The sky is the limit for the growth and expansion plans of Mayo ATU which is already seeing dividends from its new status as a university, Castlebar councillors were informed this week.
Development of the college, whose previous incarnations include Mayo RTC, St Mary's Nursing College and GMIT Mayo, is now centred around a number of key areas, Head of the School for Health Sciences at ATU and vice president of ATU Justin Kerr stated in a lengthy presentation to Castlebar MD this week - including a continuing focus on health and wellbeing, optimisation of research and scholarship opportunities, collaboration and partnership projects - as well as the development of the campus itself as a conference centre and community hub to be enjoyed by the people of the town - not to mention a major Castlebar town centre student and public housing hub.
Councillors sat open-mouthed as the fast-talking Tyrone man reeled off a lengthy list of innovative plans and dreams for ATU - such as a long-term research strategy designed to attract major funding to the college, and particularly, the revelation that the college, in association with Mayo County Council, has applied for planning to build a state-of-the-art multi million euro student accommodation campus at Castlebar Military Barracks - which the councillors knew nothing about.
Dr Kerr revealed that the joint submission was made to the Department of Further and Higher Education with funding understood to be available through the Department of Housing.
"The submission is that it would not be just student accommodation, but a mix of student and public, with opportunities for summer lettings for holiday makers and retail opportunities in the barracks, to bring life back into the town centre. So it would also would be public amenity space with retail."
With student numbers currently standing at a peak of 800, and an intake of 150 from CAO so far this year, Dr Kerr added that the on-campus figure was not expected to reach a previous peak of 1200, due to the demand for new study models such as remote learning, which is proving so beneficial for students from Further Education courses up.
He told councillors: "We are continuing with our 2020 refocus on health and wellbeing and areas we want to align with include the nursing department, mental health, childcare, looking at chronic disease and integrated healthcare management. A one-way centre for connected health has been set up and we are looked on now as experts in ehealth - online learning, with the focus on key hospital settings and community settings and how we can support professional medical services in the area to continue improving."
He said ATU Mayo will work with regional stakeholders to identify priorities for the region, adding: "We are a gateway for healthcare research right across the region. We are not just a mayo campus but also have an academic school here that we can use to access research funding and scholarships. We also still offer Humanities, Outdoor Education and Heritage courses."
He added that conferences such as the very successful Digital West had chartered an opening for further large-scale on-campus events; the Business in the Community programme with a Deis school in Achill was proving successful while great potential for new apprenticeships in the future had been identified.
There were also plans for enhanced sports supports including an upgrade of the pitch, running track, and an athletics throwing area for shot-put javelin and long jump, in line with goals to compete for sporting scholarships and attract high level sporting students, given that the college had already enjoyed great success with the ladies football team and in the boxing club championships.
"The potential is really huge but it is a partnership approach. When the Taoiseach was here recently he was very strong we need to be looking to collaboration with Mayo County Council in that regard."
The Mayo County councillors in the room welcomed the good news story for Castlebar, recalling the Save the RTC campaign from some years back at a time when it was believed the college was doomed.