Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In a previous Adjournment matter I tabled on foot of the job losses in TalkTalk, I raised the issue of the need for a university for the south east and for Waterford Institute of Technology to be designated as a university. At the time the Minister gave a commitment that he would visit WIT and he has done so. He will have seen the outstanding facilities there, including the ICT building, which was completed in October 2004; the nurse education building, which commenced in September 2004; the enterprise research centre; the tourism building; and the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group, TSSG. All of the building blocks have been put in place by Waterford Institute of Technology. The Port report, which first looked at the application by WIT for a university, stated that Waterford had the academic maturity and an activity profile that was similar to universities in Ireland and other western countries. It also mentioned the governance, management and strategic planning capabilities required of a university and stated that Waterford had all of those, along with an attractive and suitable campus environment and a secure asset base to permit future development.
In the wake of what has happened in Waterford city and the recent Government decisions, one being to locate the headquarters of the VEC in Wexford rather than Waterford city which has caused dismay, there is a need for the Government to accelerate this issue. It has talked about a multi-campus technological university and the Minister for Education and Skills has spoken about this recently. The question is what would that mean? The Minister spoke about the creation of a new technological university status which would complement our existing universities in meeting the full range of needs of students and the wider society.
The reason we are seeking a university is that the south east has been operating with one hand tied behind its back for far too long. Waterford city is the only gateway city without a university while the south east region has the critical mass of a population of almost 500,000. While I accept the Minister is looking at a multi-campus technological university the question the people in Waterford will ask is whether that will put Waterford into the top tier of university provision? The Minister ruled out the application made by Waterford Institute of Technology for simple designation and referred to comparisons with polytechnics in the UK. The major fear is that while some move might be made for Waterford, other ITs across the State might get a similar lift and then it will not be what the people of Waterford are seeking.
The issues around the application centre on funding. A university brings in more funding especially in the areas of research and development. Branding is important but not just in terms of a name change. There is no point in simply calling Waterford Institute of Technology a technological university if it is simply a beefed up institute of technology. It must be a fully fledged university that has the capabilities to meet the needs of the people of the south east. It is important in any future decisions that are made that Waterford Institute of Technology — I hope it will be a university — will have the same autonomy as the nine other universities in the State.
Not all of the opposition from outside Waterford to Waterford Institute of Technology being made a university is political. Opposition is also coming from the other nine universities. University politics has been at the heart of much of what has happened in regard to this issue for far too long. That is why I welcome the Minister’s commitment to at least look at this issue and examine the possibility of a technological university. I see that as a step forward. However, the critical issue is one of equality in that Waterford and the south east should be on a par with every other region in the country. We cannot continue to limp along, playing second fiddle to all the other regions, trying to compete with regions which have universities, including the educational hub and opportunities for research and development which Waterford city does not have.
I mentioned the decision in regard to the VEC amalgamation. Many would have seen the decision to place the headquarters in Wexford rather than Waterford as political. In addition, IDA Ireland regional offices were moved out of Waterford city to Cork and elsewhere. To many in Waterford it appears that the State agencies and Departments have consistently let Waterford down. One thing that could be done quickly is to approve the application by Waterford Institute of Technology for a university to meet the needs of the people of Waterford, the business community, and the students who want to avail of university qualifications in their own city without the necessity to travel.
I spoke recently with Dr. Mark Rowe, chair of the Friends of the University of the South East. He is quite supportive of the idea of a technological university but will await the detail and see what emerges from the Government. He mentioned the brain drain from Waterford and the south east. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons we cannot compete for the jobs to enable Waterford city to function as the key economic driver of the region.
The national spatial strategy designated Waterford as the gateway city because Waterford should be the capital of the region. A strong economic performance from Waterford will result in a stronger region and Waterford city has to be the economic engine of the south east. Unfortunately, it is not being given the capacity by State agencies or by the previous Government and others to enable it reach its potential. There is huge potential in Waterford and it can be unlocked if the right decisions are made by the Government. I hope this will be the right decision. What action has been taken since the Minister for Education and Skills announced he would accelerate this issue and what are his future plans? When will Waterford hear a positive announcement from the Government that will lift the mood of the people in Waterford and the south east?
