Thursday, 4 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to discuss this issue. It is topical. It was announced only on Tuesday of this week.
I warmly welcome the announcement of a new technological university of the south-east which is to open its doors at the latest by May of next year. There are many people to thank in what has been a long and arduous process. I would thank the Minister for his work on it. He has brought an energy to the process. I want to thank particularly Professor Willie Donnelly of Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, and Dr. Patricia Mulcahy of the Institute of Technology, Carlow. They were instrumental. So too were Mr. Jim Moore and Mr. John Moore, the chairs of the respective institutions, and Mr. Tom Boland and his team.
I acknowledge as well both Government and Opposition Oireachtas Members across the region. It is a region where often the Oireachtas Members are facing in different directions but on this issue we have been speaking for the most part with one voice and pulling in the same direction. That is really important.
While Tuesday's announcement is a significant milestone, we have to acknowledge there is still a long way to travel before we fully realise the university of scale and substance we need to serve the needs of the population and the people of the south east because we have lagged behind historically. I could use any number of metrics to show that. It is something to which the Minister referred in the Seanad yesterday as a glaring anomaly. It was a commitment in the programme for Government to address that anomaly and I am glad we managed to deliver.
I will return to something I addressed to the Minister on 19 November last year because the facts and figures speak for themselves:
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.
That is as true today as it was at the start of this week. It is what a technical university, and one of substance, should be designed to achieve and address. A well-respected commentator in Waterford posed the following challenge in the wake of Tuesday's announcement which is worth considering. He said he had yet to hear anyone adequately articulate what distinguishes a TU from an IoT. I think we have that responsibility, both Members of the Oireachtas collectively and the Minister, to do exactly that and make it abundantly clear to the people of the south east that this is the game changer he and I believe it should and can be for the region.
Pivotal in doing that, I identify four issues. First, is site acquisition. The Cork Road campus in WIT is creaking at the seams and we need to expand the footprint. Not only that, if we expand the footprint, we need to build on it. If we are talking about a university of scale and substance, then we have to talk about capital investment at scale. Related is the ability to borrow. I know Housing for All addresses some aspects of that in relation to student accommodation, but access to European Investment Bank funding is important. The president is also pivotal, as is the membership of the governing authority. If this is the university I hope it can be to capitalise, change and drive on the south east, we should look to attract the absolute top talent to help drive that process forward and bring those institutions together.