Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dr Mark Rowe, Friends of the University of the South East, speaking at Sinn Féin economic forum, Waterford

Ladies and gentlemen:

I thank you for the opportunity to speak at your meeting on the progress - or perhaps ‘lack of progress' is the more appropriate term - being made towards having Waterford Institute of Technology re-designated as University of the South East.

It is four years ago this month since the Institute made its detailed submission to Government on this issue. Given there had already been considerable debate and groundwork before that, this is certainly not something that national decision-makers can be accused of having rushed to judgment on!

This evening, I'd like to revisit some of the main arguments for providing a regional university in the southeast and perhaps underline how these have been made all the more compelling during the economic slump.

In the order of €300m has been invested in Waterford Institute of Technology over the last 40 years with particularly striking progress made on the campus over the most recent 10 years. For the maximum return to be achieved for the taxpayer on this investment, it is vital that the Institute be re-designated and given the tools to compete fully on the national and international stage. In any other EU country, an Institute of this calibre would not be blocked from becoming a university. Rather, it would be made to do so in an effort to ensure the money already invested would not be wasted and that the momentum achieved would not be lost.

We hear a lot of talk about the need for a ‘stimulus package' to promote economic renewal. We also hear almost daily references from various commentators to the importance of Ireland building a so-called ‘smart economy'. These words ring hollow in the southeast if we continue to be required to compete without a university against regions that typically have not only a university but also an Institute of Technology.

The southeast region has competitors nationally and internationally. If we look at the regions that we compete with that we are all most familiar with then it is a clear advantage to the mid-west, west and southwest of this country that they have higher education institutions at both Institute of Technology and university level. If the students of Limerick, Galway and Cork can have ready access to colleges at both these levels then surely it is downright unfair for Waterford students to be told they cannot go to university without leaving their region and travelling at least 80 miles.

You will all be familiar with the spiral that there's been in the number of people out of work in this country since the recession took hold. The numbers are staggering and can perhaps sometimes mean we lose sight of the human stories behind the statistics. For instance, in the southeast region where we have 11 per cent of the population, we account for 13 per cent of those on the Live Register. To put this in raw numbers, over 56,000 people were on the Live Register in the southeast last month - a jump of over 13,000 on the equivalent figure a year earlier and an increase of over 167 per cent from the figure when the university submission was made in February 2006.

Alarmingly, much of this increase was accounted for by people aged under-25 so there's a very real risk of them becoming long-term unemployed or being forced to emigrate in pursuit of work.

Waterford and the southeast made two major bets for employment during the boom construction and large-scale manufacturing.

Construction has almost completely disappeared as a significant source of sustainable employment while the days when individual industries employed thousands of people at a small number of locations are also behind us with jobs continuing to be lost at almost all of the major industrial employers in the southeast. Even the success stories that are out there in terms of foreign direct investment are no longer adding to their head counts so they cannot be relied on to provide career opportunities in the numbers our young people require. Rather, we must look to build our own regional resources and eke out opportunities from within.

The southeast has a population of over 460,000 and there are Institutes of Technology in Carlow and Waterford but no university. That makes this the largest region by population in western Europe that is forced to compete without a university. It is little wonder then that disposable incomes here lag well behind the national average.

In what now looks to have been a cynical stalling tactic to get them over the 2007 general election, the Government - in the person of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern - announced amid much fanfare in October 2006 that there would be a "preliminary independent examination" of the submission made earlier that year by Waterford Institute of Technology. This, we were told, would be carried out by "an eminent international expert on higher education" and "be used to guide the Government's future decisions".

Dr Jim Port of UK-based JM Consulting was selected by Government to complete this assessment and his report which was published in February 2008 provided a strong endorsement of the arguments made two years before that. Dr Port could hardly have been clearer in noting that Waterford Institute of Technology has "an academic maturity and an activity profile" similar to universities in Ireland and other Western countries. He further found that the Institute "fulfils many of the broader roles of a university, especially in terms of support to regional economic and cultural development and knowledge transfer".

Dr Port's report also recognised that Waterford has "the governance, management and strategic planning capabilities required of a university" along with an attractive and suitable campus environment and - importantly - a secure asset base to permit future development.

Looking at the regional impacts, Dr Port writes of "significant benefits" in having a university that, he notes, would benefit the southeast "economically, socially and culturally".

In short, Dr Port found Waterford Institute of Technology ready to become a university and recognised that the southeast needs a university. The next steps must now be taken on that course without any delay. Dr Port - who, remember, was commissioned by the Government - underlined that continued inaction was the least desirable of all options. Yet, that's exactly what we have had in the two years since his report was published.

Developed countries that perform well socially, culturally and economically are built on strong city regions equipped to compete internationally. Strong regions in turn require strong gateway cities with regional universities that support not only regional but also national priorities. Indeed, if we look at successful regions across Europe and beyond, the common trait is a university taking a lead role as a powerful dynamo for growth and a hothouse for ideas.

