Turning institutes into technological universities
The country has long had a binary system of higher education with seven universities and 14 institutes of technology. Distinctions between them are blurring, partly because some institutes have broadened the range of their programmes from a narrow emphasis on engineering, science and business to include the humanities, nursing and allied health programmes and so on.
But it is also because of academic drift in some institutes, with more research activity and increasing numbers of students taking higher level programmes at masters and doctorate levels.
Government policy is set against a comprehensive system of higher education and successive administrations have resisted calls to allow mergers across the binary divide. Co-operation is fine, indeed strongly encouraged in clusters to avoid unnecessary duplication of courses, but 'no amalgamations of universities and institutes please' is the official line.
This is prompted by fears that the academic drift would continue and that many would simply ditch technician, apprenticeship and other sub-degree level programmes which are still important to employers.
However, many institutes want the university label. They argue that they suffer when they are trying to recruit students from overseas who do not appreciate that they offer a broad range of programmes up to doctorate level in some cases. They also claim it is easier to attract foreign direct investment into a region that has a university.
This is one of the key arguments made for example in the south east where the city of Waterford has been looking for a university since the 1840s. But a simple rebranding of that city’s institute of technology as a university would spark off demands elsewhere in the country.
The previous Irish administration was determined to avoid a repetition of the decision taken by John Major’s government which effectively upgraded UK polytechnics to universities in 1992. Instead, the Irish government agreed with the recommendations of a report that proposed allowing for a small number of technological universities, or TUs, to arise from mergers of existing institutes of technology.
The new universities, however, would have to have a distinctive mission. The criteria in terms of research activity, numbers of staff with PhDs, percentages of students taking higher qualifications and so forth then had to be worked out and that is when the trouble started.
Some in the traditional universities opposed in principle the notion of a university which offered technician and sub-degree level programmes as well as undergraduate and masters degrees and doctorates. They argued that this would dilute the meaning of the word 'university'.
The percentage of faculty staff who would need PhDs was the subject of much discussion. TU supporters said it should be lowered to allow for the recruitment of people from industry with relevant experience to teach in new-style institutions that would be more in tune with the needs of the workplace.
Others feared it would lead to a dumbing down of the courses on offer and would damage Ireland’s reputation abroad. At bottom, many in the traditional universities really feared more competition for declining state resources and there were demands from some quarters for strict academic criteria which most institutes would never reach.
But a compromise set of criteria was eventually arrived at and three consortia initially emerged as potential TUs. The Dublin Institute of Technology is the oldest and biggest institute and the nearest thing to a technological university the country has and it linked with two other institutes in the capital to draw up a detailed plan.
An international panel has just recommended the scheme get the green light to proceed to the next stage before designation as a technological university. Fortuitously, building work had begun on a new campus for the Dublin institute to bring together students and staff scattered around dozens of sites in the capital.
This is one of the biggest capital building projects in the country and means that Ireland’s first TU will open in shiny new buildings on an extensive site in the north inner city which will be served by an extension of the city’s tramline. No wonder some of those in the city’s three other universities are a bit apprehensive.
In the south and south west, a consortium of three institutes in Cork, Tralee and Limerick put in a bid, but then Limerick pulled out and said it wanted to retain its distinctive mission as an institute of technology for its region. Cork and Tralee are continuing to make progress on their joint bid.
The third application is still awaited. Academic infighting and rivalries have delayed preparation of a promised plan by the Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology.
They are under considerable political pressure from ministers, especially as the government had made a commitment to explore the possibility of a multi-campus university in the south east of the country when it came to power three years ago.
This has become an issue of much media attention and lack of progress could become an important local issue in the next general election, to be held late next year or early in 2016.
A possible fourth consortium in the west, comprising institutes in Galway, Sligo and Letterkenny, is waiting in the wings while seeing how things play out elsewhere. Legislation to allow for mergers of existing institutes of technology and the creation of TUs is due to be enacted next year. The remaining institutes are keeping their powder dry for the moment.
The current policy is to hold the binary line with a strong technological sector complementing and co-operating with the traditional universities. But nobody can predict how things will finish up.
The worst fear is the end result will be a three tiered system with the traditional universities on top, the new technological universities in the middle and the remaining institutes of technology at the bottom, in terms of their standing among students and employers.