Thursday, 21 September 2023
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
80. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the progress made to date on Dundalk Institute of Technology becoming a technological university under the Technological Universities Act 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40334/23]
The Minister has been doing a lot of extra work in County Louth. I very much appreciate it in all capacities. I ask the Minister to outline the progress made to date on Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, becoming a technological university under the Technological Universities Act 2018 and if he will make a statement on the matter. It is hugely important. It has not happened up to now, despite all the excellent efforts the Minister and other people in the education field are putting into it.
I love coming to Louth because I think we are making real progress with the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB. I want to praise Martin O’Brien, who is the CEO of LMETB, and others there. I thank Deputy O’Dowd for bringing me up the road to Drogheda so often. We now have plans to significantly expand Drogheda Institute of Further Education. I am very excited about this from an educational point of view, but also from a community and social cohesion point of view. There is the Guerin report, etc., that needs to be addressed. We also had the very significant opening of the Drogheda apprenticeship hub, which is an opportunity for 300 people to do apprenticeships in electrics and other areas in Drogheda. That will be major in terms of opportunities in the north east. The Deputy is entirely right to highlight that the next and crucial piece of the jigsaw is that we need a university in the north east.
We know what the map of Ireland looks like. Every single application that has come to me for a technological university has now been delivered on, but we have had challenges. We do not need a history lesson on how we get over that DkIT issue and how we deliver a university of scale for the north east and all the good opportunities that will come from that.
I need to say at the outset that DkIT is an autonomous higher education institution. Of course, that means the strategic direction of the institution is rightly a question for its governing body. This includes how it wishes to position itself in the higher education landscape. I know from my own recent discussions, and indeed a meeting I had with the newly appointed president of the institution, Dr. Diarmuid O’Callaghan, whom I congratulate on his appointment, that he has been holding a series of exploratory discussions with a number of higher education institutions, including Maynooth University. He has been very proactive in advancing discussions. Some of them are at quite an exciting moment. In the latter case, in relation to Maynooth University, both presidents have now informed their respective staff that these contacts are under way.
I need to take a step back and say that I understand that these interactions and discussions are in their early stages. If any substantive developments potentially come into view over time, they would be required to be put to staff, students and relevant stakeholders. As such, I am satisfied that we now need to allow the new president, Dr. O’Callaghan the room - a bit of room but not too long - to flesh out all the discussions to the fullest extent possible. I stand fully ready to support the institute in continuing its own strategic inclusions in due course.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I will say that it is time that progress was made. I agree with him that we must give a practical period of time to the new president to get the work under way.
It is really important that he is given the space to do that, with the knowledge and expectation that the Department will be ready to step in as and when required and to keep a watching brief and give encouragement. It is unfortunate, but we will not go into a history lesson. The past is the past and the future is for the young people of the region. I believe the discussions the Minister spoke about are pointing the way forward. My colleague wants to come in as well. That is Deputy Ó Murchú in case he does not know.
I agree with everything Deputy O'Dowd says, but I stand here thinking that there are reasons to be excited and hopeful now about the future of DkIT. I congratulate the new president and thank him for the proactivity he is bringing to this. We need to bring this to finality. We also need to provide that little bit of space. The staff in DkIT and in Maynooth University have been informed by their presidents that they are having preliminary discussions. That is how they should be best described. If it gets beyond that stage, more substantive discussions will be required. Let me say very clearly that we are willing, as a Department and a Government - with the best wishes and supports of Louth Oireachtas Members – to support DkIT in whatever strategic advancement it wants to take on its journey. The north east deserves and needs a university. DkIT has done a wonderful job over the years but I know those who work there, those who go there and all the stakeholders in the area want to see the north east get the recognition that other regions have got in regard to third level education. I am determined to do that.
One issue is the compatibility of the two institutions and the range of subjects that they might offer, as well as the challenges involved. If I remember my history right, Maynooth has very good scientific and academic powers and abilities. It would be an interesting mix, and we could have an entirely new type of course in DkIT as well that would be different from what it would traditionally have had. This synergy and the exciting future for the north east rests now in the hands of the new president, Maynooth and ourselves. I have every confidence that will happen across the board. I know that my colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú, is hopeful as well. That is the second time in two days that I have called him a colleague. We all work together in the north east on issues as profound and important as this.
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for being so gracious and allowing me in. We will probably not be as nice over the next while, but so be it.
I commend the president, Dr. O'Callaghan, and his team on the piece of work they have done. This is the most positive we have been in relation to DkIT and technological university status. I do not know how many times we have all said that we are starting from a bad place and that there are no dance partners. In fairness, a fair amount was probably said that was not necessarily in the public domain in relation to the possibility of having a university. A fair question was asked about compatibility. My knowledge-view would be that Maynooth probably has a huge amount of experience and has a considerable number of courses in humanities and that DkIT not only will add numbers but will contribute in particular in the engineering sphere.
I also put on the record and thank the Minister for the recent meeting with personal assistants, PAs, on delivering them better pay. We know that will also deliver for those with disabilities trying to work through further education. I think everyone will be in agreement on that.
I am determined to work with Deputy Ó Murchú on the PA issue and to make progress on it. I thank him for the constructive way in which we have engaged on that. In relation to any potential strategic decisions DkIT may or may not make in the future, I am not going to give a view on it today because I think it would be unfair and disrespectful to their autonomy and to the process in what are only preliminary discussions. My view is that the north east needs a university. There are different ways of getting there; and it is ultimately for DkIT to decide its best future. It is then my job, as part of the Government, to step in with any financial assistance and policy decisions, including legislation if required, that may be needed. I am ready to do that. It is my view and my request that we give a brief period of time to the president of DkIT and others to have conversations and to get it to a point where he and others may then believe they are in a position to have substantive discussions or not, and let us take it forward from there. It is an encouraging moment.