Wednesday, 14 September 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I know he was in the RDS earlier at the Worldskills event for apprenticeships, an area in which he is doing considerable work. I thank him for taking the time to take this Commencement matter.
I also acknowledge his interest and determination to ensure that Waterford and the south east achieved their long-held ambition to have a university in the region that could act as a catalyst for growth. However, I am sure he will also agree that while that milestone on 1 May was important, the real work only starts now to ensure that Ireland's newest university realises its vision of becoming an educational and research institution of international standing. That requires additional facilities and resources, the adjacent space to expand and a leadership team to achieve this vision.
With that latter point in mind, I compliment the Minister of State on his appointments thus far: Professor Veronica Campbell, as the new president; former Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, as chairman; and Ms Jim Bergin of Glanbia and Ms Ruth Beadle of Sanofi, as board members. Nobody can question their suitability, expertise and determination to ensure that South East Technological University, SETU, becomes the driver that it needs to be for the south-east region.
As the Minister will be aware, I have engaged with both him, the Tánaiste and their respective teams, on the topic of the acquisition of the former Waterford Crystal site on numerous occasions over the past 12 months.While the Minister and Tánaiste have both been categoric in their utterances on the Government's commitment to expanding the footprint of the SETU campus in Waterford city, unfortunately there are still some who wish to deny that progress is being made on the issue and who say that ring-fenced funding essentially equates to nothing and that if the Government wanted to, it could click its fingers and make it happen overnight. Any objective analyst will say that while the process is exceptionally frustrating, including for me as a politician and, I am sure, Deputy Harris as Minister, failure to follow the various steps could put the entire project in jeopardy, which would be in nobody's interest. It would, therefore, be helpful if the Minister could outline the process that has been undertaken to date and explain the process that is to take place and the attached timelines to secure this site, which will future-proof our new university and its growth in Waterford city.
I acknowledge the letter the Minister sent me last week that confirmed the Higher Education Authority, HEA, sent him a report on 1 September regarding the site. I know he has acted swiftly to seek the approval of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to enable SETU to commence formal negotiations with the owner of the site. It is urgent to give SETU the mandate to ensure it can conclude negotiations with the vendor. I understand there was a great deal of work and engagement at the front end of the process on the part of the then Waterford Institute of Technology. I am sure that banked work will come to fruition at the back end of the process, but of course it needs to be given the green light as soon as possible. I hope the Minister can give assurances in that regard.
I cannot overstate the importance of this site both from both practical and symbolic points of view. Not only will it future-proof the growth of the new university in Waterford, as I have said, but it will also give an enormous lift to the people of Waterford to know that a site that once employed thousands will be repurposed to educate and accommodate the next generation of young workers.
I thank my colleague for raising this important matter, not only today in Seanad Éireann but also almost daily. I am aware of his genuine, deep commitment to and understanding of the importance of a university for Waterford in the south east in terms of educational access, economic investment, balanced regional development and ensuring Waterford can harness and reach its incredible full potential. I thank him so much.
I really enjoyed being in what is now SETU with the Senator on designation day. I could sense genuine excitement and a genuine buzz from the staff and students after years of debate and discussion. Finally, we were moving forward, and finally the south east, including Waterford, was getting a university.
I thank the Senator for his comments on the appointments. I, too, think President Veronica Campbell brings an unquestionable and exceptional depth of experience to the role. I wish her well as the first president. I also wish well the governing authority, chaired by Dr. Paddy Prendergast, former Provost of Trinity College, and so many other excellent people, including the deputy chair, namely Mr. Jim Bergin, and Ms Ruth Beadle. I thank them for their work.
As the new academic year begins, students graduating from the SETU in Waterford do so with a university qualification. The institution has now taken its rightful place in a national network of five technological universities, serving all our regions and fulfilling a key commitment of the programme for Government. As the Senator rightly implied, there will be some who constantly wish to denigrate or talk down the process. It is making real, tangible progress. I believe the people of Waterford get and know that, but he is right that they want to know what is next. They are dead right to want to know that.
