Monday 19 August 2019

Campus plan for St Senan's

The old St. Senan's hospital outside Enniscorthy.
The old St. Senan's hospital outside Enniscorthy.

By david looby

AN ambitious plan to locate the University of the South East in Enniscorthy - which could attract thousands of students to the town, its promoters say - was the subject of much debate at last week's meeting of Wexford County Council.

Monageer man Tommy Kelly said a large third level college is needed for the county to prevent a brain drain in the county.

Mr Kelly said both he and the committee behind the plan have no financial interest in the project. 'It's for the good of County Wexford. Something significant needs to happen at St Senan's,' he said.

Calling for the support of the council to begin exploring the possibility of a multi-purpose education centre on the grounds of St Senan's, Mr Kelly said it is a 90-acre side adjoining a 24-acre site recently purchased for development by Wexford County Council. He said there are plans to develop a 45-acre site south of St Senan's also so, in total, almost 160 acres of land are available for the development of a large third level campus and business centres.

Smart farming and apprenticeship courses feature in the ambitious plans, as do science and technology subjects. 'The anchor for it would be the University of the South East,' Mr Kelly said.

He said the committee behind the project have been in discussion with university heads from Dublin, Carlow, Wales and America, all of whom were excited by the prospect.

An apprenticeship training centre could also be located on the site. 'This would not just be a Wexford college, it would be a regional, national and international facility which would respond to a lot of the challenges that are coming before us at a national and international level.'

Mr Kelly said international students - who pay large sums to study at third level institutions in the county - would attend the campus, adding that with the new bypass Dublin students would only be an hour away from home. 'It would be the biggest decision the county has ever taken in terms of its promise and aspirations for generations of as of yet unborn (Wexford people).'

The cost of funding the campus would come from foreign direct investment and national investment.

Mr Kelly called on Wexford County Council CEO Tom Enright to help fund a scoping project on the building and site. He said Science, Technology and Engineering subjects would need to be taught at the campus. 'We have spoken to a number of people who are involved with universities and when they saw this they were absolutely amazed that the government hasn't even considered this facility in this iconic building.'

He said Wexford could be a destination for the nation's only smart farming course. Catering and chef training courses could also be developed on site. 'The massive technology you see on a lot of farms will be Stone Age in 20 years.'

He said 1,000 students could be accommodated at the campus, while 1,000 more could stay in Enniscorthy and Wexford town, and the remaining 1,000 students would be from the county and on the off season the accomodation could be rented to tourists.

A Wexford County Council backed enterprise and science and technology park nearby would compliment the campus.

The benefit to the local economy from having 3,000 students at the university campus in the first three years would be to the tune of €30m, Mr Kelly said.

He said 47 per cent of Wexford students travel to Dublin for their third level education and 67 per cent of these never return to live in the county.

Expressing concern that only low wage jobs are being developed in the towns of counties where such brain drain occurs, Mr Kelly said the plan is to avoid duplication of courses in the region and for the Enniscorthy campus to offer something different. 'We need a united approach to say this is what we need in Wexford in terms of education.'

Cllr Paddy Kavanagh said he was impressed by Mr Kelly's enthusiasm, adding that the county is severely impacted by the lack of a large third level college or university over the years. He said the county, which produces one tenth of the country's agricultural output, has only one third level agriculture course. 'Unless we pull together as a group for this county we are going to be left behind. This is not just a facility for Enniscorthy; it's a facility for the county. We should be asking the HSE to back off on the sale of St Senan's for two years.'

Cllr Kavanagh said several senior officials from universities in Ireland and abroad were impressed by the plans for the site.

Cllr Pip Breen said as someone who has seen many of his family having to attend third level in Waterford and Dublin he would love to see the plans come to fruition, adding that he would hate to see St Senan's go into disrepair.

Cllr Keith Doyle said he was very impressed by the idea of developing specialised courses for food and farming at the campus, adding that links could be developed with Savannah.

