Monday, August 10, 2015

The Kelly Report reviewed & Technological University Status - Cllr Mary Roche

The deep desire amongst all the stakeholders in the South East for University status is understandable. However any objective reading of the Michael Kelly Report to Minister for Education & Skills Jan O’Sullivan on the Engagement and Consultation Process on a Technological University for the South East which was published last week would have to leave one with a bad taste in their mouth. We shouldn’t be surprised I suppose, when a report commissioned by the Government, carried out by a Government insider, says what the Government wanted it to say. I know, shocker. If there’s one thing the report has confirmed it’s that it would have been, in fact the correct course of action last year for WIT not to engage with the Kelly report on the basis that the Terms of Reference  were too limiting and did not allow Mr Kelly to even consider any other option than the Waterford Carlow merger.

Many people ask why can Waterford not just apply for ‘traditional’ University status and that’s a good question. Indeed it is fundamental to this entire process. In theory it could. The 1997 Act remains on the statute books and section 9 of that act allows for an application to become a University to proceed. However the follow through on implementing that application is a political decision. And there is no political will – not just in this government, but in any government – to progress any application. So we are sure that it would lie on a shelf somewhere – untested by an International panel. We know this because, in fact, the application that WIT made a decade ago in 2005 under this very Act already suffered this fate. No party has indicated any intention to deviate from the current policy of ‘we have too many universities’. The traditional Universities themselves have not and will not merge and so the IoT sector has been targeted for rationalisation with Technological University status as the carrot. And so we have arrived at a point whereby unless there is a merger, there cannot be an application for TU status.

This is a problem because as of right now – even with several applications being progressed – nobody in Ireland knows exactly what a Technological University is. We know what a University is. We know what an Institute of Technology is. We know how they are funded (or not, as the case may be) for research, teaching and learning and how autonomous (or not) they are. As of right now, based on all Government commentary to date, Technological Universities are to be funded on the same basis as IT’s with no more autonomy and no more funding and no baseline research funding for example, than heretofore.

We need to ask ourselves: what is on offer here with the Technological University? Increasingly the concern is that the answer is nothing other than re-branding and rationalisation. It appears that the Technological University process is to the Institutes of Technology what the IT process was to the Regional Technical Colleges. A re-branding, with one for everyone in the audience at the end of which Waterford will have not ‘caught up’ at all with the educational provision available in other Irish cities and Gateways. But various politicians will certainly go around clapping themselves on the backs and telling anyone who will believe them (including us) that we are now sorted. But we will not be sorted. Our young people will still head to Cork or Dublin or other ‘University Cities’. The question of ‘What is a Technological University’ and what extra will it offer has NOT been answered.

As a member of the WIT Governing Body since 1999 until last March I am aware of all of the recent history of the college and of the timelines and processes involved in the TU application to date.

I have some fundamental concerns about the report itself both its tone and in its content and timelines which appears to contain some inaccuracies. Firstly, I do not recall any contact between WIT and ITC prior to the publication of the Programme for Government in 2011. Indeed the Waterford/ Carlow alliance specifically was a construct of the coalition government and the Institutes were not consulted on the matter in advance. This forced construct runs contrary to other TU applications where the institutes in question were allowed to select their own partner or partners. In fact some of these alliances have seen partners come and go for various reasons. So much for autonomy and academic freedom!

Furthermore, my recollection is that WIT cooperated fully with the Baker Tilly due diligence initiated by Carlow - despite the fact that ITC went to tender with this process with no prior notice to Waterford.

Thirdly when WIT signalled its intention to engage an international academic (Professor John Taylor), it was to test if the proposed partnership was capable of realizing the CRITERIA for TU designation in a reasonable time frame. I cannot understand why Mr Kelly would find this unusual. It seems a rather reasonable question one would have thought.

My final issue is that the overall thrust of Mr Kelly’s historical timeline appears to only point the finger at Waterford for the breakdown in the TUSE process. This is incorrect. The Kelly report fails to capture that WIT entered into the process (including the merger) with gusto. He fails to acknowledge that WIT worked diligently to push forward with Stage 2 while becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. There is no doubt that Professor Taylor’s report raised significant concerns in WIT regarding the overall merger. Indeed Professor Taylor confirmed the contents of his report in person to the Governing Body at a special meeting. But it was also Carlow’s decision to publish un-agreed press statements that led to WIT finally pulling the plug on what was already a fatally wounded process and seeking an urgent meeting with the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education & Skills. This, in my opinion, was the only honest approach to take at that stage.

