Scrapping NUI will hurt the Irish language, O'Keeffe told
EDUCATION Minister Batt O'Keeffe's sudden decision to scrap the National University of Ireland (NUI) could spell serious problems for the Irish language, it was warned yesterday.
At present the NUI insists that students enrolling on most of its courses have English, Irish and a third language.
But, in future, those decisions will be taken by the individual universities in Galway, Cork, Maynooth and UCD. President of NUI Galway Professor Jim Browne said last night that Irish would continue to be an essential matriculation requirement but sources expected pressure on the other universities to weaken the requirement.
"It won't happen immediately, but I can see it developing over time," said one well-placed university administrator.
Irish language organisations were cautious, saying they would probably seek discussions with the universities.
Conradh na Gaeilge secretary Julian de Spainn said: "We would hope that the universities that were under NUI retain the Irish language as an entry requirement.
"It would make sense to avoid the example of our nearest neighbour, England, which removed language learning as an obligation in the schools and has seen the numbers of students taking languages at second level fall catastrophically," he said.
The future of Irish is only one of the unknowns following the decision to dissolve the NUI.
UCD President Dr Hugh Brady, who is the NUI vice-chancellor, said they would be seeking clarification on the form of legislation that Mr O'Keeffe had in mind for the universities.
"We are confident, however, that it will be possible to work with government to come up with a solution that protects the integrity and international reputation of the NUI degree," he said.
Prof Browne said he would also have concerns over the NUI brand name and he wondered what signal breaking up the NUI would send in terms of ensuring greater co-operation and collaboration between the universities.
Mr O'Keeffe said he acknowledged the important role the NUI had played in Irish education for more than a century.
"However, the central role of the NUI was significantly reduced in the Universities Act 1997, and the need to have a separate body undertaking what is now a limited set of functions has been outlived," he said.
In the October 2008 Budget, the Government announced that the NUI's functions would be considered in the context of the establishment of an amalgamated qualifications and quality assurance agency.
A bill to establish such an agency for the further and higher education sectors is now being drafted.
NUI has relationships with a number of colleges, such as the Milltown Institute in Dublin.
"Most of these colleges have already been exploring possible future options for award-making and when the dissolution is completed these colleges will need to enter new awarding arrangements," Mr O'Keeffe added.