Limerick on the up: Third level education sector reaching for the skies

Aine Fitzgerald

Reporter:

Aine Fitzgerald

When everything was falling apart during the recession, the education sector in Limerick stepped up. Now our third level institutions are unveiling ambitious plans to move to the next level in learning

THIRD level institutes are hotbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship and with approximately 21,000 students attending colleges in Limerick, the city is reaping the benefits.

The University of Limerick - including Mary Immaculate College - and Limerick Institute of Technology, which includes Limerick School of Art and Design, are providing students with the skills to compete in increasingly global workplaces, and are themselves major employers.

While many highly qualified scholars leave for careers across the globe, many remain in Limerick, helping to drive an array of vital industries.

“There is a unique situation here in Limerick with the Shannon Consortium whereby the three higher education institutions in the region (UL, Mary Immaculate College, and LIT) come together and act in a way whereby they collaborate with each other. That is definitely providing an edge to the Limerick region at the moment,” explains Jimmy Browne, Vice President - Corporate Services and Capital Development at LIT.

Just last month, the single biggest investment ever made in LIT’s Moylish campus was announced with the government deciding to include the college’s proposed new €20 million Applied Science and Information Technology facility in its new national Higher Education PPP programme.

Professor Vincent Cunnane, President of LIT described it as “a real win for the Mid-West”.

The project will lead to a 5,000 square metre state-of-the-art building with specialist facilities for 900 students in Science and Information Technology at LIT’s Moylish campus.

The new facility will lead to an increase in student intake in these areas, and is planned to open in 2021.  

“On a very simple level, it is going to allow us to increase the number of students we can take in, in the science and IT area. We would certainly plan that in excess of 600 of those would be new students so they would be new places we would be in a position to offer,” Mr Browne explains.

“The provision of this space means that for evenings, weekends, and during academic holidays there are very targeted training programmes that we would then deliver to the relevant companies.

“To stay at the cutting edge means you have to keep your people constantly upskilled and we have a number of programmes running with the likes of Analog and Vistakon and other major companies in the region. But space has been one of our limiting factors. We are only able to fit them in around our existing academic provision. This new building will allow us to do that on a far more flexible basis.”

The investment at Moylish is in additional to the €14 million investment by the Department of Education in phase one of LIT’s new engineering-focussed campus at Coonagh, which is expected to take its first cohort of students during the 2018/19 academic year.

“Coonagh and Moylish will develop very closely with each other in that we will decamp activities from Moylish to Coonagh.

“Current engineering activities over time will move to Coonagh and that will allow us to grow the science and IT business and other programmes on this campus.

“In terms of the overall economic benefit, we are creating places for students from the region and outside to come here. One of the great attractions hopefully is there is such an infrastructure of employment opportunities available on their doorstep in the wider Limerick region, the graduates are then staying and adding ultimately to the overall economic benefit of the city and wider Limerick region.

“We are hopefully progressing a project on the Clare Street campus as well which we are not in a position to announce yet but hopefully will be in early 2018,” Mr Browne continued.

Limerick School of Art and Design based at Clare Street has been listed among the top 50 fashion schools in the world and has produced many famous alumni including designers Joanne Hynes, Miriam Mone, actor Pat Shortt and artist John Shinnors.

“Obviously, we have nearly 1,000 students in the city centre through the School of Art and Design across different locations,” said Mr Browne.

“The School of Art and Design has a huge international reputation particularly in the area of fashion and design and we see opportunities there where we can increase the numbers of students we can take in. We have space limitations so we are working on a potential project that could have a significant positive impact on that campus,” Mr Browne continued.

Undoubtedly, one of LIT's strong points is their ability to respond to the needs of industry.

“We have had a number of significant successes either through springboard funding or other funding where a particular company comes to our door and say ‘we have a new process coming in’ and because of the flexibility of our staff and the organisation we are then able to turn around accredited programmes for them.

“That sort of agility will be particularly important in the knowledge economy that is being built around the region.”

Mr Browne cites this as one of two large pieces of the jigsaw that will keep investment coming to this region.

The other piece is the Northern Distributor Road and the importance of future-proofing infrastructure that goes beyond the immediate horizon.

“Vincent, (Dr Vincent Cunnane) our president, has spoken on more than one occasion about the creation of the knowledge corridor. From Coonagh, to Castletroy to the National Technological Park, the use of the Northern Distributor Road is a critically important piece of infrastructure.

“We will look back in 10 or 15 years time and say that was one of the best decisions made in Limerick in a long, long period of time,” said Mr Browne.

During the autumn conferrings at the University of Limerick, President Dr Des Fitzgerald told students they face “a more positive economic environment and a buoyant jobs market.”

While the university has undoubtedly been tarnished by recent controversies, highlighted in the HEA report released this month, there is no denying the vital importance of the third level institute to the region, and the excellent education provided there.

There is a sense that under Dr Fitzgerald's stewardship there will be much more transparency in the running of the facility which is without doubt one of Limerick's greatest success stories. The importance of the university to the overall economic and social life of our city cannot be underestimated.

A recent survey has revealed that 74% of last year’s UL graduates are now in employment - 12% higher than the average employment rate for all Irish universities graduates in 2015, which stands at 62%.

Meanwhile, the new €21m development at Mary Immaculate College which will include a future-proofed library/learning resource centre - expected to be completed late next year - is another vital investment in education in Limerick which will no doubt play a vital role in adding to the wide range of academic skill-sets our city has to offer.

- This feature is part of a wider 32-page supplement called Limerick on the up, which was carried free in the Limerick Leader broadsheet edition of November 25