Monday, 4 January 2016
Inaction on the University of the South East
Compared to the big noises made during the 2011 general election campaign, when both Fine Gael and Labour promised a University of the South East, there is only silence this time around. In 2011, they both also promised not to develop Fianna Fáil’s technological university proposal. In power they forgot both of these promises. The forces for and against a University of the South East have fallen quiet, but they are now clearly in view.
There continues to be a sustained campaign for a proper University of the South East. This decades old campaign has had plenty of false dawns, let downs and disappointments; but it is not going away. The sustained assault over the past five years has made the campaign more resolute. The inspiration of the Limerick University campaign is the road-map; as well as the recognition that there is no alternative to stop the South East’s economic and social decline. In 2011 both FG and Labour tacticians correctly understood these aspirations and formally incorporated it into their manifestos and political marketing campaigns.
This meant that over the past five years the opponents to the new university have had to become more visible to halt its creation. John Walshe's book, written about his time as an aide to Ruairí Quinn says that the Waterford university question was the most contentious in cabinet with Cork, Limerick and Dublin politicians campaigning on behalf of their local universities. He also detailed the huge lobbying effort that the university presidents made to Ruairí Quinn. For evidence of how seriously UCD take the threat look at the Irish Times article penned by Peter Sutherland- in between solving the global refugee crisis Sutherland took time to support his alma mater by calling for no University of the South East. Finally, at the most recent meeting of the Public Accounts Committee the extent to which the HEA and Department of Education have interfered to damage and thwart WIT can be glimpsed at- five WIT leaders were dismissed (Kieran Byrne, Anthony McFeelly, Redmond O’Donoghue, Ruaidhrí Neavyn and Donal Ormonde), multiple inquiries, allegations and ministerial visitors- all have tried to get WIT and its regional stakeholders to abandon their ambitions.
The Technological University manoeuvre by the HEA/Department/existing universities has failed to offer any progress to the South East’s ambitions. In fact, they went further than attempting to preserve the status-quo in the creation of TUs. The technological universities are worse than a re-branding exercise because the new institutions will have a more rigidly defined academic profile, one that legally constrains its future prospects. It has been seen for what it is- a fraudulent misuse of the term university. It is bizarre that any self-respecting IoT would seek this new status.
The South East, led by WIT resisted enormous pressure by this government to apply for a technological university- it did this because the South East has been fooled before- at the time of the original IoT “upgrade”; a change without any substance.
The supporters of University of the South East have a growing anger at FG and Labours failure to deliver what they promised; their attempt to fool the public by misusing the word university in technological university; and the ugly, personalised and nasty vendetta against key leaders in WIT and the pointed aggression towards the academic community of the South East. They also have a growing anger at the disregard of the expert opinion (that WIT is at university level) by politicians and their mandarins who are responding to pressure from the other universities. In seeking to choke the campaign, they have hardened it. The heavy price that the South East has paid- in unemployment, low income, quality of life measures and that WIT has paid in resisting political interference has just added to the campaign’s zeal.
It is for that reason, that even though this is traditionally the season in which we see our politicians at every corner- attentively listening to voters - the politicians of the South East are in hiding. You would too if you cheated your own people.