South-east needs a University of Waterford

 

There is a compelling case for establishing a new university in Waterford, writes Dr Edward M. Walsh

Communications and a vibrant university city are now the two key drivers of regional development.

While the south-east region is progressing, in relative terms it is being left behind by other regions better equipped to compete in the knowledge economy.

The south-east region is faced with a major challenge and without intervention the gap can be expected to grow. It has failed to attract its share of advanced knowledge-age enterprise during the past decades and the advanced skills of the existing workforce in Waterford are the lowest of all the gateway cities. As a result, the disposable income per capita in the south-east lags behind the other regions. Because the region has already a particularly low level of participation in higher education, future prospects will start to brighten only when the advanced skills deficit is addressed.

Labour-intensive enterprise is moving abroad, because Ireland can no longer compete with labour costs at €5 an hour in many of the new EU states. This migration of jobs is well under way: for every new sophisticated job the IDA has managed to add during the past several years, Ireland has lost a labour-intensive one to a low-cost country. Regions that cannot compete at the sophisticated end of the market will struggle to replace labour-intensive jobs. Waterford and the south-east region are especially vulnerable because, next to the BMW region, it has the most labour-intensive and low "gross value-added" jobs in Ireland.

The work of people such as Michael Porter of Harvard and Tom Bentley of Demos highlights the importance of vibrant urban clusters of scale, with universities at their core, as the driving force for regional development in the knowledge economy.

Cities, or urban clusters, without a strong university and research presence are placed at a major disadvantage in attracting and growing sophisticated knowledge-driven enterprise.

While the south-east has two institutes of technology of which it can be proud, and the Waterford Institute of Technology has forged ahead to distinguish itself and win national and international recognition, Waterford and its region are at a disadvantage when competing with the other gateway cities, all of which have both an institute of technology and a university. Emerging investment and development trends will exacerbate an already difficult regional situation.

The recent OECD review of higher education in Ireland draws a distinction between the roles of the institutes of technology and the universities. While it recommends a doubling of Ireland's doctoral output, it also recommends "that degree-awarding power for doctoral awards be concentrated in universities and that, except in the case of DIT, where such powers have been granted to institutes of technology by HETAC, they should be rescinded."

The concern that stimulated this recommendation is readily understood. Many of the institutes of technology aspire to become universities and there is a succession of international examples that demonstrate that this aspiration makes little sense from a national perspective.

The roles and missions of the institutes of technology and the universities should be different: academic drift over the past years has made the mission of the institutes more ambiguous than it should be. National development needs make it important that the intended distinction be restored so that universities and institutes pursue complementary missions to levels of international excellence.

The case for a university in Waterford is readily made in terms of regional and balanced national development. Waterford is a national anomaly: it is the only gateway city without both a university and an institute of technology and the census data highlight that the potential of the region is not being developed as it might.

The university case was made by Limerick and the mid-west many years ago and the regional transformation and national benefits resulting from the creation of both the University of Limerick and the Limerick Institute of Technology are readily evident. Waterford and the south-east now remain as the only region in Ireland where demographic and economic data so clearly justify the case for the creation of a new university: Ireland's eighth (and final one for the foreseeable future).

The challenge for the State in establishing a university in Waterford should not be significant, either in financial or organisational terms. The State has already invested in buildings and infrastructure to support a 6,000-student campus at the WIT and a new 150-acre campus has been acquired. Over 80 per cent of the 6,000 students are already enrolled in pass or honours bachelor's degree or postgraduate programmes. Research activity to doctorate level is under way.

So an academic nucleus already exists, about which a University of Waterford could readily emerge, with some 6,000 degree and postgraduate places at the outset. Because so much is in place already in Waterford, the additional capital and recurrent costs would be marginal.

Care must be taken to ensure that the vital apprenticeship and sub-degree work currently undertaken by WIT is well catered for in the south-east. There are a number of creative alternatives that might be considered following the establishment of the University of Waterford. In particular, Wexford has much potential and Carlow Institute of Technology, which has a presence there, could provide the framework, at least initially, for the launch of a new initiative and the creation of some additional 1,500 student places there.

Kilkenny, a city of distinguished charm and potential, would be a remarkably fine location for a new university campus. Clearly, however, Waterford is the major regional city and the strong nucleus of a new university already exists there. The region should build on this. In time, however, there could be good reason for the new university to establish a satellite campus in Kilkenny, where programmes particularly appropriate to the city could be undertaken.

  • Dr Edward M. Walsh is president emeritus of the University of Limerick