On to Mr Kelly’s conclusion that the two colleges should now re-enter talks (about talks) and his claim that the entire issue could be put to bed in three years. I have to ask the question: on what is this conclusion based? There is absolutely no data contained in the report to back up this assertion. None. (This, despite the fact that the DIT application which Mr Kelly Chairs has already taken longer than this – even with all the players ‘on board’!?)

There is a continuous lamentation by Mr Kelly throughout his report that no aggregate data was available. However I must ask – was the data not available separately from each college for him to aggregate or indeed from the Higher Education Authority itself who must surely have it at the push of a Management ICT systems button? 

The Taylor Report which was withdrawn (or suppressed depending on your point of view) was compiling that data and coming to some not very comforting conclusions for the government and their merger plans. So let us see and agree the data to back up Mr Kelly’s claim. Otherwise it cannot be given any credibility. Mr Kelly seems not to understand the standard of research staff and research programmes required in a truly internationally competitive university as opposed to some ‘me-too’ university. This is clear by his treatment of research activity in his report.

Another glaring and very questionable omission from the report is that it fails to set the merger proposal in an international context. It references no views, no evidence based rationale, no international research or best practice on higher education mergers. If that information is available surely it should have been included? If not, that perhaps, that tells its own tale.

The entire University aspiration rightly beloved of Waterford was to achieve one thing and one thing only. Equality. Equality for the people of Waterford and the South East who have suffered decades of educational apartheid. Equality of access to education for our young people and for the wider population, to address the deficits in the City and the Region detailed so clearly in Chapter 2 of Mr Kelly’s report, by allowing more access to the highest level of education on our doorstep.

This in turn would enable us to better compete in attracting and developing industry and enterprise to our city and the region. It would allow us to address the consequent inequalities in employment levels and earning capacity and to discontinue our history whereby - through no fault of our own, but through the continued propagation of inequality by every government this state has ever had - we did not have a level playing field with our competitor cities.

I seriously question whether what is now on offer will address that or will it still leave us a step behind the University Cities with what they can offer and how they can compete?

I have one final question: what, now, is the South East? Where is it defined? I am at a loss to understand where the government insistence that Waterford may only partner with Carlow and may not address any other prospective partners comes from. At a loss that is until I consider politics and local politics in particular. I consider that this entire process is based on the (then and now) Ministers in our neighbouring constituencies wishing to cannibalise a piece of what we have built here in Waterford for their own back yards. The irony is of course, that WIT had always committed to the region and to spreading the benefits of University status into the region. A stance confirmed in our application for University status way back in 2005. There can be no doubt but that if that application had been allowed to proceed and had been successful, the entire South East would today be in a far stronger position than that which it currently occupies. Kilkenny & Wexford would have their University campuses already. Think about that.

Even more ironic then, that this government has now dismantled the South East Region. It does not exist in any guise, anywhere, any more. The South East hospitals grouping has been broken up and Waterford is in the Southern Group with Cork and Kerry, while Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford have been put into Leinster/Dublin groupings. The South East Regional Authority has also been disbanded.

The South East now is just a figment of Minister Howlin’s imagination when it suits his purposes. Perhaps Waterford and Carlow too should be released of the South East shackles and be free to court other partners in the Governments own redefined regions?

That’s if the entire Technological University process hasn’t already run into the sand...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Waterford Youth Committee Bows Out - The End of an Era

Today was another red letter day for Waterford City - not that you'd know it. Today we held the last ever meeting of Waterford Youth Committee.

I suppose we got a two year reprieve in that it should have happened two years ago when the Waterford City Vocational Education Committee was amalgamated with the County VEC and Wexford VEC into the now Waterford Wexford Education & Training Board. But as no guidelines were in place as to the make up of the new committee and there was work that needed to be done, the Youth Committee stayed in place to facilitate that.

But the day has finally dawned - indeed is almost past as I write this. I didn't think it proper to let it go without some acknowledgement of it's history, it's contribution to the youth of the City and without saying a big 'thank you' to the many people who contributed along the way.

Top of that pile has to be the legend that is Joe Gough, the Youth Development Officer. Joe has worked tirelessly and it is a testament almost entirely due to him and his tenacity that the Youth Sector in Waterford City has grown to the most well developed - and indeed, well funded outside of Dublin. It is one area where Waterford has been ahead of the posse and led the way. Joe is highly respected not just in Waterford but nationally and at government level. He deserves the respect and thanks of generations of Waterford young people, youth workers and volunteers for his single-mindedness in their benefit. Joe started out 34 years ago with a budget of just €4,000 a year. In 2015 the Youth Committee oversaw the distribution of over €1,000,000 in funding to Waterford City's Youth Sector. That is quite an achievement.

