Limerick Institute of Technology: Chairperson Designate

I remind members and witnesses to turn off mobile phones or to switch them to flight mode as they interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. Television coverage and web streaming will also be adversely affected.

We now move to engagement with Mr. Tony Brazil, chairperson designate of the governing body of Limerick Institute of Technology. This is an opportunity for the committee to discuss with Mr. Brazil his vision and priorities in the short to medium term and any challenges facing the institute. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Brazil. The format of this part of the meeting is that I will invite him to make a brief opening statement, a maximum of three minutes long, which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.

Before we begin, I draw Mr. Brazil's attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I advise Mr. Brazil that any opening statement he has made to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Tony Brazil

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.

I should explain that priority questions on education are coming up in the Dáil and that explains why there are very few committee members here today. They will probably be coming in and out.

I welcome Mr. Brazil and Professor Vincent Cunnane, president of LIT, who is in the Visitors Gallery. As a former board member of LIT, I am delighted to see both of them here today and to be able to speak about what is going on in LIT at the moment. What are the plans of LIT to develop and extend access to higher education?

When I was on the board of LIT, there were discussions about whether we would go with the status as a technological university. The decision made by the current board is to go along with AIT. What will be the greatest challenges facing the development of a technological university?

I welcome Mr. Brazil. There is a large delegation from Sligo in the Gallery. Professor Vincent Cunnane served with distinction in Sligo for many years. I welcome him and Mr. Damien Courtney to the Visitors Gallery.

I was involved with Sligo Institute of Technology for many years. Huge changes are taking place now but I have highlighted on numerous occasions the need for additional apprenticeships in ITs. Mr. Brazil might expand on that topic.

I wish Mr. Brazil well because the institutes of technology in Sligo, Letterkenny and Galway-Mayo are in the process of going forward with the new technological university for the area. A similar process is in place for Limerick and Athlone ITs. Mr. Brazil might also expand on that process.

I have an understandable interest in this topic, being a Limerick Deputy. Deputy McLoughlin asked about the issue of apprenticeships and I would also like to hear about any plans that are in place, particularly for the campus in Coonagh, which has potential in terms of apprenticeships and engineering in general. How is that progressing?

I understand there are different stages in the process of becoming a technological university. Will Mr. Brazil give us any information about where that process is at? It is probably difficult to give timescales but what has been done to move that process forward?

Mr. Tony Brazil

To answer the question about the Coonagh campus, we have done the enabling works and are in negotiation with our education people for the funding for the fit-out. We are hoping those funds will be released shortly so that we can proceed to open the campus there next September. It will have capacity for 800 students and we are very excited about that. It is a critical piece of the architecture of the formation of the college because we need more space. When students leave the Moylish campus, a public private partnership, PPP, will come on board. We have signed a memorandum of understanding preliminary to the building of a four-storey ICT building on that site.

The preparation for the progression to a technological university is a great challenge. There is good news in that LIT has some experience, having worked to blend the Tipperary institute into LIT. We have good experience of the communication and leadership skills that are needed. There is no doubt that there have been speed bumps in the negotiations with AIT, but the people involved are sensible. The executives on both sides have been meeting and the boards will be meeting soon in that regard. There will be progress.

The big step in the development of the technological university is the fact that the Government has committed to a fund of €90 million over three years to assist. We need to strengthen in some areas, including an increase in the number of PhD people on the staff, more postgraduate courses and more research work. We are confident that, given the funds that are likely to be available, we will be in a position to do that.

Another good thing is that AIT and LIT complement one another. The two institutions do not pirate students in the sense that the core areas from which the two institutions draw students do not necessarily overlap. In reality, there is very little haemorrhage of people from the mid-west into Athlone and, similarly, from Athlone into Limerick. That makes for an easy transition. In addition, a number of the courses that one institution or the other are doing will now work in tandem. There is already goodwill.

We do not have a timescale for the process but a couple of years will see considerable change and it is hoped this will become a reality. The executives on both sides are sensible so I see no reason this will not become a fait accompli.

LIT works very closely with SOLAS on apprenticeships. Our modus operandi in LIT is to embrace our partners in industry and commerce around us. We have very good, close relationships with all of those people. We will, next year, start some wet trade apprenticeships that had fallen off a cliff during the recession. We are very much up for all of that.

I will give the committee a good example where we are involved with apprenticeships. Lufthansa at Shannon has an important maintenance unit. We are now working with Lufthansa so that their apprentices can work through us to gain bachelors of engineering degrees.

Talking about apprenticeships generally, I have been involved in career guidance for a long time. It is unfortunate that many people, particularly parents, see apprenticeships as they were in the old days where the apprentice was the gofer person. The apprentice nowadays goes right up to level 9 in university standing and we really need to reinvent the title "apprentice" so that is understood. From a career guidance perspective, we probably need to go right back to the last year of primary school to get people to understand that apprenticeships are a better way of life. I read a report recently from someone in the career guidance sector who previously spoke to the committee. That report referred to a woman with four postgraduate qualifications who, every time she passed a building site, envied the people there driving big cars and earning much more money than she was.

We do a great deal of work in the culinary area in LIT, and it is the same problem with the attitude to catering. Many parents and families believe that catering is pot-walloping as opposed to being something for which people can get good training and professional development. As I know from my side of the business, head chefs in many leading hotels can earn nearly as much as the chief executive. There is a need to do something about that attitude.

On access, I mentioned earlier that I am involved in DEIS schools. Currently, eight students from an adjacent DEIS school - Thomond community college, which the Acting Chairman will know - are in first year at LIT. We have provided a fund of just under €1 million for scholarships exclusive to DEIS pupils who otherwise might not be able to get to university. We believe that is a significant step for us to take. As we speak, approximately 55 or 60 students are on courses at LIT under that guise and we are delighted to be able to do that. It shows our intent to provide for people who otherwise might not attend university. The experience in the college is that those students often become the best students. They finish their course and always emerge with flying colours, which we are proud of.

I hope I have answered all the questions that were asked.

I thank Mr. Brazil. Some of the themes he mentioned, such as apprenticeship and access, are ones on which we in the committee have had much engagement. I should also have welcomed Dr. Vincent Cunnane to the meeting. The committee will notify the Minister that it has had an engagement with Mr. Brazil. On behalf of the committee, I thank him for his engagement on the matter and wish him every success in his role.

I propose we suspend briefly to allow our guests for the next session to take their seats for the engagement with stakeholders on adult literacy. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 4.02 p.m. and resumed at 4.06 p.m.