Tense times in Tipperary as institute battles for survival

 

More than €100 million as been spent on Tipperary Institute in the past decade. The McCarthy report says the college should be closed and its property sold off. Locals are outraged. They have a powerful ally in Tipperary TD Michael Lowry. But not everyone is convinced, writes GRÁINNE FALLER

LOCAL HOPES were high for Tipperary Institute (TI) when it opened in 1999, but the reception from some quarters in the educational establishment was lukewarm at best.

“There were certainly elements within the Department of Education who never wanted to see Tipperary Institute opened,” says one source. “They were always looking to close it at the earliest opportunity.”

Not only was the institute expected – eventually – to deliver third-level courses to 1,000 full-time students, but it would also be a major player in the development of its rural hinterland. It would dedicate 40 per cent of its time and resources to providing practical support for businesses and taking an active role in community and enterprise development.

Now, 10 years on, Colm McCarthy’s Bord Snip review has deemed that the case for the continued existence of the institute is “weak”. The report states that TI is located near both Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology. It also questions the institute’s high complement of 100 staff compared with 338 full-time students in 2008. It recommends the closure of the TI, the redistribution of students to neighbouring institutes and that the campus “be disposed of for the benefit of the Exchequer”.

Predictably, these recommendations were greeted with outrage in Tipperary, and McCarthy’s figures were challenged. For example, while it’s true that TI had only 338 full-time students last year, that number rises to a full-time equivalent of 445 when its 331 part-timers are taken into account.

The staff figure was also disputed. A departmental allocation of 108.5 full-time staff to cater for 338 students is enormous, and the figure is still high even for the full-time equivalent of 445. But supporters of the institute argue that, given a full 40 per cent of its remit involves business development and community outreach, just 53 of the 108 staff are in academic roles.

Despite this wrangling, the fact remains that, in 1998, the ambition for TI’s academic arm was to have 500 full-time students through its doors by the end of phase one of development. That would double to 1,000 by the time it had reached maximum capacity. While there was no timeline attached to these aims, it can be argued that the State could reasonably expect more progress for its investment, even allowing for the other duties of the college.

Critics also point to the money. TI has received approximately €10.5 million per annum from the Exchequer in recent years, making the cost of a student in TI extremely high. In 2008, the cost of academic departments, academic support services and student facilities alone came to more than €8.3 million – or about €18,000 for each of the institute’s 445 full-time equivalent students.

With the average cost of an Irish third-level education clocking in at about €11,000 a year, €18,000 is unfeasibly high. Sources within the institute point to its current growth rates, which indicate that by 2010, the cost per student will have fallen to the more acceptable €11,000 a year per student – if projections are correct.

Comparisons are, inevitably, somewhat unfair and inaccurate because TI is on its own. There are no other institutes like it. It was established as a private company and is a member of neither the Higher Education Authority nor the Institutes of Technology of Ireland, although its funding and staffing allocation come directly from the Department of Education.

The McCarthy report suggested – frankly – that Tipperary doesn’t need an educational institute. “More students from Thurles go to Limerick than go to Tipperary Institute,” said one commentator. “The area is already reasonably well catered for by the institutes of technology in Carlow, Waterford.”

No matter what side of the argument wins out, closure is certainly not imminent as, for the moment, Tipperary Institute has a powerful ally in the form of Michael Lowry, independent TD for North Tipperary. Lowry has called the issue his “political priority” and said that any effort to close or amalgamate the college would have “severe political consequences” for the Government.

Lowry does admit to significant problems within the organisation. “It is true that the institute has not realised its initial potential. I have met with the board, the unions and the staff in the institute, and everyone acknowledges that there needs to be a restructuring.” An internal review to examine structures, staffing, expenditure and value for money is currently underway.

Lowry and others point to leadership issues at the heart of the institute’s problems. Indeed, a new board chaired by Thurles businessman Liam Carroll appears to have made something of a difference, and the TI has experienced significant growth since 2007, when the board came into being.

This year, the board failed to renew CEO Padraig Culbert’s contract. Culbert, who has been critical of the McCarthy recommendations, is challenging this decision in the courts, but has stepped down as chief executive until the matter is resolved.

It is unfortunate for TI that these issues have arisen now. In 2008 the institute introduced a new suite of programmes, including a Microsoft-sponsored degree in computer game design and development, and a master’s in business management practice. As a result, first-preference figures from the CAO received a boost of 68 per cent. Student numbers are increasing, with 450 full-timers enrolled this year. Projections indicate that figure will be about 600 next year, bringing the full-time equivalent figure closer to the 1,000 mark and vastly improving the value for money per student.

Even the harshest critics concede that improvements have been made in the Tipperary Institute. But some remain unconvinced that they justify the continued existence of the college.

“It was an interesting idea,” says one observer. “But as to whether or not it has worked – well, the jury is still out on that.”

Should it stay or should it go? Clash of opinions over Tipperary Institute

The cons

- We can’t have a third-level institution in every county. Tipperary is already well served by institutes of technology in Carlow, Waterford and Limerick. Students could easily be accommodated in these institutions.

- The cost of running the academic departments and student services is too high for the number of students at the institute. A crude estimation for 2008 works out at €18,000 per student. The average cost of educating a third-level student in Ireland is €11,000, according to the HEA.

- The staff-student ratio is extraordinary. Even factoring in the large part-time student population, it still works out at about one staff member for every four students.

- An average of €10.5 million per annum has been spent on the institute in the past few years. Ireland can’t afford it.

- The institute has had 10 years to make the project work. The improvements being made amount to too little too late.

The pros

- Significant improvements have been made, and this predates the McCarthy report. Numbers are up and targets are finally about to be achieved.

- The figures in the McCarthy report failed to take the institute’s unique remit and large number of part-time students into account. TI claims that the figure of 53 academic staff to 445 students is more accurate.

- Mature students make up 38 per cent of TI’s student profile, while part-time student numbers have consistently exceeded 300 per annum. Many of these students couldn’t relocate to other colleges if the institute closed. Twenty per cent of students surveyed said they wouldn’t be in third level if the college wasn’t close by.

- First-year intake doubled last year, and that figure is up by a further 33 per cent this year. All of the growth in demand was for honours degree programmes.

- Over the past 10 years, the institute has worked on some 600 projects for 300 rural business and community clients.