Long-awaited plans for a university in the southeast have taken a fresh blow with the decision by Waterford Institute of Technology to pull out of negotiations on a bid for technological-university status.
Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan has called the senior management of Waterford IT to a meeting at her department this morning to explain its surprise decision.
In a short statement, Waterford IT said its governing body had chosen to "suspend all activities" related to its planned merger with IT Carlow in what would have been a necessary step to achieve designation as a technological university under forthcoming legislation.
While the institute wouldn’t discuss its reasons in advance of the meeting with the Minister today, it is understood that Waterford IT believed the merger would hinder rather than help its bid for university status and delay the process for several years.
Mary Roche, an Independent councillor and member of Waterford IT's governing body, said the issue had been "bubbling away" for some time, and there had been "a lot of unhappiness" in Waterford about the proposed merger.
‘Close to reaching criteria’
Speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the governing body, Ms Roche said: “The problem is that Waterford IT is very close to reaching [the Government’s] criteria. If we merge with Carlow, which is the only merger open to us, we’re much, much further away from those criteria and wouldn’t be able to apply for technological-university status in the foreseeable future. There’s no appetite for that. We’ve been pushing for it for so long . . . We’ve put 20 years of effort into this push, and people are worn out with it.”
She said that Waterford people believed their local college should be “allowed go it alone” when it came to seeking university status.
IT Carlow reacted with dismay to the announcement, having last week welcomed what it called an "historic" partnership agreement with Waterford IT. The president of IT Carlow, Dr Patricia Mulcahy, said it only became aware of Waterford's move on Tuesday night, via email.
“We’re in a little bit of a vacuum,” she said. “Their decision to suspend the negotiations has surprised us and really disappointed us.”
She described Waterford IT’s suspension of talks as “very extreme”, particularly as it came just a week after the memorandum of agreement was signed by the two colleges and just days after the Minister called on the two colleges to “refocus their efforts” on submitting a joint business plan by the end of the year.
“Despite our surprise and disappointment,” Dr Mulcahy said, “this college remains committed to the process.”
Officials from the Higher Education Authority, which is charged with overseeing the designation of technological universities, will also attend today's meeting. In attendance for Waterford IT will be deputy chairman Jack Walsh, a Labour party councillor, and president Dr Ruaidhrí Neavyn.