I also want to thank most sincerely, Cathy Drohan (and all those who worked in that position previously) for her hard work and commitment to the Youth Committee.

I have been a member of the WYC since 1999 and have been proud to Chair it since 2000. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege. I wish to acknowledge the current members of the Youth Committee both past - but most especially present. And in particular the youth sectoral representatives for all the different areas of youth work in Waterford City. They are currently Cathy Hanrahan, Mary Halligan, Breda Murphy, Gail O'Sullivan, Karen Rice and James Maguire. They have worked (and continue to do so!) tirelessly above and beyond the call of duty both on the Voluntary Youth Council and on the Youth Committee for the betterment young people and youth work.

We have dealt with all sorts of issues over the years; we have lobbied ministers; we have visited government departments; we have worked with many partners; we have been members of boards of management; we have introduced stringent quality standards; we have enjoyed award ceremonies; and of course we have handed out the odd cheque too! Waterford City has been the envy of many who saw what had been achieved here. And we have been proud of those achievements.

I am hopeful that the Youth Sector in Waterford City will continue to thrive. There have been very difficult years in recent times with many cutbacks hurting people only too willing to work with less, while delivering more. We have been proud also, to support those many services provided voluntarily, from scouting & guiding, to our many marching bands, youth groups, those who give their time generously in the special needs sector and the entire Voluntary Sector. The young people of Waterford have been enriched immeasurably by your efforts. I salute each of you. You represent the very best of what this ancient city has to offer. Thank you.

And so we move into the next iteration from September when the new Waterford & Wexford Youth Work Committee will take up the reins. I look forward to seeing the Youth Services in both County Waterford and indeed Wexford develop in the way that Waterford City has over decades. All the while endevouring to ensure that the City loses none of the hard fought for gains that have been delivered by Joe and his team over 34 years.

Another goodbye. And a sad one. So long WYC; it's been fun. Onwards and upwards.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Has Amalgamation Delivered for Waterford City?

The amalgamation of Waterford City & County Councils took place in tandem with the Local Elections of 2015 and has now been in place for 12 months. The News & Star have asked me to write a piece on how I see things after the first year but rather than focus on the personal I decided to go back to the documentation, to the promises that were made when the merger was being proposed by the Amalgamation Committee under the Chairmanship of Sean Aylward and do an analysis of that.

So how has it been going? Has the status of Waterford city been protected as we were told it would and what, if any, actual benefits have derived to the City as a consequence?

The Implementation Plan to the Minister for the Environment, Community & Local Government was delivered in May 2013. It detailed some ‘high level interventions’ that needed to happen in order to both smooth the transition to the new joint local authority and to ensure that it worked. What were these things?

One of the crucial ones was “the view that...additional support is warranted to address legacy financial deficits”. In other words, the deficit as we now know of over €10m should be dealt with via ‘additional support’ from central government. Other High Level Interventions are laid out in the Report and they can be summarised as follows:

1                     Developing the critical mass of Waterford as a Gateway City including
-          The city centre as the engine for growth and brand reputation
-          Collaboration with partners in the South-East
2                     Developing human capital including the establishment of Technological University
3                     City Centre Strategy & Management Plan and prioritisation of significant retail development
4                     Connectivity including
-          Runway extension for Waterford Airport and
-          Measures to bring the Aurora dark fibre network to Waterford & SE Region
5                     Continued development of Viking Triangle and other county towns and opening of Mount Congreve.
6                     OPW site at Dungarvan and NAMA Michael Street potential to be maximised.
7                     New marketing strategy for Waterford
8                     New Director (and Directorate) for Economic Development
9                     Basing of IDA Regional Director for SE in Waterford
10                 Addressing of disparity of State Aid in BMW/S&E regions
11                 Audit of labour supply skills
Firstly the legacy debt was not dealt with through any ‘additional’ measures at all and the new Council has had to borrow to cover the historic deficits of both councils and spread the repayment out over the coming years.

The Technological University is caught in an increasingly uncertain vortex and indeed the entire process now hinges on whether a TU would deliver anything at all to Waterford and the South East other than a name change – bearing in mind that the government have clearly indicated that there are to be no additional costs associated with the designation - and that there now appears to be one for everyone in the audience (to coin a phrase). This is farcical and leads one to conclude that what’s on offer is but a yellow-pack designation which would offer no advantage to Waterford and indeed may even damage the current status of WIT but that’s a larger question to be dealt with another day.

