Trade unions representing staff in the Institutes of Technology need to develop a unified position on the merging of the institutes, in order to ensure a more central role in the merger process.
The call was made by IMPACT trade union’s deputy general secretary, Kevin Callinan, who was addressing the Mergers in Higher Education symposium, which took place on Friday 12th February at St Laurence’s DIT, Grangegorman, Dublin. IMPACT represents clerical and administrative staff in the Institutes of Technology, and the symposium was organised by the union’s Institutes of Technologies branch.
Kevin said that while unions and staff had legitimate concerns about the proposed merger of Institutes of Technology, those concerns would be better addressed by the various unions involved working together in a cohesive manner rather than criticising "from the sidelines".
He said the Technological Universities Bill, which enjoys broad political support, presented an additional challenge for trade unions. That challenge, he said, is to develop a position that can deal effectively with the interests of the workers employed in the existing institutes of technology, as well as the bigger question of the social consequences of the Bill. “In a sense the battle is to create a modern vision for this sector that is true to the values that informed the forerunner Institutes of Technology, Regional Technical Colleges and Vocational Education Committees.”
Kevin cited the experience of the University of Northern Denmark and Aarhus University in Denmark and their experience of merging colleges, and what he described as the “disciplined approach” of the Danish trade unions. Representatives from both colleges attended the symposium.
He said that differences between the unions, which were sometimes substantial, were identified and resolved prior to discussion with management. “There was a single trade union position developed and agreed. While this inevitably involved compromise, it resulted in a more powerful bargaining position. This was because the negotiators spoke on behalf of the entire workforce,” he said.
Kevin added that the unified position of unions made it more attractive for management to engage “in a genuinely collaborative approach, providing for real consultation, as a rule, rather than in response to a crisis or a threat,” with substantial change achieved without conflict “and in a manner that was broadly acceptable to all.”
He said that the call for a cohesive union position was not to capitulate to the merger process. “Rather it is to try to make a real difference. There are very important issues at stake,” he said.
Kevin told delegates that one of these issues was the potential introduction of a student loan scheme, following leaked details from the unpublished report of the expert group on the future funding of higher education. “The prospect of a student loan scheme creates a cloud of uncertainty. It is not difficult to envisage such a move having a devastating effect on student numbers, with consequent effects on the viability of courses, jobs and even perhaps on the survival of individual higher education institutes,” he said.
He said the current geographical variations, on the amount of students in receipt of student grants, points to the possibility of catastrophic consequences for some of the institutes. “It is likely that the requirement for prospective students from some regions to borrow will be just a further barrier to entry into higher education.
“Trade unions must articulate the view that employers cannot expect to have subsidised labour. With legitimacy, employers may stress the importance of the development of skills that will aid competitiveness and profitability. But it is a bit rich that those who acquire these skills will then spend their first years of employment repaying a loan.
“The funding challenge faced by higher education is severe indeed. But the solution will require the creation of a consensus that doesn’t punish our young people and which involves business paying its fair share of the education and training costs,” he said.
Kevin said Ireland still has a very high proportion of people of working age without a higher secondary level education, relative to other OECD countries. He added this might be linked to the very low participation rate of 6.9 per cent for
He said that the distinguishing features of the technological university, as identified in the Hunt report, include a pivotal role in facilitating access and progression, particularly from the workforce, by developing structured relationships with providers of further education and training. He said that the Education and Training Boards (ETBs), formed from merged VECs and the dissolution of FÁS, have been struggling for direction and an enhanced role, and that closer cooperation with the ETBs could provide opportunities for the entire sector.
Kevin told delegates that Ireland’s capacity for future growth relied on the development of relevant skills, and that the Institutes of Technology had the potential to play a crucial role in realising the ambitions contained within the recently launched Enterprise 2025 strategy. He said that, currently, more third level qualified people are emigrating than are arriving into Ireland, representing a potential loss of skills.
Kevin concluded by saying that, while there is a valid view that universities are increasingly becoming corporatist institutions focused on feeding an insatiable commercial environment, there is little choice but to respond to the issues by emphasising the regional and local dimension to education and in a way that consistently holds government to account: “A response that maintains relevance by meeting industry and enterprise needs in a way that preserves the best values in education. A response that strives to promote inclusivity at all costs in a modernised execution of the traditional mission of vocational education.”