St. Martha's College near Navan has been a home economics boarding college operated by an Order of nuns for a considerable number of years and has been providing very valuable education for successive generations of young girls in home economics, agriculture and associated subjects. Indeed, there has been a continuous demand for places in the college over the years.
Now the Order in question have announced that they do not intend to continue to operate the college and that, as far as they are concerned, it will be closed down at the end of the next academic year. This announcement has caused very serious concern not only in County Meath but in other parts of North Leinster where families had become accustomed to having the possibility of sending their daughters to this college. I believe that both the Departments of Agriculture and Education have an interest in having this type of education provided. The closure of a school like this—which would mean the availability of far less places than hitherto for this very valuable type of education, would be a very serious blow to the county at large; something on which the Government, whoever they may be should take action.
In reply to my Question No. 63 yesterday the Minister said, in a written reply, that he would not deal with the matter there and then because it came within the ambit of the newly set-up body, namely AnCOT, to which he intended in the near future to transfer whatever functions he had in relation to this type of agricultural education but that, as of now, there had been no transfer of function and that therefore this was something technically at least the responsibility of the Minister. Before transferring the functions in the way intended the Minister should make it clear to AnCOT that he wants them to keep St. Martha's College open. Unless the Minister makes that clear to them I am afraid that AnCOT, with all the other demands there will be on their limited finance, will not be able to do it. Quite clearly the purchase of St. Martha's College by the State, which is what is involved, will be a substantial capital investment. I am not aware that AnCOT will have the money, from their own resources, to make that type of investment; indeed I am almost certain they will not have such resources. Therefore it is inevitable that, one way or another—even if it is transferred to An-COT—the issue will come back to the Minister for decision because it is he only who will have sufficient money to enable AnCOT to purchase this college and to operate it in the manner in which it is being operated already. Therefore, it is important that the Minister makes his position clear now, to say clearly that he wants this college kept open. I am asking him to make such a statement in view of the proven need for such education.
Indeed it is possible that the role of the college could be extended to include agricultural education in the broader sense. We are all aware that approximately half only of all the farmers who commence farming in this country at present—approximately 1,500 people take up agriculture each year—have had previous education in agriculture before commencing the management of our most precious national resource, namely, land. At a time when it is being recognised that agriculture can prosper only with an educated, skilled work force, the prospect of a college that has been providing education closely related to agriculture closing down is something no one can entertain with equanimity.
I repeat my request to the Minister for Agriculture to give a clear direction to AnCOT to consider very favourably the acquisition of this college or the making of whatever other arrangements that can be made to ensure it continues in operation as an educational institution providing home economics and other educational facilities appropriate to our major industry, namely, agriculture.