In the southeast, communities as diverse as business and industry; sport and hospitality; the trade union movement and public representatives are as one in recognising the region's deficiencies and the huge catalytic impact that University of the South East can have.

The glib argument has been made that Waterford Institute of Technology is every bit as good as a university so it doesn't need re-designation. Those making this case cite the Illinois; Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology as well as some of the equivalent institutions in Asia. This ignores the reality that these are in fact universities in terms of their governance, funding and independence. Waterford, on the other hand, is held back in a second tier of Irish higher education that it has long since outgrown. In terms of attracting and retaining the best students and staff, this is a huge impediment - especially at international level where important collaborative opportunities are being missed out on.

The equally facile "we've enough universities" counter-argument is not borne out internationally. Finland, a world leader in higher education, with a population of 5.2 million against the Republic's 4.2 million has 20 universities compared to our seven.

Critically, at a time of acute concern about public finances, Dr Port's report addresses cost issues around re-designation and states clearly that economic benefits to the region would - at the very least - offset any additional public expenditure on University of the South East. Indeed, the cost of inaction will prove far higher and the hundreds of millions of euro invested at the campus in Waterford will have been simply spent rather than invested.

There is a living ‘brain drain' from the southeast each autumn when some 7,000 full-time students from Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford leave this region to receive a university education. As that happens, exactly zero university students come in the opposite direction.

The case for University of the South East has been many years in the making, it is socially and economically sound, it is necessary to ensure balanced social and economic development in Ireland and - above all - it is just and equitable.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) captured the regional impact of higher education investment well in September 2007 when writing of how "Higher education institutions have a significant economic impact on the local and regional economy. They are employers and customers as well as suppliers of goods and services. HEI staff and student expenditure have a direct effect on income and employment in the cities and the regions. The HEIs are also consumers of local government services and local firms' products. In regions with a strong higher education sector, the contribution of HEIs to regional gross domestic product (GDP) can be significant."

The OECD continued, "HEIs have an even greater role in enhancing the human capital, pool of knowledge and attractiveness of the local area. From the perspective of agencies promoting city and regional development, HEIs are becoming a key resource. They contribute to the region's comparative advantage by generating new businesses particularly in knowledge-based industries and by upgrading existing industries. They strengthen the human capital base through attracting and retaining talent in the region, as well as providing professional updating of the workforce and lifelong learning. Finally, they provide local gateways to marketing and inward investment in the private sector and provide content and audience for local cultural programmes."

If Waterford and the southeast region that it is the designated gateway to under the National Spatial Strategy are not to be allowed fall further behind during the recession and to be hindered from fighting back when economic recovery begins then it is vital that we have a university from which new ideas and enterprises can emerge and to which the brightest and best of our people can be drawn.

The impact of University of Limerick in the mid-west region has been tremendous and the innovative way that it was delivered and developed with a mix of public and private sector support provides a roadmap for how a higher education institution of similar calibre can be provided in the southeast with its comparable population.

Almost nine years ago in May 2001, the Report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education included the following pertinent passages that bear careful consideration in assessing the case for University of the South East - "Education makes a fundamentally important contribution to the quality and well-being of Irish society. Education plays a crucial role in the social, intellectual, cultural, economic and political life of the country. The State, through its involvement in education, seeks to achieve a range of aims, in particular those concerned with economic prosperity, social well-being and a good quality of life for all citizens within a democratically structured society.

"The State's role in education is underpinned by the principles of pluralism and diversity of individual needs for education, of equality and the elimination of educational disadvantage, and of partnership between all interests in the development of new policies. Widening opportunity for and participation in higher education has many benefits in strengthening democracy, achieving economic and social progress, advancing human rights, and improving the efficiency, quality and performance of the educational system."

In their editorial of April 5, 2008, The Irish Times dealt with the campaign for re-designation of Waterford Institute of Technology as University of the South East. It stated that "The south-east has a strong case. It is the only major region without a university and the one with the lowest disposable income per capita. A university would act as a catalyst for growth and regeneration. It would boost the region from an economic, social and cultural perspective. And WIT itself has the academic range and the appropriate governance and strategic capability required for a university."

The newspaper added, "Waterford has a persuasive case that has been eloquently and convincingly advanced over an extended period. It deserves to be successful on its own merits. And it should be possible to ring fence a decision in its favour to ensure the role of the wider IoT [Institute of Technology] sector is not compromised."

As I've hopefully captured this evening, we have backing from a diverse range of sources for the now incontestable case that Waterford Institute of Technology should be re-designated as University of the South East without further delay. This has already been a long and slow-moving journey. I would now encourage you to continue supporting this campaign and to miss no opportunity in your own networks to spread the word that this is needed and needed now.

For inspiration, we can perhaps look to a public representative from another era. Thomas Wyse who was MP for Waterford from 1827 to 1842 is generally credited as the ideas person whose prompting gave rise to the national system of primary education and, subsequently, the founding of the Queen's colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway -the foundation stones of today's universities.
Thanks again for the opportunity to speak to you this evening on behalf of Friends of the University of the South East.

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