Adjournment Debate - Third Level Education.

Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 598 No. 5

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Mr. O’Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, is reported as having roundly endorsed the compelling case for a south-east university which was made at a regional conference in Waterford city last January. While acknowledging that the final Government decision would be guided by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, the Minister and president of the Progressive Democrats stated that he believes “that in the south-eastern region between Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford there is a future for a proposal to transform the existing third level infrastructure into something more elaborate and I would be the last to say that the march towards a university is to be cut off at the pass”. He also stated: “Universities should not be centrally controlled and Waterford Institute of Technology should not all the time be answerable to an elected Minister.”

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, who represents Waterford, made the keynote address at the same conference and stated that Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT “is a university in all but name”. He also stated:

However, on 27 January 2005, in reply to two parliamentary questions I tabled, the Minister for Education and Science stated: “it should also be noted that the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland, which was released on 16 September 2004, recommends that the differentiation of mission between the university and the institute of technology sectors be preserved and that for the foreseeable future there be no further institutional transfers into the university sector”.

The expert group from the OECD carried out a major review of the Irish higher education system which involved visiting Ireland and consulting extensively with all the major education stakeholders. The positions taken up by the president of the Progressive Democrats and the Minister for Transport, on one hand, and the Minister for Education and Science, on the other, are hardly compatible, to say the least. There is no other interpretation of what the Minister for Education and Science stated than that she intends to cut off [1129]Waterford’s march towards university status at the pass. The president of the Progressive Democrats would be the last to say that this should be the case.

The position of the Minister for Transport is that WIT is a university in all but name and that the rectifying of this anomaly in the near future is a primary aim. This is incompatible with the statement that “the differentiation of mission between the university and the institute of technology sectors be preserved and that for the foreseeable future there be no further institutional transfers into the university sector”.

The Government’s policy on this hugely important issue for Waterford and the south east depends on whether one listens to the president of the Progressive Democrats and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, or the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, who, after all, has line responsibility for the third level education sector. The first two Ministers, Deputies Cullen and McDowell, would leave one with the impression that university status for Waterford is near hand, while the Minister for Education and Science appears to indicate that this status will not be achieved in the foreseeable future. Politics are undoubtedly being played with this extremely important issue which is vital for the future development and prosperity of the entire south-eastern region.

The parliamentary questions I tabled to the Minister for Education and Science asked for her proposals, first, to grant national institute of higher education status to Waterford Institute of Technology in order that NIHE Waterford may develop along the same route as the University of Limerick and Dublin City University developed from NIHE Limerick and NIHE Glasnevin, respectively, and, second, to grant Waterford Institute of Technology a stand-alone status similar to Dublin Institute of Technology as a first step towards university status. The two questions separately offered alternative routes to university status for Waterford Institute of Technology. The Minister’s reply, “There are no plans to change the status of Waterford Institute of Technology”, was negative and clear.

This Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has no intention of conferring university status on Waterford Institute of Technology. This should be clearly and unambiguously understood. However, it should not deter, in any way, the purpose and commitment of those of us who understand how vital university status for WIT is in terms of bringing about a major enhancement of the economic, cultural and industrial development of the region. No less an authority than Dr. Edward Walsh, President Emeritus of the University of Limerick, has stated that the challenge for the State in establishing a university [1130]in Waterford should not be significant, either in financial or organisational terms, particularly in light of the major capital investment already made in buildings and infrastructure to support a 6,000-student campus at WIT and a new 150-acre campus at Carriganore.

Waterford is the only one of the five major cities that does not have a university. This is reflected in the annual spend for third level institutions in each of those cities. In 2004, recurrent funding was: Dublin —€490 million; Cork —€160 million; Galway —€117 million; Limerick —€101 million; and Waterford —€43 million. This is another illustration of the inequality delivered upon Waterford. Waterford has waited long enough and I am calling on the Minister for Education and Science to reverse her position and give Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford and the south-east region the vital additional third level status and investment that is not alone greatly needed, but richly deserved.

Mr. T. O’Malley: Information on Tim O'Malley  Zoom on Tim O'Malley  I thank Deputy O’Shea for raising this issue as it affords me the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science as regards this matter.

In July 1996, the Government approved in principle the recommendations in the report of the steering committee on the future development of higher education as a benchmark for future planning in the sector. The steering committee concluded that an upgrading and expansion of Waterford Regional College, since re-titled Waterford Institute of Technology, represented the most appropriate response to the higher educational needs of the south east region. The committee’s report recommended an increase in student places, with the major focus of expansion to be at degree level, and a change of title.

The Government accepted these recommendations. The provision of both the total number of places and of degree level courses in Waterford Institute of Technology has since been significantly expanded. Over that period, student numbers at Waterford IT have grown by some 40%. It now provides a range of programmes, the majority at degree level, right across the academic spectrum, including the humanities, health and nursing, science and informatics, engineering, business and education. These measures have provided the necessary capacity for the institute to meet the identified higher educational needs of the south east region over the coming years.

The Minister for Education and Science stated recently, and it is worth repeating, that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a world-class third level institution without having the title “university”. The same applies to the London School of Economics, the Geneva Institute and many others.

[1131]Nor has Waterford Institute of Technology’s development been impeded by the lack of a university title. It has forged formal academic exchange and research partnerships with more than 40 universities worldwide. It has delegated authority to make its own educational awards up to Masters level, under the terms of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999. Waterford IT has been extremely successful in the research field, with its researchers having competed successfully for prestigious national and EU research funding. One of the major PRTLI research programmes, Smart Space Management, is located in Waterford IT.

The OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland, which was released on 16 September 2004, recommends that the differentiation of mission between the university and the institute of [1132]technology sectors be preserved. It identifies this feature of the Irish system as a great strength and recommends that, for the foreseeable future, there be no further institutional transfers into the university sector.

The south eastern region has benefited greatly from the presence of a very successful and flourishing higher education institution in the form of Waterford Institute of Technology. The Government is committed to supporting Waterford IT into the future in continuing to make a significant contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of the south east and beyond.

Again I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.


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