Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Ceisteanna (43)

James Browne


43. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the position regarding the establishment of a technological university for the south east; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47078/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

What is the position of the Minister for Education and Skills on the establishment of a technological university for the south east?

The establishment of technological universities, including one in the south east, is an important part of the Government's higher education policy.

Under the statutory framework detailed in the Technological Universities Act 2018, it is a matter, in the first instance, for the relevant institutes of technology participating in a technological university development consortium to progress their plans to seek technological university designation.

In this context, Waterford Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Carlow, which form the Technological University for South East Ireland consortium, TUSEI, are currently working towards submission of an application for technological university designation under the 2018 Act.

In addition to the 2018 Act, the Government has put in place a number of very important supports enabling the establishment of technological universities.

The technological university research network, TURN, established by my Department completed a report, which I launched recently, Technological Universities: Connectedness and Collaboration through Connectivity. That report details the case and requirements for a State change in higher education reform whereby technological universities will assist in the delivery of national strategic objectives for regional socioeconomic development, higher education access, research and skills progression.

The report makes recommendations for the strategic development of technological universities in a structured system-wide approach and identifies the need for investment in integrated multi-campus digital infrastructure.

In response Government announced in budget 2020 the provision of €90 million over the next three years under a new technological university transformation fund to support consortia such as TUSEI to achieve technological university designation and the further advancement of established technological universities. This is in addition to the €31 million in Exchequer funding invested in technological university development to date, of which the TUSEI project has received €3.72 million.

I thank the Minister of State. The whole concept of a technological university was - as I understand it - driven by the need for a university for the south east, which has none. It has now fallen significantly behind other regions that already have universities and that now see their applications for technological universities significantly advanced over the south east. This is causing a significant brain drain in the south east. We now have very high populations of younger and older people. Members of the in-between generation of qualified people who have third level degrees are not to be found in the south east. They are leaving to get their education and they are not coming back. More people leave the south east to get their third level education than are getting it in the region and this is having a very real impact on people. It is not just about convenience and costs - they have to travel further to get the education and it makes it more difficult to get that third level education - it also impacts attracting employment to the south east. Foreign direct investment and major international companies do not want to set up in regions where there is no university because their employees cannot get the necessary training with the accredited universities and they have to bring them there. This leads to lower job quality and a greater impact on socioeconomics. The region has the highest unemployment rate of any region and this is a direct link to the lack of a university but I am not hearing anything about driving on a university in the south east.

I am sorry that Deputy Browne is not hearing anything because I am hearing a lot. As the Deputy stated, the combined profile of the two south east institutes of technology is more than 15,000 students and some 2,000 staff. Progress has been made. I was very disappointed that the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, branch members of IT Carlow voted in June to reject the agreement reached with other TUI colleagues at the Workplace Relations Commission on the technological university of south east Ireland.

I am aware that it is in the nature of major changes, such as the technological university process, that industrial relations issues will arise.

I am hopeful that in the first instance Institute of Technology, Carlow and the TUI will work to resolve these issues through normal industrial relations processes. I did just tell the Deputy a few minutes ago that a substantial amount of money was launched, as it were, last week. A total of €90 million is absolutely ring-fenced for the development of technological universities. The Government has put money towards what we want to happen in the various consortia.

We need to see more leadership from the Government on this in terms of bringing together the institutes of technology and ensuring that a technological university for the south east is developed. It is a major region without a university and this is impacting dramatically. We have one of the worst socioeconomic areas in the country with persistently high unemployment and persistently high levels of low-quality jobs, which is reflected in the tax returns. A study on this was done in Waterford Institute of Technology with regard to the south east. Until we have a university in the south east, it will not be empowered to help itself alleviate its own socioeconomic problems. We need to see greater leadership in bringing on the university. It is five years since we heard how a campus in Wexford would be attached to the university. This still has not been provided. It has also fallen by the wayside. Land was supposed to be acquired for a campus for this university in Wexford but this still has not happened. We are very concerned in Wexford and in the south east. We have been hearing talk there about a university for a long time and it has fallen behind again.

The Deputy knows how difficult it is to ensure there is a strong budget behind what we hope to do. The huge amount of €90 million shows our intent and the Government's policy. We will continue to put money towards the development of technological universities. As Minister of State, I have visited Waterford at least four times and the same with Carlow. In the interim, they have also visited the Department and been with my most senior colleagues. We are waiting for the crucial piece where the TUI in Carlow votes to accept the agreement that was reached in the Workplace Relations Commission.

For the next question I ask Deputy Moynihan to forfeit his 30 second introduction. The Minister will give his reply and Deputy Moynihan will have one supplementary question.