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.