Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Technological Universities

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Yesterday marked a very significant milestone in a journey which has had more twists than a murder mystery novel. Thankfully, that chapter has come to a conclusion and a new chapter has begun with yesterday's announcement that a technical university for the south east will be established by 1 May and that all final year students currently attending Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, and IT Carlow will graduate with a university degree. This is fantastic news for Waterford and the entire south-east region. It is good for students, families, jobs and inward investment.

The establishment of a university in the south east has been described as a necessity by stakeholders for a protracted period. I am very encouraged by the interactions I have had with stakeholders and IDA Ireland and their positivity about the establishment of a technological university in the south east.

I thank the staff, management and students at WIT and IT Carlow for their diligent work and determination, sometimes in the face of opposition. Their commitment to the establishment of a technological university, TU, has to be complimented. I am sure everyone will join me in congratulating them on their work and resolve.

I have some points and questions on which I hope the Minister can bring clarity. The first is on the designation and commencement dates for the new technological university. At our meeting yesterday, the Minister indicated he expected designation in January and commencement by 1 May. I hope he will clarify that, in the event that everything is in place to enable a designation and commencement before those timelines, nothing would preclude that from occurring. It is imperative that we commence with the international competition to appoint a president of the new technological university. Existing contracts are coming to a conclusion and the new president, whoever that may be, will likely have to work a notice period in his or her existing role.

There is also the matter of the process and timelines for the appointment of a chairperson and two external members. I have told the Minister several times that I believe these are of critical importance if we are to gel the two institutions and ensure the new governing body can realise the vision we have for higher education in the region.

Last but not least, one of the most important issues outside of the headquarters location, which we discussed in a previous Commencement debate, is the expanded campus development in Waterford. Extensive work has been undertaken on the proposal to acquire additional land to enable the new technological university to expand in Waterford, particularly in the last six months but even before that in the development of master plans for the envisaged site. What are the next steps after the meeting on Friday with WIT, the HEA and the Department on the business plan? Will the Minister reaffirm the Government's commitment to this proposal?

On capital funding, WIT and IT Carlow made submissions to the HEA as part of the national development plan review. Support is needed, not only from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science but also the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, both in relation to borrowing capacity and accessing cheap financing from the European Investment Bank and others for projects such as student accommodation, incubation spaces and research and development centres. I would appreciate assurances from the Minister on this.

I thank the Minister for the resolve he has shown in ensuring we will have a technological university in the south east for the first time.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Cummins for his work, leadership and dedication in delivering this project, along with his colleagues across the south east. I know this is an issue that he has personally prioritised and given a lot of time to. I hate to think of the conversation we would be having had we not got to this point, considering the degree to which the Senator banged on my door to ensure Waterford and the south east were no longer neglected in terms of a lack of university presence in the south-east region.

I join the Senator in thanking everyone who has worked on this issue over a sustained period. I am conscious that I am fortunate to be the Minister in office when we reached this significant milestone. Many people have worked on this issue for a decade and, indeed, the more I look into the issue, the clearer it becomes that this work has been done for decades.

I acknowledge the two presidents, Professor Willie Donnelly of WIT and Dr. Patricia Mulcahy of IT Carlow, the chairs of the governing authorities, Mr. Jim Moore and Mr. John Moore, all the members of the governing authorities, all the staff, students and stakeholders, the business community and public representatives. They, together, working tirelessly along with Mr. Tom Boland and his project team have brought us to this point.

As the Senator knows better than most, the south east was the only region in the country without a university presence. This was a glaring anomaly and was holding the region back both in access to higher education but also attracting inward investment and jobs. One only needs to talk to IDA Ireland to hear that view. It was a significant and glaring gap on the map of Ireland which is now being addressed once and for all. The technological university will be established by May 2022. Words matter, as our President reminds us. The word "by" was not chosen accidentally. If establishment can happen earlier, it will. Yesterday was a really exciting day for higher education in the south-east region, signalling as it did the establishment next year of a multi-campus university presence across the region.

