Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Institutes of Technology Funding
I raise the issue of third level funding in general, with particular reference to the Castlebar campus of GMIT which, like many institutes of technology, faces significant financial challenges, notwithstanding the fact that student numbers are growing at third and fourth level across the State. However, most of the buoyancy is within the universities sector and, unfortunately, the institutes of technology are struggling. A financial review carried out last year for the Department of Education and Skills identified this issue which I raise wondering what steps are being taken.
In the case of the Castlebar campus of GMIT, there is a debt shortfall of €2 million. I understand there is also a deficit in Letterfrack. The Castlebar campus matter was highlighted at the monthly meeting of Mayo County Council where concerns were raised by my colleague, Councillor Michael Smyth, and Councillor Michael Kilcoyne. A meeting has taken place with the president of GMIT, but I understand it may not have resulted in much. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Department to give a commitment to provide additional funding in order that the current suite of courses will not be reduced in any way. There is a precedent within the Department in the provision of an additional €3 million which was made available to a second campus of Letterkenny Institute of Technology in Killybegs for the ongoing suite of courses offered there.
I am not sure if a request has been made, but certainly one is to be made for a meeting between the Minister and a delegation from Mayo County Council to discuss this issue. I understand a motion was passed at the most recent monthly meeting of the council seeking a meeting. I encourage the Minister to meet councillors as they are the persons best equipped to raise local concerns about the campus. I hope he has some news or an update for us and can share the outlook of the Department. I note that he provided additional funding in the recent budget, which I welcome. Ultimately, however, there are increasing education demands and the IT sector must be funded to play a key role. It cannot leverage funding from the private sector in the same way as universities for research and development and in other avenues. The IT sector must be encouraged, supported and facilitated across the board to meet the capacity demands on the third and fourth level education sector in the years to come.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The higher education sector is vital in achieving our long-term ambitions as a nation. After nine years of continuous cuts to the budget for these institutions, I have been pleased to provide for the first increase in investment this year. Beyond that, we have committed to a demographic dividend in the coming three years. On top of this, we have decided to develop, with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, an Exchequer-employer mechanism. We have published a paper for public consultation and would welcome submissions.
Direct funding for individual colleges is not provided through the Department but through the HEA which we assign to deal directly with institutes of technology and the universities.It does not come through the Department. We assign the HEA to deal directly with these institutes of technology and with the universities. They are independent bodies and have their own governing authorities. The HEA is reviewing its funding mechanism.
The Senator is right that there was a recent review of the entire institute of technology sector during which issues such as the difficulties they have in funding were raised. Very specifically the difficulties of IOTs with multiple campuses were highlighted as an issue that the HEA wants to support as part of its ongoing development of funding in the sector. That is a positive backdrop to the discussion we are having.
My Department and the HEA are aware of the financial difficulties being experienced by a number of the IOTs, including Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The HEA has been closely monitoring the financial position of all of the IOTs and in particular is working closely with those institutes operating in deficit to ensure appropriate mechanisms are put in place to eliminate the deficit as quickly as possible. In line with the HEA’s policy for dealing with financially vulnerable institutes, GMIT has agreed a three-year financial plan with the HEA to reach a balanced budget by 2017-18 and an external financial expert has been appointed to review the plan.
GMIT has also identified a number of areas to address its financial position including implementation of a retention strategy; review of the offering versus other higher institutes of education to try to increase demand; and a new programme development to bring increased student numbers. The HEA has also stated that plans for the future of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology must support the sustainable development of provision on all campuses. That is a very important principle.
The HEA and the GMIT governing body have reconfirmed to my Department their commitment to implementing a viable development plan for the Castlebar campus as part of this process. GMIT has appointed an interim head of the campus in Castlebar to lead this process. The GMIT board has also established a sub-committee look at the overall strategy and future plans for the institute.
The Department and the HEA recognise the particular challenges attached to multi-campus provision in GMIT and other institutes of technology. A major review of the funding allocation model of higher education has commenced and the review will look at how the future model can take account of the additional costs associated with these arrangements. My Department and the HEA are committed to such multi-campus provision, including that at Castlebar.
The rest of the response deals with the wider issues of funding this sector. I believe, as the Senator does, that one of the keys to building a strong sustainable competitive advantage in our regions is building around the skill base. I regard the presence of campuses and the development of those campuses as vital to securing that long-term regional capability.
That would be fine.
I understand the challenges that IOTs, including GMIT, are facing. It is important to recognise that rationalisation of services into the central pillar of GMIT would be at the expense of the Castlebar campus. I appreciate that the HEA has responsibility, but overall responsibility rests with the Minister. Would he be willing to meet the delegation from Mayo County Council to discuss not just that issue, but other issues relating to third level education in the Mayo area?
I thank the Senator. It is important that we develop this plan, particularly for Castlebar and that we carve out a strong and resilient future for it. I will be meeting representatives of the college to get an understanding of the challenges and how it will meet them. I regularly go to different parts of the education sector to have consultation sessions where we hear local ideas.
As local authorities are not specifically an education body, I am not committing to meet local authorities. Unfortunately, I get such requests on a very frequent basis. I assure the Senator that I am very conscious of the needs of Castlebar. I will ensure I get first-hand experience from those who are extremely committed to its development. I believe that together with the HEA and the new funding models we can carve out a strong future for Castlebar.