Thirty years ago when I was trying to blag my way into college, I would have given anything for a course to be located here in Mayo. But at the time, such a possibility was but a pipedream. if you wanted to go to college and you were from Mayo, you had to up sticks, pack the bags, get the thumbing finger out and head over the hills to Galway or, perish the thought, head east.
And so it was when the GMIT announced its Castlebar campus that we thought it would represent a major boost to third level education in the region. Bringing courses to the people, spreading out their wings, ensuring that geography would be no longer a boundary in the college’s bid to bring practical technical and innovative education across the region.
And it succeeded. And in Letterfrack, it produced courses that created craftspeople of the highest standard.
However, as the economic crash reverberated across the country’s education sector, it was the ITs that felt the blunt force of that. The major universities were by their nature always capable of attracting funding through high tech research — a significant advantage that has allowed them to flourish while the ITs suffered.
Across Ireland, there are more than 87,000 students studying at the various ITs. This includes 66,000 full-time undergraduates, 13,000 part-time undergraduates, 1,400 remote undergraduates and 3,000 full-time postgraduates.
A review last year by the Higher Education Authority (HEA ) set out to assess the financial health of the ITs across Ireland, and involved site visits to the 14 campuses. And it produced grim reading.
The overall reserves held by the ITs fell from €132.5m to €78.7m over the period, wiping out 40pc of the finance available to underpin ongoing sustainability and future development.
The cash flow position across the sector is a major concern, with a decline in the cash balances held by ITs, from €218.1m in August 2013 to €147m in August 2016. A further fall is anticipated, to €116m by August 2017.
At an aggregate level, the sector is in deficit and this trend is projected to continue over the next five years.
This has meant that the campus environment has been adversely impacted, as there has been no funding available for capital investment.
The news this week that the Castlebar campus is in danger has been accentuated by the withdrawal of five courses from the prospectus. The official reason for the withdrawal of the courses is that they were undersubscribed, but concerned locals have asked if they were adequately promoted.
The dogs on the street are aware of the financial difficulties in which the institutes of technology have found themselves.
There is a genuine fear that the Mayo campus will be sacrificed to protect the mother ship in Galway — and if that were to happen, it would be a serious blow to the many students who would have hoped to be able to attend college here in Mayo.
The college president Dr Fergal Barry is an ambitious guy who will strive to ensure that the campus succeeds, within the financial constraints he finds himself. He has to reassure the Mayo community about the future of the campus by coming up with a series of courses and programmes that will ensure its viability.
What is needed for the future of the campus is the provision of energising courses for which there is a demand in the economy. However, this can only be done if the Government agrees to look at the way the ITs are funded as compared to the universities. If the playing field is levelled, then the ITs can return to providing excellent relevant education for the types of jobs this country will be providing in the years to come.