subsequent to the suspension between the Department and the HEA, we did have some of that engagement and we came to the conclusion that the best way to address it was to put a facilitator in place to work with the two institutions. We did have some of that engagement but we did not think we were best placed to help draw those understandings out, which is quite close to what Mr. Kelly is undertaking.
Deputy John Deasy: If people in both institutions do not understand that the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA are exercising keen oversight of this issue and these two institutions, the Department and the HEA will be doing the same thing they have been doing for the past ten years. I appreciate Mr. Ó Foghlú and Mr. Boland coming in and they have been very frank with their responses but this has gone on too long. The two entities that are before us today are not responsible for disagreements between individuals and entities but they are responsible for finding a solution to this and they have failed so far. They are part and parcel of finding that solution be it a merger of Carlow and Waterford or some other direction. The Department and the HEA need to take extraordinary steps on this because the south east needs this. People in the south east are losing faith in government generally when it comes to this issue.