Cllr Michael Sheehan said the campus could be awarded as a gift to the state by the HSE, adding that it would be a shame for the building to be sold to vulture funds. He said the county has one of the lowest rates of students progressing from second to third level education. 'This is a real, genuine idea. I hope that the public services will roll in behind us. If we don't we will be here having this debate in another five years.'

Cllr Kavanagh added that the plan could be mothballed until the required courses are approved.

Cllr George Lawlor said he applauded the ambition and effort of Mr Kelly and the committee, adding that he was particularly interested in the apprenticeship training centre proporsal. 'While I applaud it I cannot support this proposal. To bring about a technical university of the South East there has been a lot of heads banged against walls and obstacles overcome and currently there is a strategy and planning in place to amalgamate the two colleges (Carlow and Waterford) into a technical university of the South East.'

He said a Wexford campus is planned on a 30-acre site on Newtown Road. 'Funding has been provided for it and Higher Education Authority (HEA) approval has been acquired which can be a massive obstacle. This proposition will solely have the effect of dividing and weakening a Wexford bid for a campus. I don't think any government will invest tens of millions of euros in an old Victorian hospital. I also don't believe you can fit a college of 3,000 students into a town (the size of Enniscorthy).'

He said legislation for a technical university demands high standards and bespoke facilities. 'It is my belief that if we come to the HEA or the government with a proposal for a second site all is lost. We have come too far down the road in relation to the other proposal. The Newtown Road campus is in a prime location in the heart of one of the region's big towns.'

Cllr Kavanagh said: 'I don't think it's an either or. I think there is room for it (the Enniscorthy campus). The Newtown Road site is a very small site. €28m has been allocated to it and that would only pay for one course. We have been taking scraps from the masters table for too many years.'

Mr Kelly agreed, saying the St Senan's campus would offer completely different courses. Cllr Johnny Mythen said officials from Penn State University were very excited by the idea of developing the St Senan's site and having a zero energy building.

Cllr Davy Hynes said the lack of a third level facility in the county has contributed to several societal problems ranging from mental health issues to suicide, unemployment and a low standard of living. Cllr Oisin O'Connell welcomed the proposal, adding that without it the county is in danger of allowing existing institutions to act as gate keepers for the entire region. 'It can be easy to become fixated on specific pieces of infrastructure. I welcome the presentation which shows imagination in terms of the entire spectrum of education and having smart farming as an anchor course is a brilliant idea. You have to maximise your strengths and one of the strengths we have is the quality of our land.'

Mr Kelly said he met with the President of Dublin City University recently, adding that he believes the college would be interested in linking in with the project.

Cllr Mary Farrell said a university is vital for the area, expressing concern that County Wexford is exporting its young, while Cllr Larry O'Brien said the county has been waiting 24 years for a university of the south east.

Expressing disappointment in Cllr Lawlor's stance, he said: 'I am surprised George can't say let's agree and get on with it.'

Cllr Lawlor said: 'It's not that I don't support it. Just that I have seen over five years how difficult it is to get the HEA to agree to approve projects. What you are asking for is impossible.

'I am full sure if a second proposal is pursued we will be backing two horses in one race and we are going to lose out.'

Cllr Kavanagh replied: 'I often back two horses in one race; it's called a forecast and you get paid if your horses come in first and second.'

Cllr Ger Carthy said as a father of three young children he hopes the proposal comes to fruition.

Cllr Doyle called for a two-year breathing space to explore all possibilities for the site.

Cllr Dempsey said if the plans for St Senan's conflict with plans for the Wexford town campus the council needs to act carefully.

Councillors agreed to seek a two-year hold on the sale of the building.

Mr Kelly said the backing of counillors, TDs and Mr Enright, in particular, is vital for the project to succeed.

Cllr Kavanagh concluded by saying he will bring the new Taoiseach, whoever that may be, to the St Senan's site to show him its potential.

Wexford People

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