Thursday, 11 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Brian O’Shea: Waterford needs a university in order that the city, the county and the region can have adequate numbers of graduates as Ireland moves more and more in the direction of a knowledge economy. In the absence of a university, Waterford and the south east have suffered from a significant brain drain with an estimated 7,000 people leaving to study at university annually. School leavers who want to enjoy the benefits of a university education have no choice but to leave the region and the experience in Waterford is that, once people leave, it is difficult to get them back. Unless sufficient highly qualified people graduate within the region and become available for prospective employers, Waterford and the south east will be unable to compete with other regions in attracting investment from major international companies and the local economy will suffer greatly in the long term.
Last week I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science asking whether a decision would be reached on the application by Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, to become a university by the end of the year. For the third time this Dáil term, he replied that the application would be finalised in the near future. This is not only an education matter because it is absolutely vital to job creation in the region. That is simply not good enough. The fact that this matter continues to be long fingered underlines the neglect of the development of Waterford and the south east by the Government parties and the failure to adopt a meaningful strategy for economic and industrial development. The lack of a university seriously handicaps the region in generating jobs in the sectors where sustainable employment can be created such as the knowledge economy, pharmaceuticals, medical technologies and international financial services. These sectors need positive Government intervention urgently.
Last year, universities in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Maynooth and Limerick received a total of €761 million in recurrent funding while Waterford and the south east received nothing. WIT received less than €49 million in recurrent funding last year out of a total of almost €525 million for the entire institute of technology sector. All regional cities, with the exception of Waterford, also benefited from having a local institute of technology but the total third level grant allocation in these cities is in an entirely different league from Waterford. For example, in the west, grants to NUI Galway and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology totalled almost €147 million, which is approximately €98 million more than Waterford received. On a purely financial basis, this puts us at a serious disadvantage before we begin to account for all the spin-off benefits a university would provide.
We look forward to the day when Waterford and the south east will at least be on a par with Galway in spending on third level education. Comparison with Limerick is also instructive. The University of Limerick secured grants of almost €97 million in 2007 while Limerick Institute of Technology received €30 million, a total of €127 million. This means the local economy in Limerick benefited directly from State funding of third level education by almost €79 million more than Waterford last year. This represents a sizeable transfer of funds into the Limerick economy and, in financial terms alone, an annual injection of this magnitude would make a major difference to struggling small businesses in Waterford.
While WIT is acknowledged as the sole and premier provider of third level education in the city, it is nowhere near the top of the institute of technology league in recurrent funding. For example, Dublin Institute of Technology received almost €134 million and Cork Institute of Technology received €62 million. This is not a case of Waterford and the south east begrudging other cities their third level institutions but it is a call to give us the opportunity to prove that with our fair share of State funding for third level education, we can transform Waterford city and county and the south east region. I demand that a positive decision on the application by Waterford Institute of Technology is made by the end of this year.
The position is that applications have been received from three institutes of technology, Waterford IT, Dublin IT and Cork IT for designation as universities. The issue of university designation does not affect only the institutions and the regions from which applications have been received, it will also have a major impact on the future structure of the higher education system throughout the country. The Government wants to build on our strengths and to provide an environment where all our higher education institutions can develop in a way that best serves the country as a whole and the regions where they are based. The institute of technology sector has a specific tradition and expertise in providing technical education and training, geared at the needs of the workforce. In the challenging economic environment we face the sector has a particular role to play in upskilling or reskilling those who may either be a long time out of the formal education system, or who do not have qualifications in areas where job opportunities may develop.
Government policy on higher education is based on a system whereby universities and institutes of technology have distinctive missions from each other, provide different levels and types of academic programmes, fulfil different roles in the community and have separate academic and governance structures. It should also be borne in mind that, since the applications for university status were received, there have been significant changes in the legislative and regulatory framework governing the institute of technology sector, which will in any event deal with many of the legislative constraints on growth and development identified by Waterford Institute of Technology in its application.
The Institutes of Technology Act, which only came into effect in February 2007, provides for the creation of a unified management structure framework for higher education in Ireland by bringing the institute of technology sector under the remit of the Higher Education Authority. The legislation also extends significant new managerial and academic autonomy to the institutes, aimed at facilitating further development of their roles. For example, institutes will have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of their internal and external affairs.
The budgets of individual institutes will now be set by the HEA rather than by the Department and specific approval to run individual courses or programmes will no longer be required. The institutes will also be able to borrow funds under a framework agreed with the HEA and the Departments of Finance and Education and Science. In addition, it has been accepted that income generated by third level institutions from external sources should not be subject to off-setting in the allocation of Exchequer funding.
Waterford Institute of Technology is an important institution making a great contribution to education generally and to the economic and social well-being of the south-east region. It has an excellent track record of industry collaboration particularly in areas of applied research and curriculum design. The Government wants to see Waterford Institute of Technology further develop its strengths in these areas in line with the objectives of the Government’s strategy for science, technology and innovation. In this regard one of the key development and investment priorities for the Waterford gateway in the national development plan is the investment in the R&D capacity of Waterford Institute of Technology to underline the importance of education to Waterford as a centre of excellence.
The Minister has met with each of the three institutes that have submitted applications for designation and officials from my Department have engaged extensively with Waterford Institute of Technology in recent months on its application. It is important that these consultations were arranged before any decision was taken on the matter. Waterford Institute of Technology’s application, together with the other applications on hand, is being carefully assessed and it is expected that consideration of them will be finalised in the near future. I thank the Deputy for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter.
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