Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
I welcome the formation of this new Department which was warranted and I hope that we see consequent and substantial improvements in our provision and learning outcomes as a result. I welcome in particular the emphasis that this Minister and Minister of State placed on the training and skills facet of the Department and their commitment to prioritise lifelong learning, one of the aspects of education which we do not do well currently in this country.
I will use my time, like many before me, to address the critical issue of the technological university of the south east, TUSE, a project with such importance to balanced regional development that it is specifically referenced twice within the programme for Government. The Minister of State will acknowledge that the technological university, TU, model was conceived in response to the need and demand for a university to serve the needs of the 500,000 people who live in the south-east region and the fact that Waterford is the only city in the country without a university-status third level institution.
I am old enough to remember when the Institute of technology, IT, structure was proposed as an answer to the same problem a generation ago. What followed was a re-badging exercise where all regional technical colleges, RTCs, were upgraded with no net benefit to Waterford or to the south east. It is much to the credit of Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, that it has consistently remained first among equals and has managed to compete with universities despite the inequalities of funding opportunities. I praise also WIT’s place within our community, both geographically and socially. Many of the students who graduate from WIT are the first in their families to attain a third level qualification. This is true of my own family. I also know as a matter of fact the great pride both staff and management place on this.
We are not, however, competing on a level playing pitch. As a region the south east accounts for 8.9% of the population but only 5% of the higher education income. Of our young people who enter higher education, 59% of them leave the region in order to do so, which is in or around 11,000 students per annum. This equates to a significant wealth transfer out of the south east but far more damaging is the loss of our young people and we see a pronounced demographic doughnut in the region characterised by a missing generation of 19 to 45 year olds. Our young people are going away and in many cases are staying away. Even in the TU model, a model designed to deliver a university to the south east, we see the disparity continue. Since 2018, €56 million has been spent on all TU processes. Of that TUSE has only received €8.1 million or 14%. This is a lesser share than that allocated to either Dublin, Galway or Cork, all of which are regions with existing universities. These figures themselves fail to capture the historical underinvestment in the Waterford campus and in particular in terms of the built infrastructure that lags far behind the higher education capital investment in other regions.
President-elect Joe Biden has been quoted as saying: “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” For generations we have been told in Waterford how valued we should be as the economic driver for the south-east region. The historic Urban Regeneration and Development Fund, URDF, funding allocation last week for our north quays was a welcome signal that perhaps this Government might finally be putting our money where our mouth is. This needs to be followed through with the adequate funding of the TUSE project. If we are to grow our undergraduate and postgraduate capacity in the region, if we are to expand and improve the range of courses available, our region and its young people should accept no less.