The Phoenix opinion column has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years
MAY the force be with us? This column started in print after the report (organised by Waterford Chamber of Commerce) from UCD’s Dr Michael Bannon, which 37 years ago proposed a Technological University for Waterford. It’s taken a while. I could never understand what the big deal was to providing a university in Waterford.
It was an obviously good idea, for the city, region and country, but the opposition has been deep, often bitter and deeply entrenched, even as existing universities have grown bloated with courses and student numbers. Enough seems never enough for them.
It’s as if any development in Waterford had to be denied (as with our hospital services) as it was implicitly believed in political, academic and medical circles that Waterford would grow out of control.
‘It is extraordinary to cast one’s eyes westwards and see the haste with which matters proceed in Galway’
It’s nonsense to believe that we pose some massive threat to the status quo if we are given some headway. Yet that is the only conclusion. Anyway, what’s a decade or four or 10 between friends as we remind ourselves of the campaign in 1939, 1946 and 1985, and many times in between when Waterford sought a designation that would have been provided in any other western European country?
The majority of people, including WIT staff and this writer, are happy about the designation as it combines for the first time the words Waterford city and university. Others see it as yet another attempt to contain and degrade Waterford ambition. Perhaps it’s a case of being careful what you wish for.
No one knows what the Technological University sector will really be other than it is separate from the “university” sector and has campuses in every county town across the land. What these small campuses will be doing (the bet is on low level courses) and who will attend them, is anyone’s guess. Most people in Waterford, when they thought about a university for Ireland’s oldest city, thought about something like UL, DCU or NUIG. The latter recently changed its name from NUIG, for fear people might not know it was a university in Galway, to (wait for it) University of Galway. It’s a little bit hard to rationalise the situation where the name Waterford was removed from WIT buildings last week and replaced with signs saying SETU.
Name and place recognition must be important. Why else have Oxford, TCD or Bologna universities stuck with their names after centuries of existence. It is quite extraordinary that the retired president of UL Dr Edward Walsh, presumably speaking as an objective educator, said last week in the Irish Times, that despite the SETU designation, the south east will still need a University of Waterford if it is to compete. He has no skin in the Waterford game and can hardly be dismissed as a crank. He perhaps recognises the limitations and indeed the national injustice of the TU designation for Waterford.
In the pull and tug around the process started by Waterford many years ago, the solution chosen by the Dept. of Further Education and the Higher Education Authority may cause more issues than the problem itself. WIT has carved a successful niche for itself in Irish education. That will continue and develop if it is properly funded. WIT has existed for the past decade on gruel as funding for physical expansion, new courses and extra students was stopped, halted and ended for really opaque political and academic reasons. How many ways do you need to be told that government and the HEA deliberately held WIT and Waterford back?
There was clear local disappointment last week that Minister Simon Harris came to Waterford again with his hands hanging. 15 months after Tánaiste Varadkar, the one who loves us, hinted that the Waterford Crystal site (the ugliest, derelict, ruined building site in the city) would be bought to extend the footprint of WIT/SETU. WIT has apparently been jumping through hoops on business plans, viability, demographic, value for money, procurement policies and the devil knows what else as the process to acquire a relatively small piece of land is dragged through the mud.
It is extraordinary to cast one’s eyes westwards and see the haste with which matters proceed in Galway. In February of this year on a visit to GMIT, Minister Simon Harris announced the acquisition of Crowley Park, the home of Galwegians RFC for €8.95 million, €6.45 million of which was put forward by the Higher Education Authority. The 9.75 acre site is located adjacent to GMIT’s Galway campus. The purchase was ahead of the formal launch of the new Atlantic Technological University on April 1. In comparison, the HEA has been at the centre of every destructive move over the past two decades to retard development in Waterford. Its former head Tom Boland is regarded with little short of loathing by many people in this city.
The current rumour is that purchase of the Crystal site is being processed in lock step with the acquisition of a site for SETU in Wexford. To satisfy politics and Mr Harris’s barely concealed ambition for leadership of Fine Gael, which would be helped by the party attaining extra Dáil seats in Wexford and Carlow/Kilkenny, no WIT/SETU development will proceed until a Wexford site is purchased and has planning application.
The proposed new engineering building for WIT/SETU has been on the go for years. A fenced off site on the Cork Road campus is forlorn since 2011 when the building contract was cancelled at the last minute. In 2019, its development was pushed into the second phase of a PPP scheme by then FG Minister for Education Joe McHugh (who resigned as TD last week), while projects in Dublin and Cork went ahead. The existential fear in WIT/SETU now is that cost inflation in materials, wages and other inputs allied to stagnant government procurement policies will derail the project entirely. No one can say when, if ever, this much needed new building will commence. A delivery date is now beyond conjecture.
SETU has changed the goal posts but its success in Waterford depends on long promised “ring fenced” funding. If “show us the money” is our catch cry, there is very little sign of it thus far! The struggle for equality goes on.