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The national strategy for higher education to 2030, otherwise known as the Hunt report, lays out a clear possible development pathway for amalgamated institutes of technology, which meet specified performance criteria, to seek redesignation as technological universities.
A small number of new technological universities, with their own legislative framework and a distinct mission that is faithful to the ethos of the technological sector, working with existing universities, institutes of technology and other education providers, can enrich the diversity and quality of the Irish higher education landscape.
Following publication of the higher education strategy, the Department commissioned input from an international expert, familiar with the Irish higher education sector, on the detailed performance criteria against which any future applications for redesignation as a technological university would be assessed. In its statutory advisory capacity, the Minister then asked the Higher Education Authority for its formal advice on final appropriate performance criteria. A consultation process on draft criteria has been undertaken by the HEA and it is understood that the HEA hopes to sign off its formal advice to the Minister at a meeting of the authority later this month. Following consideration of this, the Minister aims to be in a position to publish the designation criteria and the process arrangements before the end of December.
The establishment of a technological university will also require legislation and this will be advanced as part of the overall work programme for implementation of the higher education strategy. However, the first step is to provide clarity on the performance criteria, which will enable institutes of technology to consider their future options in an informed way. It is important to repeat that it has to be done in an informed and balanced way. It would not be right to designate a particular structure as a technological university at this stage, it must go through a proper academic and formal consultation process while retaining the need to ensure the commitment is maintained.
Any decision must be made on the basis of sound academic and performance-related criteria. The first step is to provide clarity on those performance criteria, which will enable institutes of technology to consider their future options in an informed way. Once a process is in place, it will be open to institutes of technology to come together to make applications for consideration for redesignation. That is an eminently sensible approach. All applications, including any involving Waterford Institute of Technology, will be considered under an independent assessment process. This is a necessary prerequisite of upholding the quality and international reputation of the higher education system.
There is a clear understanding, on a cross-party political basis, of the need to ensure there is balanced regional development, as referred to by Senator Cullinane. I acknowledged during a recent visit to Waterford Institute of Technology, including the TSSG centre, that world-class research is being carried out there. It is an exceptional entity of which people in the Waterford region can be very proud. The capability and capacity are there, but we must go through a process. Moreover, it must be a logical and informed process rather than a knee-jerk reaction which could create an entity that is not self-sustaining. We must ensure that whatever is created can sustain itself and compete with other institutions. We should also take into account that there are as many students on the campus of Stanford University in California as there are in third level institutions throughout the Twenty-six Counties. We must think relatively and be careful of how we proceed.
Senator David Cullinane: I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, has done more on this issue in the months he has been in office than his various predecessors did over many years. That is most welcome. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, stated in his reply: “The first step is to provide clarity on those performance criteria, which will enable institutes of technology to consider their future options in an informed way.” The concern in Waterford is that any change might amount to no more than a name change, with institutes of technology designated as first tier or second tier and the latter perhaps redefined as technological universities but without being on a par with the other nine universities. While I accept there may be logic in having technological universities, there is legitimate concern in Waterford Institute of Technology in this regard. Going back to the point I made about the nurse education building and the humanities courses provided by Waterford IT, how will they fit into a technological university? That is another legitimate concern. Nevertheless, I welcome the positive moves made by the Government thus far. It has done more in recent months than previous Administrations have done for many years.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I acknowledge the legitimate concerns expressed by the Senator. The institute of technology sector of itself is very much engaged on those points, particularly in regard to the humanities and the social sciences side as they pertain to the sector. I am also confident those questions have arisen in the context of deliberations on the Hunt report. Nevertheless, I will convey the concerns outlined by the Senator directly to the Minister, Deputy Quinn.
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