Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Adjournment Matters

Higher Education Institutions

6:25 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I would like to go back 20 years to the early to mid-1990s when a competition was run and sponsored by Eircom to establish an urban town as an information capital of Europe. Ennis in County Clare beat off stiff competition from about six or seven other towns to win that competition and it became an IT capital, certainly of Ireland. The intention was that an IT hub would develop in the town of Ennis and its environs. That cost the people of Ennis quite a lot of money in that businesses spent up to £100,000 campaigning and preparing for that.

The upshot was that every home in Ennis received a computer but that was not all. Job creation was promised, as was a third level institution specialising in computers and IT, but the latter never happened in spite of numerous political commitments and promises that Ennis would be considered as a location for an institute of technology. I do not have much hope that it will happen in the future.

What happened was that Limerick Institute of Technology set up a pilot campus, or a sub-campus, in Ennis in the old museum. It offered a higher certificate in business computing - level 6. I would not be very familiar with the specifics of that but what I am familiar with is that students attended first and second year of that degree course in Ennis and then transferred to Limerick for third and fourth year. That resulted in access to education for a cohort of people who would not otherwise have had access to education, in particular mature students, possibly housewives and house husbands, in the economic climate that existed, where people found themselves being made redundant or unemployed and who may not have had access to a car and the financial support to travel to Limerick to do a course. The numbers were small and it conditioned the students so that when they moved into year three and to a larger campus, they were well-conditioned and well-prepared to successfully complete the course.

The facts speak for themselves in that a number of students who went through the Ennis campus became students of the year and received first class honours degrees. In the Minister of State's county, there is a similar campus. The numbers there are a much smaller and it has not had the same success, possibly through no fault of its own, but that campus will remain open.

What disturbs me about this is that it has been closed and the course has been withdrawn with unilateral effect. Those currently in second year will be able to complete that year, but those in first year will not be able to complete their second year. They will have to move into Limerick to do their second, third and fourth years, which they did not budget or account for.

Even more disturbing is the fact that we are seeing yet again the centralisation of education. No respect or due diligence is being paid to providing accessible, higher education in towns like Ennis. It would not break the bank if Limerick Institute of Technology were to leave in place this course, which has proven to be successful. It seems irrational and illogical that anyone could make a budgetary case for getting rid of the course. In fact, they should not only retain the course but should also be offering more courses in Ennis.

Institutes of technology have a responsibility to provide facilities and educational opportunities in smaller towns such as Ennis, Tipperary Town, Nenagh and Clonmel. That is part of their remit. They were given enormous development resources by the EU on the understanding that they had a regional remit. They started off as being regional technology colleges and then became institutes of technology, but they seem to have forgotten their responsibility to be regional as well as providing a holistic education, access to which is evenly spread to towns within their nucleus.

I hope the Minister of State will have something positive to say about this. It seems nonsensical to close down this successful course.

6:35 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Conway for raising this issue. I apologise that the Minister for Education and Skills cannot be here as she has to attend other functions this evening.

At the outset, it is important to note that institutes of technology are autonomous institutions within the meaning of the Institutes of Technology Acts 1992 to 2006. This means that the management of their academic affairs, including the selection and delivery of courses, are matters for individual institutions and not for the Department of Education and Skills.

All institutes of technology receive a block grant from the Higher Education Authority and it is a matter for each institution to determine how it is allocated internally, in line with defined needs and priorities. The Limerick Institute of Technology Ennis Learning Centre, formerly Ennis Regional Learning Centre, is a third-level outreach centre based in Ennis, County Clare.

The centre was founded in 2009 as a Shannon Consortium initiative. The Shannon Consortium is an education partnership between the University of Limerick, Limerick Institute of Technology, Mary Immaculate College and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. The centre was funded under the Strategic Innovation Fund Cycle 2 initiative which was administered by the Higher Education Authority. The aim was to provide flexible access to higher education for the people of County Clare. The higher certificate in business computing level 6 was delivered under this funding.

However, all funding for Strategic Innovation Fund stand-alone projects concluded at the end of 2011 and both the University of Limerick and Mary Immaculate College ceased their involvement at that time. In September 2011, the Ennis Learning Centre was taken over by Limerick Institute of Technology. The Institute is reviewing its involvement in Ennis in light of decreasing student numbers and high costs. For example LIT must rent the building and pay for a full-time administrator. LIT has reported that the intake to the higher certificate in business computing level 6 in 2014 was only 16 students. I understand from the Higher Education Authority that LIT will continue to provide support to the current cohort of students who will complete their two-year course in 2016. The higher certificate in business computing is offered by LIT as a CAO-listed programme on their main campus in Limerick.

More generally, it is important to say that the LIT provides a vital role in providing higher education on a regional basis, including to learners from Clare. LIT has over 2,000 students from Clare enrolled on various programmes on their Limerick campus. LIT works closely with the second-level system and with post-leaving certificate/education and training board schools throughout Clare to ensure their programmes meet their demand.

In addition, there are excellent student pathways for learners with diverse backgrounds and age profiles. Servicing the needs of students from Clare will continue to be a strategic priority for LIT at its main campus in Limerick.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, although he is not the line Minister. He has been given a script and must respond accordingly. What I find most curious, however, is the sloping shoulders approach whereby the institutes are independent. The bottom line is that they receive a block grant from taxpayers' money. I note LIT's commitment, but access to education is important. There are practical issues such as being able to commute, access for those without cars, and the problems facing people who cannot afford to travel to and from Limerick.

If the Minister for Education and Skills and her Department are that removed from running institutes of technology, do they no longer appoint people to the boards or governing bodies? Are there ministerial appointees on the governing bodies of institutes of technology and, more specifically, Limerick Institute of Technology?

Based on what the Minister of State has read out, one would have to suggest that ministerial appointees to the LIT board are redundant and should not be there. Maybe they are not there. Perhaps the Minister of State in his own good time could convey that point to the Minister of Education and Skills. I want to know what ministerial appointees on the LIT board are doing. Do they have any interest in County Clare at all?

As regards the high costs argument, was any effort made-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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A question, Senator.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I am asking it. Was any effort made to find a building that might not be as expensive in order to drive costs down and thus continue to provide this service? There may only be 16 students but the vast majority of them may not have had the opportunity to pursue such studies if this course was not available.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Even though I am reading a script, I am interested in education. Part of LIT is in my own constituency where it has two successful buildings.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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In this day and age, however, with 16 students in place, it is very difficult. I can understand where they are coming from. I will make a point about the building, however. Senator Conway is active politically and knows what is happening in Ennis. He should therefore try to locate cheaper accommodation in that town. It is costly to have 16 students in a big building like that, which accommodated larger numbers in previous years.

If the Senator could come back with a cheaper building, maybe then we could talk to the Minister for Education and Skills. I assure the Senator that she would channel that information to her Department. That would be a practical way of trying to do something for them.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I will certainly convey that to the people who have contacted me. I will suggest to them that they become active in that regard. It is 16 students this year but it is actually 32 because there is a two-year course being provided there.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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There is no provision for more questions.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his time on this matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 17 December 2014.