Waterford and the idea of a university city


Waterford's application should not be stalled simply because others seek similar treatment

IRELAND CURRENTLY has seven universities, most of which owe their existence to royal charters. The question of whether we should have more universities and the criteria by which they should be so designated is thrown into sharp focus by Waterford Institute of Technology's application for university status. Its case will come before Cabinet again in the coming weeks.

Mary Hanafin and her ministerial colleagues will have to consider not just educational policy but also economic, regional and social policy. They will also have to factor in political considerations.

Waterford Institute of Technology applied for designation as a university in February 2006. Section 9 of the Universities Act 1997 sets out a statutory procedure for the creation of a new university that has not previously been used and is somewhat unclear. The Department of Education commissioned an English expert, Dr Jim Port, to undertake an independent preliminary review of the Waterford case in order, it was said, to better enable the Minister to provide guidance to the Government on whether the formal statutory review procedure should be initiated.

Dr Port's report was published last month. Essentially, at least on my reading, it supports Waterford's case. It points out that on the basis of student population and academic merit as assessed against standards used by, for example, the Association of Universities of Canada, Waterford would be worthy of university designation. The report has regard to the institute's management structure, strategic planning process, development plans, research and scholarly activity, its campus, estate and physical assets, the commitment to its role as a regional and local vocational and technological institution, and the engagement and quality of its governing body and governance processes - all the essential elements of a university.

It concludes: "Simply on the merits of its application, we would respect and support WIT's view that it has many of the features of a university and arguably should be a candidate for university status."

However, the difficulty Dr Port identifies with an immediate move to progress the Waterford application through the statutory process is that there are currently no criteria in Ireland to define a university.

The question of Waterford's status does not arise in isolation. Dublin's Institute of Technology has also applied for university status, although its application is less advanced. One can see some merit in the DIT becoming a university, particularly if designation came with the consolidation of its constituent colleges on a new campus in the Grangegorman area.

In recent weeks the heads of the other institutes of technology have suggested an umbrella technological university under which all might flourish. However, the Waterford application cannot be stalled simply because others seek similar treatment. Waterford's application is more advanced and has many elements which make its case stronger, particularly the regional aspect.

As a native of Wexford, I have some appreciation of the extent to which the south-eastern region feels deprived as the largest geographic area not serviced by a university. This is no mere knee-jerk regionalism. Campaigners for a Waterford university warn that the south-east is falling behind other regions on a number of economic and quality-of-life indicators.

Those living in Dublin, especially south Dublin, who are spoilt with university options on their doorsteps and where aspiration to university is well established, have little appreciation of the barriers, financial and otherwise, created by attending university away from home. Having a college where young people in the south-east can avail of third-level education without a change to their living circumstances would act as a beacon of further educational advancement in the region.