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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Mar 1997

Vol. 476 No. 7

Adjournment Debate. - Research Allocation.

The Irish Research Scientists Association and the universities have recently been informed of a proposal by the Higher Education Authority to cut the allocation it provides to the universities for research equipment. I understand this will take place in two phases. There will be a 50 per cent cut in the allocation for continuing capital costs and the large capital equipment grant will be eliminated. The combined effect will be an overall cut of 60 per cent. That is ironic since the report of the Science. Technology and Innovation Advisory Council and the HEA's CIRCA report on the management of research in the universities draw attention to the lack of adequate modern research equipment in the universities.

The CIRCA report states that such neglect is compromising the colleges' ability to have adequately prepared graduates. The Minister will agree that access to research equipment is essential for improved training for graduates, employment prospects, innovation links with industry, particularly the SMEs, and for improved access to a global knowledge base as producers and consumers. STIAC recommended an emergency reequipment budget to bring our national stock up to date. In the absence of this, and with the Higher Education Authority cuts, we have no hope of maintaining the quality of graduates.

The chemistry department in UCC, for example, receives £100,000 per annum. If there is a 60 per cent cut, it will only receive £40,000. It has entered into contracts, whether leasing equipment or whatever, and will not be able to meet these demands.

The Minister is aware of the recent major focus on the skills shortage in the software, electronics and pharmaceutical industries. One motivating factor for innovation and economic activity is the money invested in research and development. Germany is typical in that it recognises research and development as the most significant factor in industrial development which allows a proper response to diversification within industry. If graduates apply themselves to research and development, they can respond to market forces more quickly than before and changes in emphasis and consumer requirements can also get an immediate response. It makes no sense to spend vast amounts of money training people to meet industry requirements.

I recently debated with the Minister for Education in this House on her failure to integrate a policy between education, industry, enterprise and employment. Four years ago, the IDA stated we would by now, be short of graduates in the computing and pharmaceutical areas but there was no integration of policy. Ploughing in money for quick retraining of people is a stop-gap effort. It seems the Higher Education Authority is suggesting it will cut the capital budget for research and development which everyone accepts as vital to the well-being of future economic growth. The Minister of State should bring whatever influence he has to bear on the Higher Education Authority in the best interests of this country and graduates coming out of universities. It is important the quality of those graduates continues on the highest possible plane because they are now recognised internationally as being among the best. It is important the standard be maintained. The money needed for investment in capital equipment towards research and development is minimal in terms of the results and benefits which would accrue to the economic well-being of industry.

The major success of the economy in the past few years is now posing major challenges and is causing a number of problems in the areas of supply and demand.

Because it was not adequately responded to by the Minister.

The unique success of the Irish economy has posed these challenges and they will be met.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position regarding the allocation to universities for research equipment. Like the Deputy, I received many letters from different institutions in recent days.

Under the National Development Plan 1994-9, £10 million is being provided to replace and enhance research and teaching equipment in the universities. This provision is part of a £120 million capital investment programme designed primarily for the purpose of supporting the third level sector, particularly in areas of research and teaching related to economic growth and job creation. Of this amount £46.5 million has been set aside for capital projects in the Higher Education Authority sector. The dedicated provision of £10 million for equipment within the European Regional Development Fund programme has already been complemented by a further £2 million of Exchequer funds bringing the provision for equipment for the Higher Education Authority sector to £12 million over the period of the plan. In addition, the £46.5 million programme includes elements of funding for new equipment. A further £60 million capital investment programme comprising £30 million from the private sector with matching funds from the Exchequer was approved by the Minister for Education in 1995. This programme provides for constructing and equipping new facilities.

There is no question of a reduction in the allocation for capital equipment under these programmes. Of the £12 million for replacement capital, £6 million has already been allocated to universities through funding provided to the Higher Education Authority in the three years 1994, 1995 and 1996. There is a commitment to providing the balance of £6 million over the period of the plan. While the average annual amount to be allocated is £2 million, the actual amount in any one year varies depending on building expenditure commitment in that year. For example, the original allocation for capital equipment in 1995 was £2 million, which was subsequently increased to £4 million when the position regarding building commitments became clearer. On the other hand, all available capital was devoted to building works in 1996. In 1997, £1 million was targeted for replacement equipment in the £15.25 million capital allocation made to the HEA. In the normal way, this figure will be kept under review during the year and, in light of building commitments and depending on progress, it may be increased as appropriate within the framework of the overall capital allocation of £76.5 million for the European Regional Development Fund and additional numbers programmes.

There is an absolute commitment to allocating sufficient funds to the Higher Education Authority over the period of the national plan to enable the balance of £6 million for replacement equipment to be paid to the universities. The Department of Education is considering introducing a number of further initiatives which will contribute to the funding of new equipment for the university sector to ensure its effectiveness in meeting the recommendations of the Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council and the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education.