CORK Institute of Technology (CIT) president Dr Barry O’Connor wants progress on the National Broadband Plan to ensure that students and lecturers in rural areas can participate in e-learning and can access online resources.
Dr O’Connor praised the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) for providing funding to combat the pandemic and support learning during the lockdown.
With Budget 2021 on the horizon, the CIT president, who is due to retire at the end of this year, said the National Broadband Plan needed to be progressed to ensure equal access to education during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
“Specific funds have been made available to help higher-education institutes tackle the difficulties brought on,” said Dr O’Connor.
“We got funding to buy laptops, or tablets, for students who can’t afford them, so there is a lot of expense gone into support, in terms of that.
“There has also been funding available to help support staff to teach from home and ensure that resources are available online,” he added.
“Funding is also being made available to support students’ mental health and well-being.
“Here at CIT, we’ve introduced our REACH programme, aimed at supporting first-year and second-year students who have seen their first years in third-level education impacted by Covid,” Dr O’Connor said.
“From the Covid point of view, you’d have to applaud the Department of Education for its response.”
One issue outside the Department of Education’s remit is the National Broadband Plan, but it’s one that Dr O’Connor said must be made a priority by the Government.
“The availability of broadband is a huge issue, particularly for students who are not living in urban areas,” he said.
“There are areas across Cork and Ireland where accessing good broadband is very difficult.
“The National Broadband Plan is there under the Ireland 2040 plan and it needs to be sped up,” he added.
“The fact that more and more people are working and learning from home emphasises the importance of progress on this plan.”
Outside of Budget 2021, CIT and other institutes have received funding in recent weeks and months.
As well as being allocated €8.25m from the HEA for the Munster Technological University (MTU) project, as part of the Technological University transformation fund, CIT also received €4m from a government fund for reskilling people and rebooting the economy.
Dr O’Connor highlighted the importance of such funding in areas where research and development is required and, especially in these times of Covid-19, where the economy can be boosted.
“There is significant, but targeted, funding coming in already and that is the key,” he said.
“Funding is being provided for areas that have been identified as in need of development or research.
“There’s a lot of money being invested in Irish higher education and it’s important that resources are targeted into the areas that need it, in terms of rebooting the economy,” he added.
“I think that’s really important, because resources are scarce and they need to be targeted where they’ll be of a short-, medium-, and long-term benefit for the economy.”
The TURN (TU Research Network) report, ‘Connectedness and Collaboration Enabled by Connectivity’, was published in October 2019 and highlighted the need for funding to support the technological universities.
“There was a great piece of research done last year, called the TURN report, which set out the areas that should be supported, in terms of technological universities,” said Dr O’Connor.
“One is the whole area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, because whether it’s the food sector, pharma, or ICT (information and communications technology), they’re important, but expensive, programmes and they need to be supported.
“They’re also going to support more research, particularly focused and applied research, within the MTU, which will get results out there that will support industry and SMEs, in particular,” he added.
“Our motto, all the time, has been that we identify problems in the community or industry, and then we find a solution.
“We’ve got the research, the engagement, and the capacity of our staff, as well.” The amalgamation of CIT and IT Tralee, to form the MTU, will allow the institutes to “spread their wings”, Dr O’Connor said.
“If the MTU is about anything, it’s about new opportunities for students, staff, and the community,” he said.
“It will allow us to spread our wings, in terms of industry engagement, culture, and the community. We have been leading in industry engagement for years and now it has been officially acknowledged that that is what TUs should be doing,” he added.
“So, in fairness to the HEA and Department of Education, they are supporting that.”
Dr O’Connor pointed to the importance of ICT development and research in Cork as a prime example of CIT’s impact now, and the possible future impact of the MTU.
“It’s important, from the point of view of the huge industry in Cork, in particular,” he said.
“Some of the biggest software companies in the world have bases in Cork.
“Cybersecurity is a huge thing worldwide now, and Cyber Ireland, the headquarters of the national cybersecurity centre, is based in CIT,” he added. “That’s because we have experts here in the field.”
Ensuring funding is in place to offer programmes in ICT is crucial for the development of Cork, Dr O’Connor said.
“It’s important to ensure funding is there to support the talent pipeline for those organisations, so that, when they look at expanding, they look at doing so in Cork,” he said.
“They need to know they’ll have the engineers, scientists, and other experts right here.
“That’s the importance of targeted funding,” Dr O’Connor added.
“It’s not about producing worker bees for the pharma or software companies: It’s about producing leaders in the field.
“The same goes on the cultural side of things, as well, from our School of Music students to graduates from the Crawford Art College.
“These are all key to the fabric of our society and they need to be supported, and they are, but that must continue.”