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.