Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Third Level Institutions

10:30 am

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to see the Minister of State and that she is taking this Commencement matter. St. Angela’s College in Sligo is the only home economics college in the country and the need for capital funding for larger capacity classrooms-laboratories to accommodate students has never been greater. A national shortage of home economics teachers and a much more health conscious population is making this discipline more attractive than ever. In 2017, the number enrolling at St. Angela’s College rose by about 20%, from 85 to 101, with another 10% increase in the intake last September.

Although established as a college of education for home economics teachers, St. Angela’s College has expanded far beyond its original remit and currently its profile of academic programmes of study also includes nursing and health studies, education, special needs education, theology, food and consumer studies, science, Irish, economics and social studies. The current number of students attending the college is more than 1,000.

With this significant increase in the number of students, there is clearly a pressing need to replace all the modular buildings, which currently comprise 30% of existing teaching space. Some of these buildings are more than 12 years old.Therefore, significant investment is needed for more buildings, larger lecture halls and increased specialist facilities.

Funding in the region of €4.3 million was approved for a link building project in 2010 but, unfortunately, in light of the recession, all capital funding was withdrawn. The link building project was aimed at providing a modern infrastructure with additional space for student activities. In 2017, the college received €340,000 in capital funding for infrastructural upgrades but apart from this and summer works funding for the annual maintenance of existing buildings, I understand no major capital funding has been allocated to the Sligo campus in more than a decade.

In an article in The Irish Times last year, Amanda McCloat, head of home economics at the college, made the very pertinent point that at a time of increasing obesity, the subject of home economics is more important now than ever. In the interview for that article Ms McCloat stated:

People are much more concerned about life skills now, more health conscious and health aware. They understand the components to have a better lifestyle, and one of the only places all of those components are taught is home economics.

In light of everything I have said, I ask the Minister of State to consider the pressing need for significant capital funding for St. Angela’s.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know he is very interested in it. He has spoken to me often about it and attended meetings on it. I met the president of the NUIG and the president of St. Angela's College in Government Buildings to discuss the issues around the backdrop of the merger between the St. Angela's and the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. I pay tribute to this wonderful college in Sligo. St. Angela's is known the length and breadth of the country for its excellence in the teaching of home economics and also for its graduates, and I certainly want that to continue.

The Government recognises the important role played by St. Angela’s College as a higher education institution, particularly in the field of teacher education. St. Angela’s also plays a dynamic role in the economic and social development of the north-west region, including through its professional development and adult education offering.The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and I are both aware of the challenges facing St. Angela's College - I have walked the campus - in regard to the buildings on its campus, including capacity challenges due to increases in student numbers in its home economic teacher education programmes. As Senator Feighan said the numbers have increased from 85 to 101, with plans to increase the numbers by a further 20%.

We have recently held meetings with St. Angela's College and NUI Galway on the wider incorporation issues, which includes discussions on capital investment. Officials from my Department and the HEA also conducted a site visit as recently as 15 March 2019 to assess current facilities and to discuss the request by St. Angela's College to progress a major campus development project incorporating elements of both refurbishment and new build. It was agreed that an updated business case should be submitted by St. Angela's College to the HEA for approval. It is my understanding that this business case will be submitted shortly, if it has not been submitted in the past number of days.

From 2009 to date, St. Angela's College has received €2.06 million in capital funding. The Department approved funding of €343,000 to the college during the summer of 2017 and then €71,400 in 2018 for much needed refurbishment and repair. All of this funding has been drawn down.

With regard to the wider incorporation with NUI Galway, at the meeting with both institutions on 13 March, it was agreed that a five-year business and implementation plan for the incorporation of St. Angela's College into NUI Galway would be presented to the HEA. I am aware that this document was submitted to the HEA on Monday, 1 April and outlines a roadmap of milestone linked objectives for the delivery of the incorporation over a five-year timeframe. This plan has a number of funding objectives, including a capital element. Officials from the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills are currently reviewing the plan and they intend to follow up with both institutions in the coming weeks. As Senator Feighan will appreciate, decisions regarding the increased allocation of capital funding under Project Ireland 2040 for higher education projects must be based on the level of funding available and then in the context of competing demands. This is being managed very carefully in consultation with the HEA. The needs of St. Angela's College and other higher education institutions will be considered in this overall context.

I look forward to working closely with St. Angela's College and NUI Galway in the future to progress and fulfil the aims of their incorporation.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply. It is nice to hear that departmental officials have visited St. Angela's College on 15 March 2019. I look forward to seeing a proposal from St. Angela's College and NUI Galway to try to draw down funding for the best way to go forward. I think we are moving in a significantly positive direction. I again thank the Minister of State for her reply.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Feighan for raising this matter. I know he has been on the case and will continue to ensure that it is a top priority in the Department of Education and Skills.