Fine Gael nationally has finally, officially, pledged to join in the fight for a university for Waterford. And its Education Spokesman Brian Hayes promised this week not to drop the cudgel until it is delivered.
While its’ local representatives have long been behind the campaign the party itself has been reluctant to commit itself. But that has now changed and amid fears that the government is going to refuse an upgrading of WIT when it responds to the Port Report, Mr. Hayes came to Waterford on Monday to confirm his support and that of his leader Enda Kenny.
He promised that Fine Gael would campaign vigorously on the issue in opposition and if unsuccessful would deliver on its commitment if returned to power at the next election. Meanwhile – again in the absence of their desired response from the current government – it would be made a prime issue in the local and European elections next year.
The hope among campaigners is that Fine Gael’s stance will help pressure the Coalition into saying yes.
Mr. Hayes said that although Waterford could not be dealt with in isolation in terms of education needs, it had a unique and special case for a university. “I’m calling on the government to respond positively to the Port Report and if it doesn’t I’m pledging to keep this matter on the agenda until there is delivery”, he told the local media.
He accused the government of neglecting Waterford and the region in terms of educational investment. “Having designated Waterford as a Gateway City it failed to follow up with education funding”, he said. “This is particularly stark when one considers that only 11.2 p.c. of adults in the south east have completed third level education to degree stage or higher, compared to 15.6 p.c. nationally and 21.3 p.c. in Dublin”.
Arguing that a university was vital for further economic development in the region, he said one of the first questions asked by prospective investors concerned the availability of top grade education. And while WIT had served its purpose outstandingly well, people from abroad who were thinking of coming here wanted university education for their children and those of their management personnel.
The Shadow Spokesman also wants DIT’s application for university status to be met. And in an overhaul of the higher education sector he also wants a review of the criteria required for university designation, a new “umbrella university” for the Institute of Technology sector and greater collaboration between Institutes of Technology and regional universities.
Present at the Waterford launch of the Fine Gael strategy were TDs John Deasy and Phil Hogan, Senators Maurice Cummins, Paudie Coffey and John Paul Phelan, Mayor Mary O’Halloran and her FG City Council colleagues Hilary Quinlan and Tom Cunningham.
The Mayor welcomed her party’s strategy and Senator Cummins drew attention to a petition with 3,000 signatures gathered by Waterford Young Fine Gael (of which his son John is chairman) at schools throughout the city and county.
Not all schools took part, however. Those which did are: De La Salle College, Our Lady of Mercy, St. Angela’s, Stella Maris, Tramore, Abbey Community College, Ferrybank, Blackwater CC and St. Augustine’s, Dungarvan.
Mary accuses Carlow
Meanwhile, Independent City Councillor Mary Roche, who has been particularly active in pursuit of university designation, claims there are “two elephants in the room” which are detrimental to the cause and being used “to hide the government’s blushes”.
She identifies them as the 2004 OECD Report into Third Level Education and the ambivalence of Carlow IT to WIT’s application. “These need to be taken out into the light and dealt with”, she stated.
She said the OECD report, which recommended no further transfers from the IT to the university sector, had been completely discredited in that it was completely at odds with every other report on third and fourth level education carried out by the OECD for any other country.
As for Carlow IT, she said its negative stance could only be explained by pettiness and territorial considerations. She added: “Every other Gateway City boasts both a university and an Institute of Technology operating in a complimentary way. This is how it should operate in the south east also”.
And the outspoken councilors went on: “Waterford’s designation as a university would open many opportunities for Carlow, but for local parochial reasons Carlow is prepared to see the region go without a university rather than see Waterford get it. This is the worst ‘lobsters in the pot’ syndrome that I have experienced for a long time. At the expense of the population of the entire region, Carlow would prefer to keep Waterford down and hold it back rather than see it succeed. It is wholly unacceptable and amounts to politicking of the worst imaginable sort which must not be allowed impinge on WIT’s fully justified application”.
Finally, she issued a reminder that the Taoiseach was on record as supporting the university cause and he should be held to that commitment.
Cllr. Roche was speaking at Monday night’s monthly meeting of the City Council, at which Standing Orders were suspended to discuss the university issue.
Cllr. Tom Cunningham said Fine Gael’s clear commitment to the university was good news for Waterford. His party was now obliged to deliver in government and that was something the public should bear in mind at the next election if the current Coalition didn’t show the courage in the meantime to make the right decision at Cabinet level.
His party colleague Cllr. Hilary Quinlan said that if the university boat sailed without Waterford on board it could be another 20 or 30 years before there was a chance to rectify the situation. So it was up to every local politician in the region to lobby TDs and Senators across the political divide. He hoped it wasn’t significant that some Fianna Fail representatives, from Carlow/Kilkenny in particular, had so far failed to nail their colours to the mast on the issue.
Cllr. Pat Hayes said the case in favour had been made ad nauseum – a university was the most vital infrastructural ingredient for the economic growth of the south east. He called on the Taoiseach to take charge of the matter and “get the job done”. And, while welcoming Fine Gael “on board”, he issued a reminder that Labour had the university included in its manifesto for the last two general elections.
All of the other councillors, including the Mayor, were also adamant that Waterford must get the university to which it was fully entitled.