Dáil debates

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Technological Universities

5:20 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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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.

5:30 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy raising the matter and for his tireless work, leadership and advocacy on this matter. I was pleased to join him and colleagues from across the south east on Tuesday when we announced very clearly that the technological university for the south east will open its doors by 1 May. After decades of debate, discussion and at times uncertainty and disagreement, we now have a very clear pathway forward. The train is leaving the station. The south east will have a technological university next year. I am delighted and join the Deputy in thanking the presidents of the institutions, the governing authorities, particularly the chairs, Mr. Tom Boland and all the Oireachtas Members. We can all be partisan in this House from time to time - that is normal in a democracy - but on this issue I must say the non-partisan nature in which everyone approached the issue on all sides was very encouraging and beneficial.

The application seeking TU designation was submitted to me jointly on 30 April on behalf of the Institute of Technology Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology, or the TUSEI consortium, under the Technological Universities Act 2018. I subsequently appointed an independent international advisory panel to assist in assessing this application and sought the views of the board of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, on that report and any other matters of relevance. On foot of my deliberations and extensive engagement with the presidents and governing authority chairs, I propose to approve the application.

I am taken with the question of the difference between an IoT and a TU. While I will not be able to do it full justice in the two minutes available to me, some immediate things that come to mind. First, is scale and critical mass. There is the greater focus on research and a regional focus. It is something that looks at how we can harness the full potential of the south east from an investment and jobs point of view. It is about access to the full spectrum of qualifications and a wider range of academic programmes. Of course, the people of Waterford, for the first time ever, can access a university degree within Waterford. Those are just some of the things that come to mind.

In line with the legislative processes, those being sections 34 and 35 of the 2018 Act, I wrote to the chairs of the applicant institutes on this matter on 2 November outlining my intention to designate. Under the Act the institutes have 30 days to respond to my proposed decision.

The timeline of 1 May will allow for a number of things to be addressed, including some to which the Deputy referred. It will allow the Oireachtas to approve the order, the name to be decided, the appointment of the first governing body, and the identification and designation of a first president through an open competitive process.

I intend to advertise this month through a public process for people to come forward to serve as the chair of the board of the governing authority. I expect an international recruitment campaign for the first president to kick off probably in January, but certainly very early in the new year. Those are two very important steps.

After almost a decade of debate and false dawns, the establishment of the new technological university is now rapidly becoming a reality. I take the Deputy's point on the importance of expanding the footprint in Waterford and investing in the infrastructure, and we have had many conversations about this. We have a capital budget for higher education that is larger than ever before. We have a technological university transformation fund of €90 million. There is €40 million more for technological universities under the national recovery and resilience plan, published by the Government. In the coming days, my Department, the HEA and WIT will meet to discuss a prospective business case for the expansion of the footprint and the acquisition of an additional site. The Government and I - everyone from the Taoiseach down - are determined to expand the physical footprint of Waterford Institute of Technology and what will ultimately be the technological university in the months ahead.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I could not possibly expect the Minister to delve into the differences between an IoT and a technological university in four minutes. However, it does need to be an ongoing conversation. We need to make that clear and it needs to be more than words. It needs to be backed up by actions and by capital investment in particular.

I did not touch on the issue of the headquarters of the new institution. I know that lies outside the Minister's gift but it is very important to the people of Waterford and I ask the Minister to keep it in mind. I and other Deputies have spoken to the Minister about this on this on many occasions. I would be interested in there being a more definite timeline for the recruitment of the president and, in particular, what steps we will take to make sure the person we recruit for that role will be the person who is required and who has that full range of talents necessary to drive on the institution, because just as WIT was the flagship institute of technology in the country, I fully expect the technological university of the south east to be the flagship TU in the country. I will be very disappointed if we do not step up the mark in that regard.

To make a brief point on capital investment, there is an issue around the depreciation of the built stock, especially on the WIT campus. That is an historical legacy. Our plans for capital investment in a new and expanded campus must take account of the fact that much of the built stock that exists on the Cork Road campus in particular is ageing and is either midway through or beyond its life cycle. That also sits with the climate action plan that was announced today. We need buildings there that perform and which are fit for purpose, both for students and for our climate and energy needs into the future. I would ask the Minister to reflect on those points.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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In returning to the question of what is a technological university, and I shared some of my views in my initial answer, I would also make the point that the answer must also partially reside in the region, because while Dublin, the Government or the Oireachtas can grant technological university status and is happy to do so, and we have a responsibility in capital funding, policies and efforts we can put in place, it is a partnership approach and it cannot be an adversarial approach of, "What are they doing for us up there in Dublin?"

It must be about asking what can we do with this new powerhouse in the region. It must be about engaging with the regional skills forum. It must be about sitting down with the local business community, saying we are going to have a university in our region and asking the community what the skills needs are in counties Waterford, Carlow or Wexford. We should ask what we want to be the best in the country or the best in the world at and how do we put the programmes in place to do that. As I said at our meeting of Oireachtas Members this week, I encourage everybody in the south east, as I know the Deputy will too, to do that engagement. They should get the business community and the regional skills forum in. They should talk to the colleges of further education, the schools, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. They should ask what the unique selling point of the south-east region is going to be. Then they should absolutely come to me and put pressure on me to be forthcoming with resources. I assure the Deputy the Government he and I are part of will not be found wanting in that regard.

On the headquarters, it is a statement of fact to say the law and the process is clear that decision will reside with the first governing authority. However, it is still okay to have a view and my view is Waterford sounds like a very logical location. It is logical because of the size of the footprint of the institute of technology already there, because we are going to expand it even further in terms of capital projects and also within the context of other Government initiatives and policies around national planning frameworks and the like as well. Legally, it is a decision for others but I think Waterford has a very compelling case. On the president, the recruitment process is vested with the outgoing governing authorities of the institutes of technology but it will be a full international search and I am confident it will be a very robust process. On capital, the Deputy's argument is compelling and well-made and I will work with him to advance these issues.