THE CAMPAIGN by Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) for university status is gaining momentum, as the Cabinet prepares to consider an expert report on the issue commissioned by Minister for Education Mary Hanafin.
Those in favour of the move have marshalled an impressive list of advocates. A full page advertisement in this newspaper this week highlighted the strong support of senior business, academic, political and civic figures. But the Government is wary: both the Taoiseach and Ms Hanafin have insisted that Waterford's application must be considered in the context of what is best for the third-level sector as a whole.
The south-east has a strong case. It is the only major region without a university and the one with the lowest disposable income per capita. A university would act as a catalyst for growth and regeneration. It would boost the region from an economic, social and cultural perspective. And WIT itself has the academic range and the appropriate governance and strategic capability required for a university.
All of this is made clear in the expert report prepared for Ms Hanafin by Dr Jim Port. But his analysis is more subtle than the south-east campaign might have one believe. In a scrupulously balanced manner, Port also points to the possible negative consequences . He says a university for Waterford could trigger a range of applications from other institutes and undermine the jobs and careers focus of the institute of technology (IoT) sector. Since his report was published, Cork IT has become the third IoT (after WIT and Dublin IT) to seek university designation while some other institutes wish to be constituent partners in a new national technology university.
Port refers to the finding of the 2004 OECD report on the third-level sector which stated inter alia that the State had enough universities and argued for the preservation of the current university/IoT mix. This has served the State well with the jobs and technology focus of the institutes complementing the work of the universities.
The Cabinet must be congnisant of this issue in making its decision. The sub-higher degree courses and apprenticeship training provided by the IoTs are critical to economic development. But Waterford has a persuasive case that has been eloquently and convincingly advanced over an extended period. It deserves to be successful on its own merits. And it should be possible to ring fence a decision in its favour to ensure the role of the wider IoT sector is not compromised.