Last week was not a good week as far as WIT’s bid for university status is concerned. A row at Cabinet level, curious utterances mid-week and a Department leak at the weekend were more than enough to set the antennae twirling.
It’s not often that government Cabinet colleagues argue bitterly in public but that’s what happened when Social and Family Affairs Minister Martin Cullen and Education Minister Mary Hanafin had a bitter exchange during a meeting of the party’s TDs and Senators. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had left the meeting to attend to State business and Ms. Hanafin took the chair before the fireworks began.
Observers described the public spat between Ministers Cullen and Hanafin as extraordinary and one TD said he couldn’t remember the last time there had been such a public row between two Senior Cabinet Ministers. Martin Cullen was reported to be extremely annoyed and visibly upset at Ms. Hanafin’s negative attitude to the upgrading of WIT to university status.
It began when, fair play to them, New Ross based Wexford TD, Sean Connick, and South Kilkenny based Carlow Kilkenny TD, Bobby Aylward, put down a motion urging the government to grant university status to WIT pointing out that it was long overdue.
However, Ms. Hanafin told the meeting that the matter had been discussed at senior level within the government for several years. It wasn’t as ‘simple’ as granting university status, said Ms. Hanafin, because such a move would have implications for the existing universities all of which opposed the Waterford upgrade.
The Education Minister then went on to state that the absence of a university in the South East had not affected the number of students from the region receiving third level education nor had it affected employment in the region.
At that stage, Mr. Cullen angrily interjected to sharply tell the Minister she was ‘not correct’ in what she was saying and he went on to complain bitterly that the Department of Education had traditions dating back one-hundred years and had a vision for third level education in this country that it was determined would be heeded at the expense of everybody else.
This row, I think, gives a very good indication of what Martin Cullen is up against in trying to get university status for WIT. There can be no doubt as to his personal commitment and he has successfully pushed WIT forward at every opportunity, especially since he entered cabinet. Certainly the existing universities oppose an upgrade for Waterford because they don’t want to share students or funding. The bottom line is that the mandarins in the Department of Education are of the ‘old school tie’ brigade and are said to privately regard Waterford’s ambitions with some scorn.
If there were a strong-willed Minister in the Department who favoured WIT’s case then he/she, supported by Martin Cullen and Fianna Fail’s South East Oireachtas members, would have a good chance of achieving success. Unfortunately, Mary Hanafin is not that person. She is certainly strong-willed and highly competent and many would say that she is an excellent Minister for Education.
Unfortunately for Waterford and the South East, Mary Hanafin is who she is. She is a middle class woman who went through secondary school education before attending university in Dublin and I strongly suspect that, privately, she shares the ‘old school tie’ views of the aforementioned Department mandarins.
The South East is the only region in the country without a university and, of course, Martin Cullen and all the other politicians who are campaigning for university status for Waterford are correct in all that they say about the need for such a facility. But unless there is a like mind at the helm of education in this country, which at present there is not, I think we will be waiting for some time.
Reports last weekend suggested that the infamous Dr. Port report on WIT’s application, which has languished in the Department of Education for some time, will soon be published and that, contrary to expectations, it will not be favourable to our case. Apparently, it does say that university status for WIT would be a boost for the region but it is also believed to state that such a move would have a negative impact on all the other ITs and would have the potential to damage the higher education sector. Incidentally, wasn’t it very convenient for those against the WIT proposal that DIT came out recently and declared its intention to seek university status?
So, the scenario would appear somewhat bleak although a refusal might be softened if the government was to change the way universities and ITs are funded at present. The system is biased in favour of the universities and any improvement on that score would be welcome.
This writer has always believed that the most dangerous word in the English language is ‘expedient’, especially when it comes to politics. Right now the government does not need to grant university status to Waterford but if, for whatever reason the cabinet wanted it to be so, it would be amazing how, overnight, it would become ‘expedient’ to have WIT upgraded to university status. One day, it will happen but we will have to bide our time and make it happen.
Personally, I will never forget an incident I witnessed quite a few years ago on the day it was announced that Waterford RTC was being upgraded to WIT. On hearing the news, a young woman in an office I was visiting kicked a metal wastepaper bucket in pure temper several times, swearing and declaring loudly that such a move was devaluing her Dublin degree. In other words, as far as she was concerned, the only degrees that mattered were from the ‘old school tie’ universities and, never forget folks, there are more than a few of those people out there.