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Technological Universities

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (59)

Peter Fitzpatrick


59. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the likely timeline by which Dundalk Institute of Technology will attain technological university status as part of the technological university project which has transformed higher education across the State (details supplied); and if he will ensure that the institute will not continue to be left behind. [59076/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

The technological university, TU, project has transformed higher education across the State. With the recent announcements of the Technological University of the Shannon, the Technological University of the South East, and now the Atlantic Technological University, the national jigsaw, as the Minister has described it, is almost complete. However, the glaringly absent piece of this jigsaw is the north east, and its sole higher education provider Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. Four years ago, DkIT was a leading force in the TU project. What is the likely timeline by which the DkIT will take its rightful place in a once-in-a-generation, State-wide transformation of higher education? What will the Minister say to the staff, students and prospective students, and their parents, that this key institution in my constituency will not continue to be left behind?

I thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for meeting me about this matter with other Members from Louth. I assure him that the north east will not be left behind. I would have been delighted had I received an application from the north-east institute to become a technological university. I am sure the Deputy and I share that real and palpable frustration as to why when a number of other institutes of technology came together with other institute of technologies to put together their bid, none came from DkIT. That is a frustration we jointly share. Institutions need to apply to become a technological university.

At the outset, I wish to recognise sincerely the important contribution Dundalk Institute of Technology has and continues to make to Dundalk, Louth, the north east and the Border region since its establishment. In order to achieve further progress in realising the ambitions and potential of the north east, I remain strongly committed to seeking to enable DkIT's participation within a technological university agenda.

However, as I have said, it is very important to recognise that, consistent with the autonomy of all higher education institutions in the State and the law we passed in this House, it is a matter for the institution itself to determine its strategic direction. This discretion must, of course, be exercised in light of the legislative options available.

In specific terms, under section 38 of the Technological Universities Act 2018, an institute of technology and an established technological university may jointly apply to me, as Minister, for an order transferring the functions of the institute of technology to the technological university. I understand that Dundalk Institute of Technology is pursuing such a path. From our previous meetings, the Deputy will know that I have provided specific funding through the Higher Education Authority, HEA, under the technological university transformation fund. I have also provided the expert advice of Dr. Ruaidhri Neavyn, who will work with the institute to get it where it needs to be in this regard.

I assure the Deputy of my absolute commitment and determination to support Dundalk Institute of Technology on its journey and to work with the Deputy and other Oireachtas colleagues in Louth to make this happen. As a Border region, the area has great potential. We see that already but there is an opportunity to go much further and to harness that potential. I encourage everybody in the institute of technology to work on this matter, knowing that they have our full support on this strategic direction.

I wish to raise the issue of Dundalk Institute of Technology's ambition to become a technological university. There is no doubt that the technological university project is transforming higher education across the State. With the recent announcements of the Technological University of the Shannon, the technological university for the south east and the Atlantic technological university, the national jigsaw the Minister has described is almost complete. I will mention again that the missing piece of the jigsaw is the north east. As the Minister knows, the sole provider of higher education in the north east is Dundalk Institute of Technology. There are more than 6,000 students and more than 500 staff members in the institute. Some 80% of the students who have attended it are part of the first generation of their families to attend third level education. It creates many thousands of jobs in the north east, attracts lots of multinational companies and helps SMEs to get the qualified people they need. Dundalk Institute of Technology is the life and soul of the north east. Only four years ago, the institute of technology was a leading force in the technological university project. The north east badly needs to be part of this exciting project. The area cannot be left behind. Will the Minister reassure me that Dundalk Institute of Technology is part of the technological university project?

I give the Deputy that absolute assurance but, in all honesty, this Oireachtas has not given me any legal powers to create a technological university or to compel an institute of technology to become a technological university without somebody applying for that to happen, that body being an autonomous higher education institution. However, I am delighted that Dundalk Institute of Technology has indicated in both its strategic plan and its engagement with the Higher Education Authority that it now has a clear intent to grasp the opportunity provided by the Technological Universities Act to further advance its contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of the north east. To this end, all stakeholders in the institute of technology support the governing body's ambition to become a significant campus of a multi-campus regional technological university as soon as possible.

The HEA, my Department and I are supportive of these ambitions. In this regard, we have funded a special expert adviser to assist Dundalk Institute of Technology in its endeavours. I am also delighted to say that it has made significant progress in achieving its ambitions, including through the establishment of a Dundalk Institute of Technology technological university, TU, project group, a TU project steering group of the governing authority and a technological university transformation fund operational project group. It has also secured funding of €2 million from the HEA to assist it in this regard. We are fully committed to working with the institute on this matter.

As I have told the Minister, Dundalk Institute of Technology is an integral part of the north east. It was established in 1971 and has 6,000 students and 500 staff, as I mentioned. The institute now needs to be part of the TU project. The Minister said there was a problem. If there is a problem, I would appreciate it if he and the Department would sort it out because, at the end of the day, the people who are losing out are the students, their parents and the prospective students. I really urge the Minister to get involved. As I said, the institute was at the top of the list four years ago but, all of a sudden, it is not on the list at all. There are three grades. The institute seems to be at the bottom, in the third grade. I plead with the Minister. We are in a Border area in the north east. It is a big thing that 80% of the students attending the college are the first generation of their family to do so. This means that people who do not normally get an opportunity to attend college are getting an opportunity. I appeal to the Minister to come down and talk to those in Dundalk Institute of Technology. I know he has put projects and so on in place but we need his help to get into a TU.

The Deputy will have my help. He asked me what the problem is. The problem is that the institute has not applied. The truth of the matter is that it did not apply when all of the other institutes did, for whatever reason. That was the institute's choice. I am really pleased that people right across the institution, including staff, students, the governing authority and management, now want to be part of this agenda. I welcome that. I also welcome the Deputy's personal commitment and the cross-party commitment that I believe exists in Louth on this matter. We had a very good meeting of Oireachtas Members and I would be delighted to have another. I would be delighted to come to Dundalk to meet staff, students and representatives of Dundalk Institute of Technology. I emphasise that but I am involved. We have provided funding and an expert adviser but everyone needs to be involved to make this happen. No one will be happier than me - with the possible exception of the Deputy but I will be right there with him - if and when an application comes in from Dundalk Institute of Technology. However, there is a body of work to be done. We have provided the funding and the expert adviser. I will provide the political leadership, along with other Oireachtas Members. We will work closely with the institution. The north east will not be left behind. I acknowledge the great and positive role the institute plays in the region.