IBEC regional president for the South-East, Paul Nolan, has attacked reports suggesting the region is to be denied a university for fear of weakening the Institute of Technology sector.
Waterford Institute of Technology applied for university designation two years ago this month and an independent review carried out for the Government by educationalist Dr Jim Port has been with the Department of Education & Science since last summer.
Weekend newspaper reports quoting the Minister for Education & Science indicated that Dr Port’s report accepted the southeast region’s case for a university but warns of potentially negative impacts on the Institute of Technology sector if it loses Waterford under re-designation as University of the South East.
IBEC is the principal Irish business lobbying organisation.
Responding to the newspaper reports, Paul Nolan has said it is absurd that the 460,000+ people living in the southeast should be denied a university for fear of damaging colleges in other regions.
“It is evident from the selective leaking of Dr Port's report that we saw in Saturday’s Irish Times that the strong argument for the southeast region having a regional university and the earned academic reputation of the Waterford Institute have been acknowledged and accepted by Dr Port.
“Arguments that the Institute sector may be damaged simply don’t hold up. There are internationally established approaches to resolving that issue and all of the other issues around it.
“With our construction, agricultural and manufacturing employment base being eroded and unemployment above the national average, the southeast simply has to have a university as a magnet for inward investment and - perhaps more importantly - a hothouse for greater entrepreneurship as we look to build up indigenous business that can only be sustained where research, development and innovation are nurtured and where there is extensive fourth level provision.
“The South-East region needs a change agent; the university is that change agent - we will accept nothing less. There can be no further delay in this matter and continued prevarication is not an option. The business community will not rest until a positive decision is taken.
“Report after report and economic indicator after economic indicator have shown that we are underperforming as a region. If this is not to continue then the university will be the single most powerful weapon in our armoury. Without it, the southeast will become a greater burden on the Exchequer at a time of straitened economic circumstances. Inaction on this will be far more costly than a courageous move to allow the southeast compete internationally.”
In a culture where politicians get no kudos for concern for public spending value, while most politicians perceive an entitlement to grab as much as they can from the system, IBEC's regional unit put no cost on the proposal it supports.
Dr Edward Walsh, President Emeritus of the University of Limerick, said in 2005 that the South-East remains "one of the most deprived regions in the country" without a university.
"If you don't have a city with a university at its heart, you are at a disadvantage," Dr Walsh told delegates at a conference on regional development in Waterford yesterday.
Dr Walsh put forward a formula for the restructuring of Waterford Institute of Technology to develop it into a University of Waterford and the South East.
This would involve freeing up space for the city campus to concentrate on degree and postgraduate programmes by moving all apprenticeship and sub-degree courses to centres in Wexford or Carlow Institute of Technology.
"An academic nucleus already exists about which a University of Waterford could readily emerge, with 6,000 degree and postgraduate places at the outset," Dr Walsh suggested.
The campaign for a university in the South East has been driven by WIT and Waterford City Council, but Dr Walsh said a new approach is needed.
"It's a non-starter to think WIT can go through an international and legal assessment process to be classified as a university it isn't," Dr Walsh said.
"WIT has led the way in terms of institutes of technology ... it's a matter of moving onwards and building on its success."
A new campus for research and development at Carriganore in Co Waterford has been launched.
"At a marginal cost this could be done; people need to be generous and collaborate and this package would be acceptable to government," he said.
Local minister Martin Cullen agreed the lack of a university in the South East was "a glaring deficit" for the region.
In a country where local politics rules, Cullen's position is hardly a surprise.
"It is my strongly held belief that a university is vital if the city and the region are to fully exploit their economic and social potential," Cullen said.