Waterford is Ireland’s only Gateway city without a university. The proportion of the population in the South East region with degrees is 25 percent lower than even in the West, the traditional focus of government regional attention. Because of its skills deficit advanced manufacturing and service enterprise has tended to bypass the South East, leaving what was once one of Ireland’s most prosperous regions now one of its weakest. Without corrective action the region’s problems are likely to grow as labour-intensive enterprise is driven from Ireland by high labour costs and intrusive regulation.
A recent report by Goodbody Economic Consultants highlights the plight of the South East and the fact that, on a range of performance indicators, the region’s economic position is worse that that of the BMW region. One of its key recommendations is the creation of a university in the South-East to improve the quality of the labour force. The analysis and documentation provided in the report strongly justify the case.
The Goodbody recommendations are compatible with the work of people such as Michael Porter of Harvard and Tom Bentley of Demos, who highlight the importance of vibrant urban clusters of scale, with universities at their core, as the driving force for regional development in the knowledge economy. Cities, or urban clusters, without a strong university and research presence, are placed at a major disadvantage in attracting and growing sophisticated knowledge-driven enterprise.
While the South East has two Institutes of Technology of which it can be proud, and the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) has forged ahead to distinguish itself and win national and international recognition, Waterford and its region is at a disadvantage when competing with the other five major Gateway cities: all of which have both an institute of technology and a university.
The South East is the only remaining region with a case that justifies the establishment of a new university. It is not a daunting task: much of the core infrastructure and investment has already been put in place. WIT is operating to the doctorate level and a new campus is being developed. Sub-degree work could be transferred to other regional centres: to the Carlow Institute of Technology and to its satellite campus in Wexford.
A university would provide an important catalyst for development, but the region itself must get its own act in order if it is to be taken seriously: it has not been noted for its cohesion or integrated vision. Both Kilkenny and Waterford need each other if an urban cluster of sufficient scale to compete for knowledge age investment is to be created. Given the historic enmity between the two regional cities the recent proposal of the Mayor of Kilkenny that Waterford and Kilkenny should twin is an important initiative in the right direction. Were this to take place, and were an integrated plan to emerge, embracing the two cities and the 29-mile interurban corridor, then a new regional dynamic of national significance would emerge. A joint proposal from Waterford and Kilkenny for a university with its base in Waterford and a satellite campus in the heart of historic Kilkenny could give a special regional focus for knowledge-driven investment, and provide the political impact necessary to secure a positive outcome.
A Motorway tightly linking Waterford and Kilkenny with Carlow and Wexford should serve as the vital communications backbone for the development of the region and the necessary urban clustering. The current plans for a costly, yet inferior regional road system, should be set aside and upgraded to full Motorway standard. The much longer-term prospect of the proposed Tuskar Tunnel, linking the South-East to Wales, should not be overlooked as the region plans its future.
The South East region needs to create a coherent plan of scale and vision that will jog it out of its rut. Acting together in partnership to secure the new university is the vital first step.