Dermot Keyes (DK): Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made an unexpected comment, I suspect, at the WIT Arena on March 9th when he publicly stated his disappointment with the likelihood that the WIT/IT Carlow bid for Technological University (TU) status will not be the first applicant past the post in this process, and that the Dublin franchise is set to be first home. What did you make of those comments, Richard?
Richard Hayes (RH): “Well it was certainly an interesting comment. Did I find it interesting? Yes. Did I think it was maybe slightly out of context? Again, I’d have to say yes because DIT has been operating in a completely different legislative space for a very long time so their starting point was completely different from where we were starting from when it came to this whole process. If you took the Dublin consortium out of it, and said, well of the other three consortia, where are we, I’d say they are all moreorless in the same position. And the other thing to say on all of this, as (WIT) President Willie Donnelly put it, this TU application process isn’t a race. You want to get this thing done right because this is all about quality. It’s about delivering for the region and delivering for students. It isn’t about being first over the line.”
DK: There was a period when formal discussions between WIT and IT Carlow ground to a halt. While I accept what both you and Professor Donnelly have said about this application process not being a race, in hindsight is there a sense that there was some momentum lost in the process given that hiatus?
RH: “In the greater scheme of things, that was a fairly brief stoppage – less than a year. Michael Kelly (the former Chair of the Higher Education Authority) came in and he re-engaged both organisations so it was a relatively brief period. Those were rocky times in that we at WIT had had a change of Governing Body, a change of President so there were a lot of things happening in and around that time.”
DK: But is it a source of regret that there was a break at all or, given the fact that we’re talking about months here as opposed to years between talks, did it really make too much of a difference in the context of where the application is currently?
RH: “Momentum was certainly stalled but no more than that. No more than that.”
DK: So where would you say things are at now between the two IoTs in terms of driving this process forward?
RH: “I’ll give you a very specific instance of where the good relations between both colleges are at the moment. We put out a call for proposals for joint projects. Ourselves and Carlow went out to the staff community in both organisations and said we were looking for people to work on joint projects together. We thought we might get about 10 back and we’ll support them. We got 40 back. So I think, amongst the staff on the ground who, needless to say have always been working together closely on all sorts of things, there’s enthusiasm and there’s drive.”
DK: But how difficult will it be to create a palpable level of cohesion and commonality between the two main campuses in Waterford and Carlow if and when they become a joint entity given that a 100-mile round trip separates both? I presume faculties will not be divided between both?
RH: “There won’t be any splitting like that, no.”
DK: So how, do you think, this wider academic footprint will bed itself in?
RH: “The workings out of all of the aspects of a merger typically takes quite a long time to work itself out. There are all sorts of issues to deal with, such as the provision of courses in both places, staff contracts and all of that other level of detail that has to be addressed so all of that is something that’s likely to take a very long time to work out.”
DK: And there have also been some highly publicised issues and concerns raised by TUI staff both here in Waterford and in Carlow. Where does that stand now – are things are fraught as they were?
RH: “No, not at all. My understanding, at least, is the only issue there related to a national withdrawal of the TUI from the TU discussions pending clarification of certain matters – they’ve since got that clarification and now they’re back in the room. And that was obviously a welcome move from our perspective. We’re engaging with our staff on all of this at all stages.”
DK: Are we looking then, in all likelihood if this gets the go-ahead – and hopefully it will – that we’re ideally looking at the Technological University of the South East flag flying high come September 2019?
RH: “The timeframe we’re working to is, and that has been established for us by the Steering Group that has been in existence now for a good few months is to have an application ready to go this year, 2018, this calendar. That’s the timeframe, give or take a little bit. That’s as far as we can take it in terms of the Institute when it comes to preparing the application. How long it takes the Government and the Higher Education Authority to process that application, to move it on to the next stage and get it reviewed and all that, well that’s up to them. You’re not talking about a two-week turnaround or anything like that. Typically, processes like this can take up to several months – eight or nine months – that wouldn’t be unusual in these kinds of projects. So will we be registering students in a university in Waterford in the very near future? Yes. When will that be? In a sense that depends on us meeting our deadline and the Government responding rapidly to the application. I got the sense (on March 9th) from the Taoiseach and (Higher Education) Minister Mitchell O’Connor that they want to move things on pretty quickly so you wouldn’t anticipate huge delays. But I don’t think we’d like to say that we’re definitely going to have a student in the door on September 1st on such and such a date because there are so many things that need to be sorted out between now and then.”
DK: Money is a huge consideration in all of this, and I suspect that there are matters both WIT and IT Carlow would like to address in due course as a TU, but again that’s only something which can be dealt with if the requisite budget is provided by Government?
RH: “The way I’d frame it is to say that, certainly as far as WIT is concerned and I don’t think there’s any dispute with IT Carlow on this one at all, is that our vision is for a TU of real significance, a university of real significance and we’re looking at, as we declared in our own Strategic Plan, which you kindly covered in the paper already, we want to be in the top 100 Young Universities by 2030. It’s a very ambitious plan, it will require serious commitment to get to that level. And what we’re talking about here is to get to the level of (NUI) Maynooth, which is in the top 100 already, along with UL, DCU, DIT, these are all there or thereabouts when it comes to the top 100. So we’re saying that’s where we want to be, as a TU in the near future, and clearly that will require investment to get to that. But that’s what the region wants: an organisation of real size, scale and breadth.”