The application seeking TU designation was submitted to me jointly on 30 April. I subsequently appointed an independent international advisory panel to assist in assessing this application and sought the views of the board of the Higher Education Authority on that report and any other matters of relevance. I have received and considered reports and, on foot of my deliberations and extensive engagement with the two institutions, I am proposing to approve the application. In short, I can state that all parties are working towards the new university opening its doors by 1 May 2022. The HEA will now seek to confirm the finalisation of technical and operational elements. The HEA will continue to keep me informed and advise me on these matters. I wrote yesterday to the institutes' governing body chairpersons in this regard. There is now a prescribed period in law during which the institutes may make representations.

I addressed the Senator's question on establishment by May 2022. On the governing authority, this month, the Department will invite expressions of interest through a public process for the role of chairperson and two external members of what should become the first governing body of the new TU. I will also be writing to the education and training boards to seek a candidate to sit on the governing body in due course. I will encourage people to step up and come forward. Being on the governing body of this new technological university will be the epitome of public service.

The process to identify a suitable candidate to be submitted to me for designation for appointment as first president by the new technological university's first governing body will be by way of an open international competitive process, which will be run by the applicant institutes in the new year. I hope that will kick off in January.

The Senator has raised consistently the very important matter of expanding the footprint of the new university in Waterford. I want to be categorical and be crystal clear, to pardon the pun, about wanting to do this. We want to expand the footprint of the university's presence in Waterford. I have been clear in my commitment to expanding the imprint, as are the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. WIT is undertaking an appraisal process and business case process in accordance with the requirements of the public spending code. Its representatives will meet my Department and the HEA later this week. We will work with them to progress that.

On the headquarters, as I have said previously, this is legally a matter for the governing authority. That is the law. The Government does not run universities. This is an open, modern European democracy. Waterford seems like a sensible location for the headquarters for a variety of reasons, including national planning policies.

On borrowing capacity, I am very pleased with the progress being made on student accommodation under Housing for All but I accept the need to do more on this and I am very committed to doing that.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I would expect nothing less. He has been across this issue since his appointment.

On borrowing, significant work has been done to enable technological universities to borrow to fund purpose-built student accommodation, of which there is a shortage in Waterford, as there is elsewhere.However, beyond that we need to get to the point where we have the likes of incubation spaces and research and development centres which can be revenue generators. These will prove the ability of the new technological universities to be able to repay the investment. In the same context, that should be expedited with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I would appreciate the Minister's comments on that.

I welcome also his comments on the headquarters of the new TU. It is essential it is located in Waterford, notwithstanding the fact the president will obviously have a presence on both campuses. That is a natural progression here but there has to be a designated HQ and I welcome the Minister's comments in that regard.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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My comments on the HQ are as they are but the bigger win and the bigger prize here for Waterford and the south east is the establishment of a technological university, the status that will bring to the region, the opportunities that will provide for increasing foreign direct investment, capital investment, research funding, international recognition and becoming a catalyst in a region that sometimes feels it has been left behind for development and socioeconomic progression and innovation. We sometimes throw words around in politics but I really believe this has the ability to be transformational for the south east. It is not just my belief but the belief of so many stakeholders, the business community and student groups as well.

On borrowing, I remain committed to working intensively with my colleagues in Government to ensure we can continue to increase investment across the technological university agenda. We have a transformation fund with €90 million in it. In the Government's national recovery and resilience plan there is an additional €40 million for the technological universities. We have the highest ever per capitabudget for higher education in our State and we now have access to borrowing by TUs and ITs for student accommodation in a way that was not there before, but I will continue to engage with the Senator on this. As recommended by the seminal TU Research Network, TURN, report, a fully-resourced, state-of-the-art, digitally-connected TU with attractive student-centric environments will strongly assist in the delivery of national strategic objectives on higher education. Yesterday was a big step forward but nobody, least of all me, is suggesting it is the end of the conversation. It is just the beginning of the next step of a new and exciting journey. I thank the Senator for all his work on this.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Cummins will not mind me coming in on this but as a former vice chairman of County Kerry vocational educational committee, VEC, as it was, it would be remiss of me not to compliment the Minister on his work in bringing to fruition our Munster Technological University. He has a very happy event coming up on Monday. It is a consummation joyful to behold and the Minister has played a blinder on that and well done.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Acting Chairperson.

Sitting suspended at 11.23 a.m. and resumed at 11.32 a.m.