Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 June 2006

8:00 pm

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. This motion seeks that the Minister for Education and Science insists on the retention of the UCD research farm at Lyons Estate, Straffan, County Kildare.

I ask this because the Lyons Estate has provided extensive research and development for agriculture since it was first purchased in 1962 by the agriculture department of UCD. The 1,300 acres of the estate were used for agricultural research and development. Unfortunately, some years ago over 800 acres of the farm were sold, resulting in a downgrading of research and development on the estate.

This has occurred at a time when agriculture needs are changing rapidly. The greatest need we have in the agriculture area now is for research and development of new techniques and production and new crops, etc. The very opposite is happening in the agriculture department in UCD. The great fear is that the department will move from the Lyons estate to an urban area. As the Minister of State represents a Dublin constituency, he should be aware there is not much opportunity for agricultural research in the Dublin urban area. In fact, the UCD agriculture department was in Glasnevin for a while, but it moved from there because of the inability to conduct worthwhile research there.

I will give an example of what happened previously in the agriculture research department of UCD. It made a great advance in the production of maize animal feed and pioneered a development in this area. Due to our shorter growing season for maize as animal feed the agriculture department pioneered the idea of sowing it under plastic. Many countries, particularly countries of northern Europe, have come here to study and copy what was developed here through the inventiveness and research of the UCD agriculture department.

If we allow agricultural research decline at UCD, we will no longer have a college providing a pure agriculture degree. UCD is the only university here providing such a degree. If we allow the UCD agriculture degree to become purely academic with no research or practical on-the-ground element, we will have nothing more than a science degree in the agriculture area. That would be a failure.

The need has never been so great for the development of agricultural products such as biofuels. The beet industry has been eliminated here and growers have been told they must develop new crops. We cannot develop new crops here unless we have research and development within the faculty of agriculture. It is tragic that Teagasc has failed in this area also. It has sold out. Many of the Teagasc research farms throughout the country have been sold off, even properties where tuition took place. The Department of Agriculture and Food has also sold out. In Athenry, County Galway, it sold 80 acres of its prime research and development agricultural land.

There is a great fear among the staff of UCD, particularly in the agriculture department, that we are downgrading agriculture. This is happening at a time when we should be spearheading the development of new crops, feeding stuffs and husbandry techniques.

The Higher Education Authority is now the organisation that will decide on these issues. If it decides on the sale of the Lyons Estate, we will see the demise of agriculture within UCD. That is not good enough. It will affect the personnel in the agriculture department and destroy the rapport between them. Other elements within UCD feel it is right to sell the property now to get resources for other projects in the college. That would be a travesty.

We should consider what was put into the Lyons Estate over the years. It was a Galway man, the late Professor Ruane, who had the initiative and foresight to purchase the Lyons Estate. He developed it against the odds at a time when resources were scarce in the university sector. He reclaimed the land and installed buildings for all areas of animal husbandry research. The research that has been done there by people like Dr. Crosby, who is involved in the sheep sector, has stood the test of time in terms of its importance to agriculture. Perhaps we should not pay much attention to rumours, but this rumour is based on practices which have been noted previously. When the Minister directs those who will make the final decision, it is important for her to make a real and determined indication that practical agriculture needs to be retained within the current structure. The research farm in question was never needed more than it is now because we are competing with cheap food products from other areas. We have been told we have to offer a greater quality of produce, such as organic produce or other food developments. My final plea to the Minister of State is to ensure that we preserve the farm so that agriculture does not become an academic science subject without any practical input.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Burke for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I will respond to him on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science. The Senator is well aware that the Lyons Estate belongs to University College Dublin. The day-to-day management of UCD, which is an autonomous body, is a matter for its governing authority. The college authorities are free to dispose of lands and property acquired prior to the passing of the Universities Act 1997 without recourse to the Minister for Education and Science. They are, however, required to agree terms with the Minister to reimburse Exchequer funds which were used to acquire lands and properties after the passing of the 1997 Act. As the Lyons Estate was acquired in the 1960s, the college authorities are free to do what they want with it.

As Senator Burke said, the Lyons Estate was acquired to provide a field experiment and teaching facility for UCD's faculty of agrifood and the environment. The estate originally comprised approximately 1,200 acres, including Lyons House. The college authorities disposed of the house and approximately 620 acres of land in the early 1990s. Since then, the research farm has provided research and teaching facilities for the faculties of agrifood and the environment and veterinary medicine. However, most faculty teaching and research activities are based on the main UCD campus at Belfield, where there are additional laboratories for food science, computer equipment and a modern lecture theatre. The primary responsibility of UCD's governing authority, which was established under the Universities Act 1997, is to guide the strategic direction of the university. The university has consolidated most of its activities at Belfield in recent years. The school of veterinary medicine was relocated to the Belfield campus in 2003. A 90-acre horticulture facility, which is located between Lucan and Leixlip, was sold to a local authority in 2004 to be incorporated into its programme of general amenities for the area.

The future of Lyons Estate is being reviewed within the college of life sciences as the next step in the UCD strategic planning process. The governing authority approved the initiation of the review at its meeting on 21 March last. It is intended that the review will consider the appropriateness of the current scale of the farm as a centre for teaching and research, the accessibility of the farm to the students, who are entirely based at Belfield, and the impact of the new veterinary school at Belfield, which incorporates a fully operating veterinary hospital and significantly increased state-of-the-art animal holding facilities. Most important, the review will consider the changing focus of undergraduate teaching programmes, particularly in the school of agriculture, and the altered physical facilities required as a result of the new directions being taken by research in these areas. The university has developed the view that it can be impractical to operate an institutional farm facility in an area of rapidly increasing urbanisation. Senator Burke might be glad to hear that the review is expected to take approximately 12 months to complete.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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At least.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Any decision to dispose of part or all of Lyons Estate will be made when the review findings have been approved by the governing authority. In line with best practice, the review will be conducted by the university, which will be guided by international experts in the relevant areas. The brief for the review body will require it to consider the need for the university to retain access to suitable field facilities for agriculture and veterinary science on a continuing basis. It is expected that the implementation of the review group's findings will be realised in the medium term. It should be noted that the university is fundamentally assessing its priorities, developments and facilities in the sciences, in accordance with the Government's policy in this area. I have given Senator Burke as much help as I can this evening.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister of State agree that the veterinary faculty is driving the proposed change? Is the review group an internal review group or does it involve independent outside consultants? If the group is not independent, the goose is cooked in this regard.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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The review is taking place within the college of life sciences, but it is guided by international expertise.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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Whatever that means.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.