Anyone availing of the ‘Ireland has enough universities’ line is making a facile, ill-informed argument, according to the Friends of the University of the South East (FUSE).

In a comprehensive letter to the National Strategy for Higher Education, FUSE’s Dr Mark Rowe makes plain the case for Waterford Institute of Technology’s (WIT) upgrade to university status.

He was writing in response to the notice issued by the Department of Education in several national newspapers on May 15th which sought submissions on the development of a new vision for higher education.

Dr Rowe said any arguments about the current number of universities in the Republic being sufficient to our needs “is not borne out internationally”.

He added: “Finland, a world leader in higher education, with a population of 5.2 million against the Republic’s 4.2 million has 20 universities compared to our seven.”

Dr Rowe continued: “With the Higher Education Authority reporting that over 7,000 full-time students from Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford had to leave the region in the 2006-07 academic year to receive a university education, the ‘brain drain’ must not be allowed to continue.

“The case for the University of the South East has been many years in the making, it is socially and economically sound, it is necessary to ensure balanced social and economic development in Ireland and – above all – it is just and equitable.”

The case for the USE didn’t seem to enamour Tánaiste Mary Coughlan all that much during her recent visit to Waterford.

When asked about WIT’s bona fides, Minister Coughlan scored a major own-goal locally, stating that she “didn’t necessarily agree” with those recommending University status for Waterford, before making a case for a University in Letterkenny!

Referencing the benefits that the University of Limerick had brought to the mid-west, Dr Rowe said there was nothing in his mind which suggested that WIT’s upgrade wouldn’t bring similar benefits to the south east.

“The innovative way in which (UL) was delivered and developed with a mix of public and private sector support provides a roadmap for how a higher education institution of similar calibre can be provided in the south east with its comparable population,” he added.

Citing Dr Jim Port’s positive recommendation for WIT in his Government-commissioned report, Dr Rowe wrote that the long-sought upgrade would help address many of the region’s unmet needs.

If this dream is realised, the USE will permit future generations to “enjoy the equity of opportunity that motivated the late Donogh O’Malley to radically open out educational participation” over 40 years ago.

WIT’s application was sound, he contended. It “is not based on self-assessment or vanity but rather arises from legitimate appetite to address discrimination”.

Wrote Dr Rowe: “Strong regions…require strong universities that support not only regional but also national priorities.

“In the southeast, communities as diverse as business and industry; sport and hospitality; the trade union movement and public representatives are as one in recognising the region’s deficiencies and the huge catalytic impact that the University of the South East can have.”