Major setback for plan to create Munster technological university

International panel raises concerns over financial viability of application

Cork Institute of Technology: it is  understood to be refusing to take on the Kerry-based institute’s debts if it merges.  Photograph: Higher Education Authority

Cork Institute of Technology: it is understood to be refusing to take on the Kerry-based institute’s debts if it merges. Photograph: Higher Education Authority

 

Plans to create a new technological university for the Munster area have suffered a major setback after an international panel raised concerns over the financial viability of the application.

The planned merger of Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and IT Tralee into a new Munster technological university would have created one of the country’s largest third-level institutions with more than 18,000 learners.

The international panel’s report is due to be considered by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) this week, which will issue a formal recommendation to the Government on whether to create a new university.

Sources familiar with the panel’s report, however, say the merger is highly unlikely to proceed due mainly to financial uncertainty over the application.

If the panel’s report was more positive, it is likely the new university would have been announced within weeks.

There has been growing concern and uncertainty over the full scale of financial problems facing the Tralee-based institute.

Debts

CIT’s governing body was told recently that the debts were in the region of €10 million but, in a worst-case scenario, could rise to €21 million, according to sources.

CIT is understood to be refusing to take on the Kerry-based institute’s debts if it merges.

IT Tralee is understood to have sought a multi-million euro bailout from the Department of Education, though no such money has been forthcoming.

Sources say that, politically, the prospect of taxpayers’ funding being used to plug funding holes is very difficult given huge cost over-runs in the national children’s hospital and elsewhere.

The Department of Education declined to comment on the international panel’s report, but said it understood it had been received by the HEA.

“The next step is that the HEA reviews the report and makes a recommendation to the Minister for Education and Skills,” a spokesman said.

“Once the recommendation is received the Minister for Education and Skills exercises a statutory decision-making role. While this process is under way it would not be appropriate to comment.”

The HEA has also declined to comment on the panel report.

There has also been tension between the two institutions over the share of senior management posts in the event of a merger.

CIT, which would make up 80 per cent of the planned Munster technological university, wants up to 80 per cent of senior roles.

However, IT Tralee, which would make up about 20 per cent of the merged institution, believes a signed agreement dating from 2014 entitles it to half of senior management and academic roles.

The Irish Times has previously reported that internal HEA records show “serious concern over the protracted funding crisis” at IT Tralee as well as alarm over the quality of information released by the institute over the scale of the problems.

Cashflow difficulties

An unpublished report commissioned from consultants Deloitte is understood to have found that the institute is overstaffed, facing significant cashflow difficulties.

The institution is understood to have been running operational deficits of between €1-€2 million over recent years, while it faces a bill of between €3 million and €4 million for the new Kerry Sports Academy building, opened recently.

The institute’s funding difficulties are also partly linked to a sharp decline in full-time student numbers, which fell by more than 15 per cent between 2014/15 and 2017/18.

IT Tralee has told education authorities that it plans to generate a surplus by 2022, though there are doubts at senior levels over whether these plans are realistic.

This is because they are based on student numbers rising by more than 20 per cent within a five-year period.

However, third-level student numbers nationally are projected to rise by just 7 per cent in the same period, according to sources. Census figures for the Kerry area show a slight decrease in the college-going population over this timeframe.