Thursday, 16 November 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cummins: In the years between 1991 and 2001, per capita income in the south east fell from 91.1% to 85.3% of the State average. The region’s record in attracting and stimulating knowledge-based industries is also lower than the State average. Just 30.4% of employment in the region is in the modern export sector, compared to the national average of 38.4%. Some 19.7% of the workforce in the south east has a third level qualification, compared to the national average of 26%. Waterford is the only gateway city without a university. Its annual investment in higher education is substantially behind the other gateway cities.
Waterford Institute of Technology, which has more than 10,500 full-time and part-time students, has built a stock of intellectual capital and infrastructure that could be easily reconfigured to university level without significant cost or delay. It is comparable in size to many universities. The breadth of study offered by Waterford Institute of Technology is substantial and diverse. It spans disciplines such as the arts and humanities, social science, education, business and management, information technology, science, health sciences, architecture and engineering.
The 2005 Goodbody report suggested that Waterford Institute of Technology, under its current structure, will make no additional contribution to the region over the next five years. The report argued that the upgrading of the institute to university status would result in the creation of almost 750 high-skilled jobs and lead to an additional annual inflow of up to €80 million per annum into the region. The overall conclusion of the report is that significant value, in terms of economic and social development, would accrue from the investment that would be necessitated by the designation of Waterford Institute of Technology as a university. University designation would provide for a stronger and more competitive cutting edge, beyond that which the institute can achieve within its current boundaries.
I ask the Minister of State to outline the current status of Waterford Institute of Technology’s application for redesignation as the university of the south east. What further steps are required before such a redesignation can take place? What timescale is envisaged for the realisation by the region of its true potential, in terms of having its own university? I hope the Minister of State will not give us any more pious platitudes or announce that more reports will be undertaken. He should concentrate on specifics in his reply because we are tired of generalities, nods and winks and the muddying of the waters with bland statements. Waterford and the south east as a whole need to know where they stand in this regard. I hope the Minister of State will clarify the matter.
Mr. N. Ahern: As Senator Cummins is aware, the Taoiseach recently confirmed that the Minister for Education and Science plans to commission a preliminary independent examination of a submission that has been made by the governing body of Waterford Institute of Technology. The governing body wrote to the Department of Education and Science in February 2006 requesting a review of its status under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. The provisions of section 9 state that the Government may appoint a body, which will include international experts, to advise the Higher Education Authority on whether, having regard to the objects and functions of a university, an educational institution should be established as a university. On the advice of the body and the recommendation of the authority, the Government may, by order, deem the institution to be a university for the purposes of the 1997 Act.
The submission from Waterford Institute of Technology seeking university status is under consideration by the Department of Education and Science. When such an application is being considered, a detailed statutory review process needs to be followed and significant wider issues need to be considered in advance of a statutory review. Some important wider policy developments in the higher education sector are relevant in this context. It is important to take account of the recent significant changes in the legislative framework governing Irish higher education. I refer to the passing of the Institutes of Technology Act 2006 at the end of the last Dáil term, for example.
Some changes were made to wider Government policy on foot of the review of Irish higher education that was carried out by the OECD in 2004. The broad thrust of that review was endorsed by the Government. One of the central purposes of the OECD review was to support Ireland’s strategic ambition of placing its higher education system in the front rank of such systems within the OECD nations. That ambition is being pursued in the context of the wider national objective of developing as a leading knowledge economy and society. In its report to the Government, the OECD recommended that Ireland should retain the differentiation in mission of the university and institute of technology sectors, which it identified as a key strength of our system. It emphasised that there should be no institutional transfers into the university system in the foreseeable future. The report also recommended that the universities and institutes of technology should be brought together under the remit of a single authority for the purpose of achieving a unified higher education strategy. The OECD report further recommended that the extent of the external regulation of the institutes of technology should be lightened to give them greater managerial freedom in responding to the opportunities and challenges of supporting regional and national social and economic development.
The Institutes of Technology Act 2006, which addresses some significant elements of the OECD recommendations, marks a major milestone for the institutes of technology sector and the development of higher education in Ireland. The Act will transform the Irish higher education landscape. It will inform our consideration of the case being made for university status for Waterford Institute of Technology.
In the interests of achieving the best outcome, it is intended, as a first step, to commission a preliminary independent examination of the governing body’s submission. The examination will involve the appointment of an eminent international expert on higher education to comprehensively analyse Waterford Institute of Technology’s submission, taking account of the wider changing policy context. When the independent expert’s report has been completed, it will be used to guide the Government’s decision on whether a formal statutory review process should be initiated to consider the application, as required under the Universities Act 1997. It is expected this appointment will be made soon.
The Minister for Education and Science is cognisant of the strong support that has been built in the south-east region around the application from Waterford IT for university status. However, the relevant wider policy developments that I have outlined are also fundamental to her consideration of the appropriate next steps on the application. I hope this helps the Senator to understand the present thinking and policy on education.
Mr. Cummins: That helps me to understand the position of the Minister and the Government on our quest for university status. All that has been promised is a preliminary examination of the submission which was made in February.
Mr. Cummins: Most of the Minister of State’s speech referred to the OECD report that suggested no further transfers to the university sector for the foreseeable future. That seems to be the policy of the Government. In other words, the people of Waterford and the south east have been shot in the foot again. No hope whatsoever is being given to our aspiration for a university in the region. It is most disappointing that we have this kind of reply from the Department, but it does not surprise me.
Mr. N. Ahern: The Senator is not being fair. I outlined what the Department is doing, which is in accordance with what was laid down in legislation. The other comments about the OECD are fair. I accept that they do not sound encouraging, but they are used as background and tell us of the parameters and of the other view. I fully understand the local view about university status, but the Government is proceeding in accordance with the legislation passed by the Oireachtas.
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