I thank the Acting Chairman and members of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for inviting me to make a statement. I am delighted to have this opportunity and look forward to engaging fully with the committee. There are some particular themes contained in the statement which relate directly to my view of the role of Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, chairperson, while also speaking to my own formation and interests. I hope that by taking this approach I will be informing the committee with a strong sense of who I am and how I will approach the role to which I have been nominated. Broadly speaking, these themes are the social impact of LIT, especially in the area of access; the regional dimension; the technological university consortium with Athlone Institute of Technology; and, finally, apprenticeships.
I am a native of Dublin and got all my education there, graduating with a degree in commerce at UCD. My parents had a business in the Liberties. We lived over the shop and I was probably the first person in the area to graduate from university. It was an area of great deprivation and I saw at first hand the role education could play in lifting the lives of the people. This was a life lesson. My first job was with the Dublin Health Authority as a home assistance officer working with some of Dublin’s forgotten people.
Limerick has been my home for more than 50 years. When the regional tourism organisations were established, I got a position with Shannonside Regional Tourism in Limerick. I started my own business, Limerick Travel, in 1971. This continues to be one of Munster’s leading travel agencies. Married with three grown boys, I have always been involved in the life of the region because I believe in the importance of regional development. I have seen this evolve over the years, having been chairman of Shannonside Regional Tourism and a member of the Hunt Museum, the Junior Chamber Limerick, and Barrington’s Hospital. I have also been chair of the Shannon Region Conference and Sports Bureau, as well as serving on the boards of Bord Fáilte, Aer Rianta, Shannon Development and the Shannon Group.
I have always had a deep interest in education as a means of giving a future to our children. I have served on Limerick city's education committee and Limerick and Clare education and training board, where I was finance chairman. In addition, I have served on the boards of a number of DEIS schools. I joined the governing body of LIT in 2017 and am chairperson of the finance and physical development committee. I am also a member of the strategy committee, which developed LIT’s current strategy, as well as of the appointments committee. It is against this background that I feel I have marshalled the experience and ability to approach the role of chairperson of LIT.
In illustrating my approach to the priorities of LIT, I draw members’ attention to the HEA’s recent spatial and socioeconomic profile of higher education institutions in Ireland. In this, the composition of LIT’s student body is clearly spelled out. The institution very closely reflects the diversity and social mix of the region’s population. Some 15% of our students come from deprived areas while 8% come from affluent areas. This proven ability to provide access to higher education as part of our everyday business is crucial, and serves to support individuals, their families, their communities and ultimately the economy of the region. More than two thirds of our students are in receipt of grants and many are, like me, first generation college-goers. On 30 October, the HEA published our institutional compact profile, which reinforces all of this. I also note the importance of the fact that 17% of our first year undergraduates are mature students.
Of course, these statistics reflect our impact on society but I see it as very important that we also have an economic impact. LIT’s proposed Coonagh campus is specifically intended as a centre of excellence to bring together academia and the engineering industry of the mid-west. This kind of project can have a very real impact and is an area I strongly wish to see developed. Coonagh is also ideally positioned to enable LIT to extend its offering of apprenticeships, in particular those which are targeted at high-tech manufacturing.
These programmes are developed with industry and we offer engineering degrees in industrial electrical engineering and in manufacturing engineering by apprenticeship. Indeed, last month saw the first graduates from this programme. I believe that Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, now has a very solid foundation upon which to grow our apprenticeship offering, the value of which I know the members already appreciate.
It is also worth noting that three quarters of our students come from within the region and two thirds work in the region after graduating which is a very important engine of growth for the mid-west.
The great strategic development of the next period will be the formation of a new technological university in partnership with Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT. This new entity will allow a university-level education to be made available locally to a great proportion of the country. The LIT-AIT consortium is the first to be formed since the passage of the Technological Universities Act and I see it as something which can be of great benefit in our regions. I am now ready to play my part in driving this consortium to its logical conclusion in a new institution.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the work of Mr. Niall Greene, my predecessor as chairperson of LIT, who steered the institute into a position where it has been able to deliver for the region and can legitimately aspire to achieve its strategic goals for the benefit of society.
I thank the Chair and members of the committee for this opportunity.