Since 2013, the Government has been providing significant financial support to technological universities, specifically the project in the south east, including Waterford, first through the higher education landscape fund and subsequently through the transformation fund. The establishment of the new technological university is a significant milestone for the region. I believe this new university will grow and thrive. A key part of the growth and thriving is the expansion of the footprint in Waterford. To be categoric, it is the Government's intention to physically expand the footprint of the technological university in Waterford. I am strongly committed to this, as are the Tánaiste, Taoiseach and all the other members of the Government. My Department is as well. We are doing this because we believe it will enable SETU to cater for and prepare for increased enrolments, with more students staying in and coming to Waterford, as well as delivering the infrastructural transformation that reflects its new university status and mandate. As the Senator said, we have set aside funding to ensure this capital expansion can be realised.
I am pleased to update him, as I did in my letter to him recently.Earlier this year, SETU submitted a detailed preliminary business case for expanded capacity to the HEA in accordance with public spending code requirements. In other words, it sent in a business case looking to expand the footprint. This considered demand analysis, enrolment projections, current and future space requirements and an analysis of options for delivery of the additional capacity. The HEA has issued a report to my Department in recent weeks - on 1 September, as Senator Cummins said - and my Department is now engaging with colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on taking the next step. As Minister, I am limited in terms of commercial sensitivities but I can assure the Senator, as he has asked me to, that this is a very important issue for my Department. We are keen to move on this quickly but in doing so we have to get value for money and we have to make sure we fulfil the strategic objectives of SETU. I will certainly keep Senator Cummins and Government and Oireachtas colleagues in Waterford up to date in regard to this matter. I hope I can reassure him that the support for the expansion of the SETU Waterford campus remains a key priority for me, for my Department and for the Government. I look forward to updating him further on developments in due course.
I thank the Minister for restating the Government's commitment to expanding the footprint of the campus in Waterford which is obviously key to cementing the gains that have been made in terms of provision but also future-proofing the university and its provision of education and research within the region. It is important to lay out the timelines attaching to that process. I appreciate that the Minister is facing constraints with regard to commercial sensitivities while SETU negotiates with the owner of the site. I am trying to ascertain the expected timeline for it to be given a mandate to do so. I am relatively confident that the work that was done at the front end of this process by the then Waterford Institute of Technology will yield a positive result at the back end of the process, but SETU has to be enabled now to proceed to the next step in this regard. I appreciate that this is not solely within the remit of the Minister's Department, but I would appreciate it if he could provide an assurance on the timeline that he expects from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for him ultimately to give SETU the sanction.
I thank Senator Cummins. It is worthwhile to outline the progress that has been made with the campus expansion because sometimes that can be overlooked. Five steps have had to be gone through. The first step involved a recognition by myself, by my Department and by the Government, in agreeing with the position of the Senator and other Oireachtas colleagues, that we needed to expand the footprint in Waterford. That step is in place. Setting aside funding to make that happen is in place. The second step was the business case. In other words, Waterford Institute of Technology, which is now SETU, put forward a very detailed comprehensive preliminary business case with projections, analysis and all of that. I thank them for that work. The third step was the carrying out of the report - an independent analysis of the situation from perspective of the taxpayer and the Department - which has gone to the HEA. The fourth step involved my Department receiving a submission from the HEA. We now have that. The fifth step, which is where we are now, involves my Department engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the report and on a potential mandate for negotiation. If anybody in Waterford wishes for whatever reason to suggest that there is any sort of lacuna or vacuum here, factually it does not stack up. Designation day was May. We are standing here in September having gone through five steps. I am saying that I want to see the engagement taking place as quickly as possible. Obviously the budget has to be the first, second and third priority for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and my Department now. However, I would like to see intensive engagement between my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform towards the end of this month to try to move this project forward as quickly as possible.