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€3.75 million invested to secure GMIT’s future in Castlebar

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Edwin McGreal

The Castlebar campus of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology needs to grow its student numbers by at least 25 percent in order to secure its long-term viability.
That’s according to the report published on Friday by the Working Group tasked with ‘developing a sustainable plan’ for the campus.
The Working Group was established last March by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton on foot of local concerns about the campus’s future.  
Their report was published hand-in-hand with an announcement by Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor of a ring-fenced investment of €750,000 per year for the next five years.
The report states that the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority and GMIT have ‘stressed that the Mayo campus must remain an integral part of the (GMIT) institute, and that a sustainable way forward must be found’.
They add that ‘there has been strong and growing concern from staff, students and wider community in Mayo that the future of the college was under threat, and that affirmative action was required in order to safeguard its future’.
The Working Group elaborate what they mean by sustainability.
“Ultimately, sustainability will mean a manageable ongoing contribution from GMIT and from the Exchequer to directly subsidise running costs, coupled with an increased student cohort supporting greater revenue generation and a closely controlled cost base that will allow the Mayo campus to break even each year. This may require some short to medium term investment to address issues, develop opportunities, allow new programmes to be properly established and structural changes to be realised, but any such additional investment should be time-bound and must end with a sustainable institution trading on this basis.”
The Mayo campus budgeted for a loss of €1.6 million for 2017 alone. The report outlines significant falls in student numbers in recent years. The whole time equivalent (full-time students plus the accumulation of part-time credits averaged across the full-time equivalent) figure has dropped from 824.4 in the 2014/2015 academic year to 680.9 in the 2016/2017 year, a fall of 17 percent.
As of March 2017, the student numbers were 645 full-time and 187 part-time students at the campus.
The report states that were it not for growth in numbers of students taking up health and social care programmes, the numbers of students at the campus would have fallen even more sharply.
The Working Group state that the ‘cost gap’ at GMIT in Castlebar will only be fully closed by increasing the whole time equivalent student base at the campus to between 850 and 900 students, ‘alongside other income generation and cost reduction measures’.  
This increase in its whole time equivalent figures represents an increase of between 25 and 32 percent on its current numbers.
Worryingly, the report revealed that only 40 Leaving Cert students in Mayo from the 2016 Leaving Cert classes took up a course on the Castlebar campus in the 2016/17 academic year, less than three percent of school leavers in the county.
The report states that a fall in demand for many courses has led to a high staff to student ratio in Castlebar of 1:11, compared to 1:16 for GMIT as a whole and 1:18 across the the institutes of technology sector.
“Such levels are clearly not sustainable into the medium and long-term and a range of solutions need to be considered. First and foremost this should focus on finding ways to develop new and market and revise existing programmes to increase demand. However the institute also needs to consider how staff resources available could be used to progress the marketing and operational changes needed to help the campus move towards sustainability and allowing staff who wish to move to Galway the opportunity to do so.”
The Working Group feel that the campus strategy developed in 2013 and reviewed last year has ‘not been given sufficient time to fully bed in’.
The report makes 33 recommendations. The very first one is for the appointment of a dedicated permanent Head of Campus. There has been no permanent Head of Campus since 2012.
The Working Group argue that the lack of such a full-time role has led to increased tension between staff in Castlebar and the Governing Body of GMIT.
The appointment of a permanent Head of Campus is ‘key to forging this renewed relationship’ the Working Group argue.  
Among the other key recommendations of the report are: reestablishing the Mayo campus sub-committee of the GMIT Governing Body; a greater Mayo representation on the Governing Body; the appointment of an interim external facilitator to transition to the new structural and operational arrangements; and the provision of a distinct marketing plan for the 2018/19 academic year.
A review of the plan is due to take place by the end of 2019.
Welcoming the report, President of GMIT Dr Fergal Barry said: “The report’s aim, which sets out a plan to ensure a sustainable future for GMIT’s Mayo campus, is fully supported by the Institute and each recommendation will be implemented in full. The success of our Mayo campus is integral to the future of GMIT and its position as a driver of regional development.”
Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers has called for the five-year funding to be continued ‘long after that, but I welcome the initial steps that are being taken’.
She also welcomed the announcement by Minister Mitchell O’Connor of capital funding to repair part of the roof in the GMIT Castlebar campus. 

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