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Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Third Level Facilities

2:30 pm

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming here to take these matters.

I wish to highlight the importance of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick in terms of teacher training. The college was founded in 1898 and is the oldest training college in the State for primary school teachers. It was started by the Sisters of Mercy as part of their convent on the South Circular Road and has expanded over many years. It is in the centre of the city. When it started, the college had a couple of hundred students. It now has almost 5,000 but some of its facilities have not been updated. Its library caters for approximately 700 students, which means that many of the college's students are being disenfranchised because they have to go on a waiting list to get a time slot for library access in the context of research and so on or, alternatively, are obliged to use the public library in Limerick. The number of students in the college and the number of courses on offer there are both growing. In addition to teacher training, the college now offers several other bachelor degrees and postgraduate courses. It plays a crucial role as people come from all over Ireland because its name is known worldwide. When people apply for jobs and so on, the name of the college is recognised. It has established very important links with the University of Limerick, which now accredits all of the college's graduates.

I wish to highlight the plight of the many students who are being disenfranchised by not being able to access the library because there is not enough space therein. The college has outgrown its library. The capital plan review is coming up shortly. It is very important that Mary Immaculate College be considered as part of that in terms of the development of third-level education because all Members will agree that primary school teaching is where we all start in education and it is so important that the students attending the college are not disenfranchised and get the same opportunity as those attending other colleges in terms of being able to undertake proper research.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the library in Mary Immaculate College. I am very aware of the good work of the college for its students. The Government recognises the importance of the higher education sector to Ireland's future economic and social development. However, the reality of the economic situation in recent years and the nature of the public expenditure corrections that had to be made presented challenges in all areas of public expenditure, including higher education. The sector has responded well to those challenges and has continued to provide opportunities for increasing numbers of students to undertake higher education qualifications.In that context, the Department of Education and Skills is aware of the significant infrastructure challenges faced by Mary Immaculate College with respect to library and learning resource facilities. The Higher Education Authority has received a submission requesting funding for a new library to address these challenges. The Department previously provided funding to Mary Immaculate College to upgrade its existing library facilities in 2010. However, as part of the budgetary process in November 2011, a Government decision was taken to concentrate available expenditure or educational capital resources on delivering school places and to restrict investment in higher education infrastructure to legally binding contractual commitments in place at the time. While a very limited amount of funding has been made available since then, it has not been sufficient to allow us to progress the Mary Immaculate College library project.

The Senator will be aware that the 2016-21 capital plan provides for a direct Exchequer investment of €150 million in higher education, including €40 million already allocated to the Grangegorman project. It also provides for €200 million worth of public private partnership, PPP, projects. While these are extremely important and very welcome investments, they cannot address the full scale of demand in the sector. Most of the direct Exchequer funding currently available under the capital plan is required to deliver on existing commitments. The distribution of the remaining funds in future years will depend on a number of factors and this is being managed very carefully in consultation with the Higher Education Authority.

The report of the Expert Group on the Future Funding of Higher Education, the Cassells report, found that a capital programme of €5.5 billion was required in the higher education sector over the next 15 years. This has informed the submission of the Department to the ongoing capital review process led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We await the outcome of that process. The Government will make final decisions on the allocation of the additional funding available for public investment over the period from 2018 to 2021 in the context of the 2018 Estimates.

Decisions on the distribution of existing and additional capital funding for higher education will be made based on the level of funding available and in the context of competing demands. Particular strategic priorities include expanding capacity in areas of key skills deficits, orientating for demographic growth and ensuring core campus infrastructure is fit for purpose.

The immediate demands in the sector were identified in the responses from higher education institutions to a consultation process on capital requirements recently undertaken by the Higher Education Authority with the support of the Department. These responses, including that from Mary Immaculate College, fed into our submission to the capital review. They also provided higher education institutions with the opportunity to identify projects they wished to put forward for consideration as part of the higher education public private partnerships programme.

Officials of the Department and the Higher Education Authority, with the advice and assistance of the National Development Finance Agency where necessary, have since been engaged in a comprehensive assessment of the projects put forward for inclusion in the programme. Project selection is in its final stages and I anticipate an announcement on the projects to be included in the programme will be made in the coming weeks. It should be noted that projects which are not progressed as part of the PPP programme may still be considered for direct Exchequer funding.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne for raising this matter and confirm the Department's commitment to progressing the building project in the case of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, when funding allows and taking account of the range of capital investment priorities in the sector.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for her personal acknowledgement, on behalf of the Department, of the contribution of Mary Immaculate College. I thank the Minister of State for her commitment in that they have made their submission and it is there for consideration. I cannot emphasise enough the role they play. Anything the Minister of State can do in her deliberations, I would appreciate.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Would the Minister of State like to add anything?

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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No, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I have said my piece.