A long-awaited decision on the Munster Technological University (MTU) is expected to be made shortly as an independent report sparks uncertainty over the project.
Following a formal application earlier this year, an international panel of experts assessed a bid by Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and the Institute of Technology Tralee (ITT) to become Munster’s first technological university.
Seeking to assess the project before its designation as a technological university (TU), the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is to review the panel’s findings next week, before making a recommendation to the Government on the creation of the university.
However, it is understood the panel has expressed concerns over the viability of the project due to reported financial concerns at IT Tralee.
Figures previously provided to the committee of public accounts (PAC) showed that IT Tralee was €1.8m overdrawn at the end of 2016, the latest full accounts available.
According to The Irish Times, CIT governing authorities members were recently warned that the current debt at IT Tralee could rise from €10 million to €21 million in a worst-case scenario.
The HEA is to consider the findings of this expert panel at its next meeting on July 2, with the report and any observations to be submitted to Education Minister Joe McHugh shortly after, a HEA spokesman confirmed.
A spokesman for the department of education said: “There is a process set out in legislation to be followed in respect of a TU designation. Once the recommendation is received, the Minister for Education and Skills exercises a statutory decision-making role.”
While this process is underway it “would not be appropriate to comment”, he added.
The Department of Education awarded €2 million to the MTU in 2018 to work on the development of its TU status. This followed an additional €2.3 million previously awarded in 2017.
CIT and ITT have been working towards achieving a Technological University designation since 2013.
Plans to combine the two institutions was initially met with resistance, with the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), representing staff at both institutions, fearing the ‘merger’ could lead to job losses and rationalisation.
However, an agreement was reached last year between both TUI branches and management to 'safeguard' jobs and regional provision.
When contacted for a statement, the Munster Technological University declined to comment.
Meanwhile, plans to develop a South East technological university, which would see Institutes of Technology in Carlow and in Waterford seek a designation have also been delayed.
Following the rejection of an agreement between TUI representatives at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), the governing body is to consider this development at its next meeting, a spokesperson confirmed. "Based on international experience in higher education mergers, it is not unusual for projects like this to face industrial relations challenges."