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Challenging times

Pictured at the launch of Mayo County Council/GMIT Community Mini Bus Initiative
AN INTERGRATED APPROACH Pictured at the launch of Mayo County Council/GMIT Community Mini Bus Initiative were, from left: Cllr Gerry Coyle, Cathaoirleach MCC: Des Mahon, County Manager; Dr Katie Sweeney, CEO of Mayo VEC; Brendan O’Hara, Registrar, GMIT; Nigel Jennings, GMIT; Neil Sheridan, Community Development Forum.

Challenging times

Heart of the Matter

Michael Duffy

FOR the first time since its inception in 1994, the Castlebar campus of Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) recorded a drop in student numbers over the last two years. Yet, in the course of an address to last week’s meeting of Mayo County Council, Ms Marion Coy, Director of GMIT, was keen to allay the concerns of some elected representatives, by assuring them that the future is indeed bright for Mayo’s only third level institute.
The Castlebar college has enjoyed a fine working relationship with the Council down through the years and it was clear from the discussion at last week’s meeting that this will be maintained.
Mr Paddy McGuinness, now an elected representative of the Council, was the main instigator of the campaign to locate a third level institute in the county town back in the early 1990s and, while acknowledging the huge success of the venture, he did raise some concerns at last week’s meeting.
Cllr McGuinness said he was of the opinion that there were two facilities in the county which the Mayo public held close to their hearts - those known originally as Mayo RTC and Knock Airport. Anyone who interfered with the success of these projects did so ‘at the peril of the the people of county’, he said.
He expressed concern to Ms Coy in relation to the promotion of the Castlebar campus in comparison to its Galway counterpart, claiming that it was expected by the people of Mayo that there should be a ‘parity of esteem’ between the two venues.
Some of the other concerns expressed by the Fine Gael whip included the promotion of the Castlebar campus on the institute’s website; the demise of the GMIT Liaison Committee; the fact that the college administrator was only on campus three days a week and the lack of quality sporting facilities for the students.
Ostensibly, the purpose of Ms Coy’s address to the monthly meeting was to keep the councillors up to speed on recent developments at the campus, but the Director also took the opportunity to assure Cllr McGuinness and his colleagues of the future viability of the college.
In relation to numbers attending the college, 775 students are enrolled for the 2006/2007 academic year, which is over 200 less than the peak year of 2003/2004 when numbers stood at 987.
However, Ms Coy said that these figures should not lead to ‘doom and gloom’ as they were reflective of ‘a bigger picture’ nationwide, with numbers down in most third level institutes due to demographics.
The main piece of good news which Ms Coy had for the meeting was that October 2007 has been set as the date for the opening of the 2,000 square metre €4 million Health and Science Building on campus. This new facility will lead to improvements in the provision of IT, library and general student facilities.
Ms Coy stated that this building, coupled with the recently-launched Innovation in Business Centre (IiBC), was a sign of the serious investment taking place in the Castlebar campus of GMIT, which was all part of the Strategic Plan for 2004-2009.
In relation to the concerns raised by Cllr McGuinness, Ms Coy said she was also glad to announce that she was in the process of setting up a new Advisory Committee which would draw from all areas of the community, including business and industry, and which would offer advice in relation to courses that can be guaranteed to provide employment on graduation. Sixty per cent of the students who complete courses in the the college gain employment in the west and the aim is to increase this number even further.
“We are trying to develop the range of courses at the institute all the time, as well as discovering some niche courses which will attract students from all over the country. Courses like the business ones usually attract locals from the surrounding counties, but more specialised courses see students from all over the country coming to Castlebar to study.”
Ms Coy added that the institute was the only college in the country to have two counties in  its title. This was unique and everyone associated with the college wanted to keep it that way.
Cllr Pat McHugh said that, having previously served on the Liaison Committee of the college, he was of the opinion that GMIT was the ‘foremost institute of its kind in the country’, while Cllr Frank Chambers welcomed Ms Coy’s comments and said constant communication between the institute and the Council was the way forward.
Ms Coy said she also had plans to develop the college in conjunction with the Council and a recent project which saw the provision of a community bus service, funded by the institute and the Council, was a good example of the integrated approach. The purpose of the buses is to continue to link effectively with local communities and also to help with the dispersal of students throughout the county.
Agreeing with an observation made by Cllr Johnny Mee, Ms Coy said that students who come to live in Castlebar really enjoy their time in college and she said perhaps the key to increasing numbers in the future is to get that message out there among Leaving Cert students before they make up their minds about where they are going to spend their college years.