BUSINESS leaders, employers, community activists and the public at large right across the South East need to unite now in an all-out drive to deliver a University of the South East in the region, Fine Gael's John Paul Phelan says.
Momentum is gathering behind the scenes for a new linkage between Waterford Institute of Technology and Cork Institute of Technology, a merger which would not serve the south east well, the 32 year-old Senator and WIT graduate from County Kilkenny believes.
"We've campaigned for years now for a University of the South East in the south east. But what seems to be suggested now is a link between Waterford and Cork rather than forging closer working relationships with Carlow. The latter would seem to be the more natural driver of regional regeneration across Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford in particular.
"Report after report has highlighted the link between universities and jobs. Multinationals in particular cluster around such third level hubs and the pool of available graduates.
"If Waterford merges with Cork, jobs will be dragged in that direction and surrounding counties such as Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford – which are already struggling to attract new enterprise – will continue to suffer," Senator Phelan believes.
His comments come in the wake of the publication of the Hunt Report which highlights the dire need for funding reform at third level as well as the complete inaction over 14 years by successive Fianna Fil Governments to plan for growth in this area.
"Fianna Fil's only response to the €500m deficit at third level has been to put added pressure on families by introducing 'fees by the backdoor'. The Hunt Report, as other reports have done, shows just how Ireland's funding model for third level is not working for students, colleges or parents.
"Despite being in power for almost 14 years, Fianna Fil has completely failed to tackle the funding issue and has instead reintroduced 'fees by the backdoor'. The annual €2,000 upfront payment is crippling families and must be replaced with a more sustainable and fairer approach.
"A new funding model is needed and Fine Gael is the only political party to set out a comprehensive strategy for reforming third level and introducing a new, fairer funding system. We are in favour of a deferred payment plan with students not being hammered with fees upfront. The Graduate Contribution Scheme outlined in our 'Third Way' plan is fairer and we are reviewing this model to take into account the financial situation facing the Exchequer.
"If we want to regain Ireland's position as a location for hi-tech, cutting edge, new industry we have to make sure that our education system is up to the task of supplying the necessary graduates to make that ambition realistic. A new funding model is needed and Fine Gael will provide one through fair and progressive means," Sen Phelan said.