The Airport Runway extension obviously hasn’t happened, nor is there any sign of it. Mount Congreve has been opened although it is hard to understand how that might be credited to, or is a consequence of the amalgamation process. Indeed some might say that it’s open despite the government rather than because of them! Additionally it is sad to see the nursery there recently closed.

The Viking Triangle, has continued to develop physically (slowly) although I would like to see an acceleration of the populating of the area with more unique businesses and activity. This project in my opinion needs refocusing.

While efforts continue apace (prior to and since amalgamation) to develop the NAMA site in Michael Street we can at best say that we are confident that something will happen. Although there is nothing concrete at the time of writing, NAMA have committed to designing the centre and applying for planning permission. As it stands all the plans for urban regeneration will amount to nothing, and indeed I would worry if a single paving slab will be laid, if that site is not developed. This must remain as a number one priority for the city.

A new strategy for Waterford is certainly being launched in the area of tourism although it is to be regretted that Tourism Ireland has seen fit to have Waterford now managed from the Cork office. This will, unless carefully monitored have a negative effect on the future development of tourism in the City (and County), in the same way as the removal of the IDA Director in 1995 (by the same government) had a negative effect on attracting industry. To be fair the launch of Irelands Ancient East could deliver for us following on from the huge success of the Wild Atlantic Way (from which Waterford was inexplicably excluded) but that is dependent on Tourism Irelands commitment and again is entirely outside the remit of the local authority and cannot be said to be consequence of amalgamation.

We also now have an Economic Director and Directorate and that along with the basing of an IDA Regional Director for the South East in Waterford City and the levelling of the field in relation to State grants has indeed delivered benefits in the past year. Of those, possibly only the first is attributable to the amalgamation (although all other cities got them too whether amalgamated or not). I also am concerned that since the Economic Director was appointed, his role continues to be diluted with other important responsibilities.

Our City identity, as I predicted has been all but lost and we are now the Metropolitan District of Waterford rather than Waterford City. The Mayoralty has been decimated on many fronts. In City Hall the MAYOR(S) have even been relegated to small offices lacking privacy or status rather than occupying the Mayors Parlour as heretofore. The City Mayoralty is second now to the Mayoralty of the Plenary Council and quite frankly the situation that pertains is ludicrous to the extent that under the current structure there is arguably, no place for a City Mayor. It pains me to even type that.

There have been savings at senior management level – with just one CEO and 4 Directors (back to the exact same levels of staffing as the City alone had prior to the amalgamation) but it’s hard not to counter that with lack of focus, split locations and the built in inefficiencies inherent in a split structure.

I am also willing to concede that things appear to be looking up on the jobs front with announcements from West Pharma, Glanbia, Nearform, Eishtech etc. to name a few. However, how many of these announcements are (I wonder) a result of the amalgamation?

We have been though (and continue to go through) a period upheaval in the Council with huge associated costs running into several millions – with, of course, no allocated budget for them. We have lost our City and our City Mayoralty – important perhaps only to those of us who value history & culture – but in my opinion we have also lost status and rank now in the second layer of Local Government in Ireland behind the three cities of Dublin, Cork & Galway.

I read a research paper during the year which, while not examining the Irish situation specifically, has carried out an analysis of Local Government systems in other countries. It concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that bigger was, in fact better when it comes to local authorities and that with the exception of the UK, Ireland now ranks among the countries with the lowest level of representation in local government. Which is no surprise as Ireland is among the most centralised systems of government in the developed world.

But don’t just take my word for it. Brendan Howlin, told the Labour Party conference in March of this year that he lamented that the change in local government and that it was the ‘biggest regret’ of his term in office and it should be reversed. He must have had his ‘eye off the ball’, he said. Go figure.

I would (and did) argue that real reforms and savings could and should have been made through shared services and other reforms which could have been delivered without the huge costs associated with amalgamation and without decimating city & town councils and their identities and status. Can I honestly say it has all been worth it – for the miniscule savings which may or may not accrue in time? No. I cannot. Waterford continues to suffer apartheid in the educational, health and job creation stakes. Changing our size has not – unsurprisingly – changed that one iota. Sadly, despite Mr Howlins’ howls (sorry) and other platitudes I do not see this abomination being undone in the short or medium term.