Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
I am aware that everything is very much underpinned by Covid at the moment but I did have an opportunity twice yesterday on that matter and earlier on secondary education. It is not that I am neglecting that as a most important matter but as this is statements on higher education, I want to focus specifically on the higher education area and on our plans as a State for the north west.
Both the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, as well as all Deputies in the House and particularly those from that region, have ambitious plans for the development of third level education in the north west. Indeed, over the past ten years we as a nation, across parties and across the House, have affirmed our commitment to the development of technological universities around the country through the amalgamation of institutes of technology. That is something we all support. In parallel, we also support the ongoing investment in our national universities, such as NUIG, UCD and others, to the extent that we provide funding to them and to our other third level institutions throughout the whole country.
As the Minister and the Minister of State will be aware from private meetings we have had on the matter, approximately 12 years ago on the back of the Salzburg report, there was some movement in St. Angela's College in County Sligo, which is a centre of excellence for home economics teacher training and has a reputation for that throughout the world. It is also a centre for nursing and other pursuits. The Ursuline Order set up the college way back and has provided sterling service to the education of people over many decades. On the back of the Salzburg report, a process started in which St. Angela's College and the Ursuline Order were considering their future. That led into initial negotiations with the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, about the potential for a merger. Since then, things have dragged along. Approximately six years ago, agreement was reached in principle by both NUIG and St. Angela's College and very little has happened since to advance it. To call a spade a spade, the reality is that NUIG was holding out for an absolute commitment from the Government of €50 million in capital supports. Staff and students in the college, as well as those in the wider education infrastructure community in the north west, were waiting each September for this agreement to be finalised and moved forward. In parallel, however, the landscape has substantially changed.
As I said at the outset, our outlook for the region, as a State, is to develop the technological university concept. We are very much progressing that in the north west with the Connacht-Ulster alliance, which would incorporate Sligo and Letterkenny ITs and others. With the procrastination by NUIG, the situation between it and St. Angela's College about their collective future has changed. The amalgamation of St. Angela's College with NUIG is not consistent with Project Ireland 2040, the Salzburg and Hunt reports, or our collective vision in these Houses for third level education in the north west of the country by way of the development of the Connacht-Ulster alliance or the technological university for that area. There are a number of reasons for that. First, €50 million is a colossal amount of money for the Government to invest in third level education. To do that for a satellite of NUIG in Sligo, on a site adjacent to Sligo Institute of Technology, would divide our purpose to the extent that we would not achieve our goal of critical mass in the area. That would not support Sligo as the selected growth centre for the region or the vision that has been pursued by the various institutes of technology that will make up the technological university.
Throughout the last six years in particular, there has been some expenditure by the Higher Education Authority and the Department in scoping out and facilitating the negotiations between NUIG and St. Angela's College, Sligo on their merger. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I can understand why Department officials may feel they cannot justify changing tack, having spent up to €4 million in this process so far. However, much of the work that has been done, on which that expenditure was used, is equally valid and useable for a merger between St. Angela's College and Sligo Institute of Technology, and the evidence is there to prove that. It would be a red herring to stick by a plan that had great intentions when it was first conceived between eight and 12 years ago but as things have progressed, it would be counterproductive to our mutual purpose in these Houses of creating critical mass, as envisaged under the Salzburg report, and consolidating the smaller colleges like St. Angela's.
I want to impress upon the Minister, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, the need to be intelligent about how we move forward. We should not be afraid to lead Government policy in proposing and supporting the change of tack in order to build critical mass and momentum for the technological university, with Sligo and Letterkenny institutes of technology and others merging with St. Angela's College. They have dual campuses that are very close to one another. Doing so would add a critical mass and enhance what are already world-renowned facilities and reputations for home economics teacher training. As regards nursing and research capability, we have nursing courses in Letterkenny Institute of Technology, in Castlebar and in Sligo, in St. Angela's College. If we put all of these together, the capital expenditure required would be nowhere near €50 million. There would be a shared services capability, a shared campus capability and the student and staff experience would be enhanced, not least because the staff of these colleges, whether catering staff or professors, would have career prospects into the future where we have critical mass established. While ordinarily as a Sligo person I would love the idea of the NUIG approach, as we have committed to the technological university development it is the right thing to do. To try to do both would scupper both and we would be at a loss.
I fully appreciate that there are nerves in the Department and the Higher Education Authority, as there has been an expenditure of about €4 million, to which I alluded earlier, over the last eight years in facilitating the envisaged merger with NUIG. However, that is not lost if we switch focus to a merger which makes better sense and is underpinned by quite a number of Government policies, not least our higher education policy of building critical mass. It would also have other benefits in ensuring economies of scale and increased cost efficiencies can be achieved as there would be more capacity for shared services. Capital investment by the Government would be less and the student experience, which is critically important, would be improved. For example, St. Angela's College on the shores of Lough Gill did not have many of the student facilities that are part of the normal college experience, like the various clubs, societies, sporting activities and all of the rest that go with college life. Indeed, a merger with NUIG would not provide those either because NUIG is in Galway. Even if St. Angela's was to become a satellite of NUIG in Sligo, thus undermining the capability of the technological university as I outlined already, it still would not have those things, whereas a merger with Sligo Institute of Technology would support the technological university application, which is almost ready to be made and which the Government is anxious to receive and support. It all makes better sense.
As I said, St. Angela's College has a very strong reputation in programmes, which are professionally accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland and the Teaching Council and its home economics school is world renowned. There is potential to grow a large research-led school of education in a technological university, thus providing excellent progression routes to teacher education for all students in the technological university and across the region.
There is the potential to develop a research-led school of nursing, as I said, because there are small schools in GMIT and LYIT which, along with St. Angela's, can provide the critical mass that we yearn for, again, under some of the recommendations of the Hunt and Salzburg reports. While we in the north west are anxious that the technological university application will not be delayed, given that it is just about ready, we very much hope the merger of St. Angela's College with Sligo Institute of Technology will be acknowledged by Government and the Department as something that makes perfect sense economically and educationally and is in line with other core programmes in the programme for Government, such as Ireland 2040 and so on. I ask that the Minister and Minister of State facilitate a meeting over the next fortnight in order that we can discuss and progress these matters further.