Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Third Level Education
I begin by joining others in congratulating the Minister and his wife, Caoimhe, on the birth of their son, Cillian. I am sure that it is a busy and sleepless time for him and I wish him all the very best.
My question is to ask the Minister or the Minister of State to provide an overview of how the University of Limerick, UL, will expand into County Clare in the years to come.
I thank the Deputy for his kind words and for his important question regarding third-level education in County Clare and the mid-west region. We have another question in this regard later, and it is an exciting time for the county from the perspective of third-level education. It is an exciting time for the mid-west. My answer to this question encompasses UL, but there is also the development of the technological university in the city. Ennis is now a university town and Clare is now a university county. The benefits from that development will be significant and will impact not just education but also regional development and the economy. I look forward to working with the Deputy and other Oireachtas colleagues in that regard.
As part of its future campus planning, and in particular a further deepening of engagement with industry, UL has indicated that it is supporting an application for the designation of lands on the County Clare side of its campus as an economic strategic development zone, SDZ. This is still at an early stage. It is understood by my Department that a submission for an SDZ status is in preparation and will be submitted to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. UL has indicated to my Department that it sees potential for new and innovative models of teaching and learning through designation of an SDZ alongside its current campus. This would include close partnering between the university and industry in the delivery of higher education, and opportunities for students to be immersed in industry practice from the beginning of their studies. It could also offer opportunities for new collaborations in research and innovation.
I should say my Department does not have any direct involvement in these plans. They are currently being progressed by UL as an autonomous institution in conjunction with the relevant local authority and other partners. However, UL has undertaken to keep me updated on developments so I can keep the House updated on developments.
More broadly though, I very much welcome the ideal of our universities looking to increase and intensify industry collaboration. It is important that our universities work actively with industry in the regions to meet current and future skills needs. Even in a relatively small country such as Ireland, the skills needs can vary from industry to industry. Instinctively, the idea of a university looking to expand so it can more greatly collaborate with industry is a good thing. UL will submit its SDZ application to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage shortly.
I thank the Minister. It is now 17 years since I graduated from UL. At the time I went there it was very much a Limerick campus. It was in Castletroy but its footprint has extended into County Clare. It is widely believed the campus is now at saturation point on the Limerick side. It has very little room to expand unless it starts knocking and rebuilding some of its facilities or building on playing pitches. Thus the future of the campus is on the County Clare side. Clare County Council, in co-operation with other bodies in the mid-west, is putting forward a proposal for an SDZ. This is key for realising the full capacity of the campus and also creating research and innovation hubs around the curtilage of the campus. It is essential this happens.
There is also room to develop a paramedic training facility in Ennis. There is a fabulous facility, which the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, opened just a few weeks ago. It is state-of-the-art. We should not send UL graduates to Liverpool to complete practical training that can be done in the mid-west. We could have graduates coming out of the mid-west with paramedic training. Imagine what that would mean for our health service.
I thank the Deputy for his enthusiasm for the potential expansion of UL into County Clare. When we are discussing UL, I take this opportunity to put on the record of the House my congratulations for Professor Kerstin Mey on her formal appointment as president of UL. When she was made interim president she was the first female president of an Irish university. She is now the full-time, fully-appointed president of UL and I wish her all the very best.
UL has indicated that request for SDZ designation is expected to be submitted later this year. I do not have a more specific timeframe than that but the university is intending to submit it to our colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, later this year. In many ways, his Department will have a more direct role than mine. We have no role in the SDZ. I again underline that a submission for SDZ designation has not yet been finalised but my Department is supportive of collaboration between industry and higher education, especially in the context of driving regional economic development. I look forward to further briefing from UL as the proposal is advanced. We will of course consider any proposal brought to Government by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.
UL has produced thousands of aviation graduates. The same can be said for Limerick Institute of Technology, now part of the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. It would be remiss of me to not mention that this morning as I will shortly head out to meet the chief executives of Lufthansa Technik and of Atlantic Aviation Group. Yesterday we had a double-edged sword announcement in the region. For many years, 485 people have been employed by Lufthansa Technik. They have been hugely hampered and devastated by the Covid pandemic. We got the good news yesterday that 300 jobs will be saved. Those jobs have been secured but 185 are going to be lost. These people have been trained in the region. These are highly-skilled jobs. These people may not fall immediately within the remit of the Minister but he and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must do everything to give these people a pathway to new employment. There is great uncertainty hanging over their heads. As we come out of Covid and most sectors recover, they cannot see a recovery. There were 300 jobs saved and 185 are to be lost. I implore the Minister to step into the breach for the people with that skill set in the region and come up with alternative employment in the quickest time.
Hearing of any job loss is devastating for the individual, for their family and for the community. I can certainly tell the Deputy the infrastructure of my Department and of the State will not be found wanting in terms of doing all we can to help people reskill, retrain and access employment. Some of that falls to myself and some to the Minister for Social Protection, with respect to the supports available through her Department, as well as the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am happy to engage with the Deputy and his constituents on any assistance that can be provided by the education and training boards, the new technological university in the region and UL in this matter.