Economics professor Stephen Kinsella's take on where the Mid-West would be had the campaign for a Limerick university not gotten off the ground
Sometimes to see something’s importance, you must imagine its lack. Imagine the University of Limerick was never fought for by a group of committed activists. Imagine the university was never developed over four decades by a group of visionary academics and administrators. Imagine the university was never there, just another series of housing estates in Castletroy, catering for the middle classes of the region. What potential would we have lost?
The reason I ask the question like this is to get a sense of the value a university like ours brings to a region. You have to weigh up the ‘what ifs’, what economists call the counterfactuals. So say UL was a series of housing estates instead of a higher education institution. We would gain some housing, yes, which we sorely need. We would probably have a better traffic situation in downtown Castletroy on a wet weekday in November. We would probably have more community facilities. We would still have Mary I, LSAD, and LIT. Many undergraduates would still have a great experience of learning in Limerick. But there would be no UL. What would we miss?
We wouldn’t have over 1,500 academic and support staff working at the university, teaching more than 16,000 students at all levels, from access programmes to certificates to PhDs. We wouldn’t have thousands of European and non-European students learning more about Ireland and themselves while studying here.
We wouldn’t have firms queuing up to locate in the Mid-West for the skills we produce. We wouldn’t have the breadth of enriching activities the university provides, from sporting facilities to arts and culture. We wouldn’t have the connections UL has made to the best universities in the world, which brings their representatives here, and ours out to meet them. We wouldn’t have the cutting- edge scientific breakthroughs from UL experts, some of which have the potential to make the world a better place. We wouldn’t have Brown Thomas (see illustration, top) and countless selfies with him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
At a really basic level, the University of Limerick is a very large economic actor in the Mid-West. If it was a business it would be one of the largest. Its total income in the 2016-17 academic year from state grants, fees, research grants, and philanthropy was €189 million. Its total spending was €192m. Almost 65% of that spending was on salaries. Our employees then spend their salaries in the local area, and the people they spend their money on spend their money, in turn. So a lecturer pays for childcare, which pays a childcare worker, who spends their wages in local shops.
This knock-on effect is called the multiplier effect and it can be estimated. They used quite old data, for 2010 and 2011, so their estimate is almost certainly too low today, but they found a multiplier of about 1.5, meaning the €192m that UL spends on its staff and its facilities is worth about €288m to the wider region. I would say, and the authors would say, that this is an underestimate. Even taking that estimate, which is for a university of only 12,000 students, not the 15,000 we have today, UL is still one of the largest economic units in the region.
Now imagine all of that was gone.
It’s not all about money, though. Every year I sit on the stage of UL’s concert hall and watch hundreds of graduands walk up to get their parchments from the president. It is one of the many privileges of working in UL. Graduation day is a wonderful day for the families of those being honoured. When I speak to the graduates and in particular their families afterwards, I get a real sense of the pride they have in their relatives who get the bit of paper on the stage recognising their accomplishments, yes, but also in the university they are getting it from.
That pride you see in families’ eyes is perhaps the most important thing we’d have less of, were UL to blink out of existence. It is easy to be cynical about things like personal and civic pride, but in my experience they matter greatly.
I love showing my students a picture of how employment in Ireland by sector has changed since 1926. Then, half of all people employed worked in agriculture, with 16% in industry and the rest, 34%, worked in services. Today the proportion of people working in agriculture is less than 5%, while 22% work in industry, and the rest, almost 74%, work in services.
Services are higher value added sectors requiring more complex skills much of the time, and these skills will often come from a period of further or higher education. A region like the Mid-West that lacked a university would suffer as the number of skilled service jobs rises. You can see this lack, particularly in the South-East, and how that lack is felt. It is good to see activists in the South-East working to achieve what Limerick has achieved. Universities are engines of social and economic development.
In the next five years, UL will add hundreds of staff and thousands of students. We will move into the city, and become an engine of social and economic development there, too. It is going to be an exciting few years for everyone involved.
I will retire (or be retired!) in August 2043. By 2043, as I leave the university, I would expect to see a much larger and more developed set of faculties, with a far deeper connection to the region and to the city. I would expect to see large developments in Clare forcing larger changes in Limerick as well.
The future is always an iteration of the past, with tweaks. Some of these tweaks are minor. Some are major, but most follow a fairly predictable path.
I predict UL will get bigger, for example, and I don’t think I’m going to be wrong in that. We could see 25,000 or even 30,000 students, and 3,000 staff. The impact of the University of Limerick will continue to grow, and with it, the potential of the rest of the Mid-West region.
Now imagine UL wasn’t there. When you imagine something’s lack, you get a better sense of its value.