The Question of a University for the South-East

The Question of a University for the South-East

Beside the fantastic St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin on Tuesday, I also enjoyed reading the book by John Walshe over the past long weekend.

The book, titled ‘An Education: How an outsider became an insider – and learned what really goes on in Irish government’, is about what Walshe has encountered and learned during his time – more than three years – in the government as a special adviser to education minister Ruairi Quinn until he announced his decision to resign as minister on 2 July 2014.

I know very little, if not nothing, about politics in general, neither am I interested in too much. Walshe’s book is of big interest to me in particular because he has great insights into the higher education sector in Ireland, although he has also talked much about primary and secondary education.

In one chapter, Walshe talked about the proposed merge of Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology into a Technological University (TU), a status many think would benefit the city and its region. The following written by Walshe was not aware to me until I read it:

‘Back in the 1840s, at the time of the formation of the Queen’s University of Ireland, local politicians had made strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to locate a university in their city [Waterford]. Instead, the three constituent colleges were set up in Belfast, Cork and Galway (the forerunners of QUB, UCC and NUIG).’

After a historical note, Walshe continued with the contemporary arguments on the issue:

‘In recent times, the focus had been on upgrading Waterford’s Institute of Technology (WIT). The city feels that inward investment is stymied by its lack of a university. The constant brain drain of very bright students to universities elsewhere affects the region in many ways, and local businesspeople believe that it is difficult to persuade industry to invest in a region without a university.’

This blog intends to draw some comparisons between the socio-economic conditions of three counties: Cork, Galway and Waterford.

Although it is of interest to see if these three counties (and cities) show different characteristics such as population, labour force, and inward investment, the comparisons by no means suggest the causality between the existence of a university and the different, if any, characteristics.


There is a large body of research arguing that cities or city regions of scale are the focal points for investment, innovation, and growth. Figure 1 below shows the population changes in the three counties between 1841 and 2011, based on the CSO data.

Figure 1

Population in counties of Cork, Galway and Waterford, 1841-2011

Source: CSO.

In all of the three counties, the population sharply decreased in the first few decades after 1841. During the Great Famine, a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852, approximately 1 million people died and 1 million more emigrated from the country. In the first half of the 20th century, Ireland experiences a series of wars, including World War I, Irish Civil War and World War II, all costing many lives of soldiers and civilians. As Figure 1 shows, the population in the three counties did not start increasing again until the 1960s. From a longitudinal perspective, Waterford has always been a smaller county than Cork and Galway in terms of population.

Figure 2

Population in counties of Cork, Galway and Waterford, 1961-2011

Source: CSO.

Figure 2 compares the three counties in terms of population growth during 1961 and 2011, with the population in 1961 set as 100. The population growth in Galway was slower than in the other two counties in the 1970s and 1980s, but it outpaced Cork in the mid-1990s and Waterford in the early 2000s. Waterford has shown a faster growth of population than Cork during the whole period, but one should bear in mind that Waterford is much smaller in population size.

Disposable income

Figure 3 shows the disposable income levels of the three counties between 2000 and 2011, all in relative to the state average of 100. In 2000, Waterford actually led its two counterparts in terms of disposable income per person, but it dropped to the bottom in 2009 and 2010. The performance of Cork has been most impressive among the three, as its disposable income level increased above the national level in 2010, while the other two counties were still well below. It would be interesting to see how they recover from the economic crisis in the more recent years.

Figure 3

Index of disposable income per person, 2000-2011

Source: CSO.

Industry structure

Figure 4 below compares the industry structures of the three counties, measured by the percentages of employment in key industries in 2011. The industries are aggregated into primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors in Figure 5. In general, the industry structures of the three counties are quite similar to each other, although Waterford has a slightly larger secondary sector and a slightly smaller tertiary sector. It is difficult to speculate what effects this difference would have on the overall economic performance.

Figure 4

Population 15 years and over at work by industry

Source: CSO.

Figure 5

Population 15 years and over at work by sector

Source: CSO.

Inward Investment

County-by-county data of inward investment is not easily accessible. Nevertheless, there is a wide recognition of the spatial concentration of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Dublin and Cork. The Horizon 2020 strategy, published by the IDA, sets a regional economic development target of 50 per cent of investments between 2010 and 2014 in regions outside the above two regions. In 2012, the result was 25 per cent and increased to 30 per cent in 2013, still far behind the target. Possibly, both Galway and Waterford lag behind Cork in terms of receiving FDI. As argued by the IDA, there are many complex factors influencing investor location decision making such as increasing preference of investors globally for cities of scale with 1 million plus population.


Without suggesting any causality relationships between the establishment of a university and economic development of the region where that university is situated, this blog has compared some key economic indicators of Cork, Galway and Waterford. In general, the three counties are comparable in most aspects. Although it is true that Waterford is missing out on inward investment, so do Galway and most counties outside Dublin and Cork. The question of a university for the south-east is a complicated one and might be asked by people due to various reasons. Nevertheless, little strong evidence has been found to support the argument that Waterford lags behind, economically, just because of the absence of a university.


4 thoughts on “The Question of a University for the South-East

  1. Interesting stuff. You miss out on much of the data that motivates the demand for a university in Waterford. Three salient numbers- government investment in higher ed.(per capita by region), long term unemployment and higher ed participation rates.

    The recurring grant investment into higher education for the four regional cities is as follows:
    Recurring grant from Central Govt. Higher Ed. spend per City 2011 (HEA annual report)

    Galway 154,544,956
    Cork 197,679,703
    Limerick 134,004,563
    Waterford 45,583,698

    What tax payers are told we are getting for this investment in a knowledge economy, one with the promise of jobs to keep our young people from emigrating or migrating to Dublin. Participation in higher education by young people from the south east is half the national average, and even that low level of participation often involves migration to another region, with little chance of returning home. Unemployment in the south east has been consistently double the national average since the early 1990s.

    IDA visit stats are published by county, and they represent a good proxy data point for inward investment. As one might expect virtually none in Waterford and the South East (2000-2011, a little pick up since then), with plenty in the other regional cities.

  2. A good and useful post, but I would have been much more interested in the same data for regions, rather than counties. The question is how much a university would benefit the southeast region, which is much larger than the county…..

  3. P.S. Re “the proposed merge of Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology into a Technological University (TU), a status many think would benefit the city and its region.” The problem is that the merger and the university question are not the same question. Although the government have organised things in such a way that the merger is a pre-requisite, the problem is that a merger may render university status less likely, because both colleges have a large cohort or research inactive staff

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