It’s the same vexed question that has hung over the ambitions of the Mayo campus of GMIT since it opened its doors 25 years ago. The question of who calls the shots on what courses, what staffing, and what autonomy would be allowed to the Castlebar campus is a perennial source of anger on a wide scale.
The dispute has flared once more with the reported diktat from the parent body in Galway that business courses in Castlebar are to cease and that the tutorial staff will in future report directly to Galway. The allegation that the instruction was conveyed to the academic staff involved on a Sunday evening has only added fuel to the fire.
It was as long ago as 2006 when Paddy McGuinness, the man responsible for securing the third-level college for Mayo, was warning that the campus was being starved of resources, and that its long-term future was in doubt. It was being suppressed, he said, by higher authorities, and it took no genius to know what he was referring to. Vested interests in the Galway headquarters would prevent the expansion of Castlebar and, it was darkly hinted, such had been the intention right from the get-go.
Ten years later, local public anger led to the formation of the GMIT Action Group when it was announced that courses at the campus were being cut, and 15 staff were being reassigned to Galway.
On a visit to the college in 2017, the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, was astounded to find nets in place around the building to prevent tiles falling off the roof, while strategically placed buckets in the lecture rooms were being used to catch the leaking rainwater. By ironic coincidence, on the same week as the rain was seeping into the Castlebar lecture rooms, the mother ship in Galway was acquiring funds for a new minibus to cater for its outreach centres.
Martin noted that there had been no capital investment in the Mayo campus in the previous ten years, and agreed that having the centre depend on the whim of Galway for finance and development made little sense. His solution, he said, would be to ringfence exchequer funding for Castlebar, to be channelled directly rather than through the feeding tube of Galway.
It is a measure of the Mayo status as the poor relation that the county has such little representation on the governing body of GMIT. Of the 18 member board, six places are reserved for county councillors representing the catchment area – not one comes from Mayo. This is in stark contrast to NUIG, where Mayo County Council enjoys a governing board seat, since the university’s inception. Of the remaining seats on the GMIT board, all are heavily weighted in favour of Galway.
Those who do speak out against the obvious inequity are well aware that they are between a rock and a hard place. To question the future of the Castlebar campus could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To talk down the campus too much is to risk future potential students, and their parents, opting away from enrolment in Castlebar, further exacerbating the danger.
But perhaps there is hope on the horizon. The proposal of the Connaught Ulster Alliance for a new Technological University comprising GMIT, Sligo IT and Letterkenny Institute may mean a complete shake up of the present jigsaw. And if it were to become reality, where else would make geographic sense than to have it headquartered in Castlebar ?
Now, there is something for our legislators, elected representatives and planners to get their teeth into.