Despite the broadly held view of Ireland being largely a Catholic country with an education system dominated by the Catholic Church, the Republic today does not have a Catholic University. In response to the publication earlier this year of the Hunt Report, a government-initiated strategy paper focusing on the future of higher education in Ireland, Dr. Peader Cremin, president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, makes the case for a Catholic University on the island.
In an article in October 2008, I raised the question of the need for a Catholic university in Ireland. It may be time to consider again the value of amalgamating the existing Catholic institutions into a federal university, as happened in Australia where a number of Catholic institutions came together to form the Catholic University of Australia.
The National Strategy (Hunt Report) argues that there is "significant potential for institutional collaboration on a North-South basis to advance cross-border regional development and strategically advance Irish higher education on an all-island basis."
A Catholic university for all of Ireland should include St. Mary's College in Belfast for strategic and cultural reasons, as well as for financial ones. In this context, the National Strategy contains a rather cryptic statement that should not be ignored by the Colleges of Education when it states that there may be a case for facilitating "the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities." Clearly, a Catholic University would have a mission very different to that of the existing Irish universities.
Given the numbers coming through Catholic schools at primary and post-primary levels a Catholic university would have a mission very different to that of the existing Irish universities. Given the numbers coming through Catholic schools at primary and post-primary levels, it is extraordinary that Irish Catholics have to emigrate if they wish to study at a Catholic university.
It is difficult to explain to people outside of Ireland why, in what is perceived as a very Catholic country, it is not possible to study business, law, engineering, science or medicine in a Catholic university. Is it appropriate that the Catholic community entrusts the crucial formation of all of these professions to the State?
The Catholic community in Ireland has never been in greater need of effective intellectual leadership, especially among the laity, than it has been in recent years. In other countries, those graduating from Catholic universities offer this voice. This option is not available in Ireland which consequently lacks the powerhouse for the formation of intellectual leadership and for the promotion of intellectual discourse in a clear and unapologetic manner that is essential in an increasingly secularized Ireland.
This lack of choice in Irish higher education is rarely, if ever, commented on in the national media and is nowherementioned in the National Strategy for Higher Education (Hunt Report). It will be interesting to see if the gap generated by the absence of a well-educated and informed lay faithful will be identified as a weakness by the Apostolic Visitation which has been charged by the Holy Father with finding ways of contributing to the desired spiritual and moral renewal of the Church in Ireland.
Some months ago, the then tánaiste and Minister for Education Mary Coughlan engaged in a high-profile trip, along with a large group of representatives of Irish educational institutions, to the United States for the purpose of promoting Ireland as an attractive study destination for third-level study.
No representative of any Catholic college was invited to participate in the visit, despite the fact that Catholic colleges, such as Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, are among the most highly desired institutions in the USA.
An entire chapter of the National Strategy is devoted to "Internationalizing Higher Education," extolling the benefits of attracting more international students into Ireland.
The Report states that "Ireland has unique strengths that potentially provide us with a competitive advantage in becoming a leading centre of international education. We are a small, safe and friendly country. Our people are renowned for strengths in innovation, creativity and collaboration. We are a member of the European Union, and have extensive global links through our diaspora.
"We are an English-speaking country with a unique cultural heritage. We have an education system that has had a long history of international engagement and which is globally respected"
There is no reference to the niche that a Catholic University might represent or to the attractions for members of the diaspora in coming to study at a Catholic institution in their ancestral homeland.
The clarity with which the State has set out its stall is to be welcomed in that no-one can now say that they did not know that the Catholic (and Church of Ireland) institutions had been served with a potential death sentence. Despite the comfort that our Constitution seems to offer, it is arguable that the State and its agencies are set on a path that will see the demise of faith-based institutions at third level.
The State plan now needs to be countered by a vision and a strategy, setting out the goals for Catholic higher education in Ireland over the same twenty year period to 2030.
In the current situation, the entire Catholic community will need to consider the importance of a Catholic presence in the higher education sector. Those in leadership positions in the various colleges that are under threat will have to address their vision for the future of those institutions.
The staff of these institutions will need considerable support if they are to be saved from the worries that come when fundamental issues, such as employment status and job security, are questioned.
The hierarchy, already under siege for other reasons, will need to give an appropriate level of attention to planning for the future of Catholic higher education. Clearly, the Council for Education of the Irish Episcopal Conference needs to be tasked with presenting its vision for this field at the earliest possible stage.
Ultimately, the future of Catholic education will depend on resourcing. If the State pulls the rug and withdraws all funding from Catholic Colleges, what alternative funding streams can be put in place? In other jurisdictions, significant levels of endowment help guarantee employment, research and scholarship in Catholic Universities.
To date, no institution in Ireland, Catholic or otherwise, has managed to raise the kind of money that is required in order to give financial security and independence to any university. At a time when the State is effectively bankrupt and in the control of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, it is difficult to see where the kind of funding needed for this purpose can be raised.
Ireland does not show evidence of the kind of philanthropic culture that might support an initiative to build a Catholic University.
The Irish diaspora, especially in the United States has considerable expertise in this field. Many significant American universities have grown out of the seeds planted (and money given) by emigrants who wanted to ensure that their children would have the option of a Catholic education.
Members of the diaspora, particularly those who continue to cherish and value the faith that they took as a gift from Ireland are ready to "give back." During the past century, very large numbers of Irish priests and religious have contributed to the strength of the Catholic faith and of Catholic education in the USA. But there are many other ways in which we might engage with the diaspora to our mutual benefit. Creating a Catholic University in Ireland, where the sons and daughters of the diaspora could return to study, could have considerable appeal, as well as being financially beneficial.
In recent years, many people from the worlds of business, banking and other fields, have given generously to foundations attached to the State universities. In the future, those people will need to reconsider where such gifts are going. If they are committed Catholics, it is reasonable to suggest that they may need to consider prioritizing gifts in support of Catholic higher education. In fact, if the vision of a Catholic University is to take wings, every diocese, every parish and every committed Catholic will need to subscribe to this idea.
Second collections at Masses, church gate giving, covenants, bequests and legacies in favor of Catholic foundations, such as the Mary Immaculate College Foundation, will need to become the norm. The vision set out in this paper may seem hopelessly optimistic at this time of financial gloom and depression. The idea of a Catholic university for Ireland is undoubtedly challenging. But it is in the nature of our faith that we believe that it is possible to build the kingdom and to construct a better future. There is no force greater than an idea whose time has come.