Following mooted plans to upgrade the status of Institutes of Technology, Sally Hayden explores the ramifications for Ireland’s Higher Education system.
Amidst the cut-backs and funding crisis throughout third level education, the government’s proposal to upgrade certain Institutes of Technology (IT) to technological universities has been met with a lot of criticism and a unanimous outcry from the country’s seven university presidents. Suggested in the Hunt Report, this move could see a whole new type of university emerge with a different focus from traditional institutions.
Regions where the suggested reforms are being considered include the Southeast (Carlow and Tralee ITs), the Border Midland and Western (BMW) region (Athlone, Dundalk, Galway-Mayo, Letterkenny, and Sligo ITs), and Dublin (DIT and Tallaght IT). The idea has also received strong support from several senior Cabinet figures, including Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, who represent Kilkenny and Wexford in the Dáil.
Athlone Institute of Technology President, Prof. Ciarán Ó Catháin, explains the ambitions of the project. “We are looking to create a differentiated institution, one that will be known for the excellence of its teaching and learning, and for its close collaboration with industry. Such a technological university will be much more than the sum of its parts, it will be a powerful agent of change in higher education for all the communities and stakeholders involved.”
However, the plan is still in its infancy according to Higher Education Authority spokesperson Malcolm Byrne. “First of all there’s no decision that has been made about giving university status to anybody yet. What’s provided for in the National Strategy for Higher Education, the Hunt Report, is for the concept of a technological university and it’s essentially a university along the lines as we know it but it would be more focused on technology and indeed industry.
“What has happened is that the HEA has drawn up the criteria for what that technological university should be. Those criteria will be published in February and it will then be up to either individual institutions or groups of institutions to come together and to apply to become a technological university,” he says. “It’s not just going to be a name change from X Institute of Technology to X Technological University, they will have to meet the very rigorous standards that will be set out and that will be checked by both an Irish panel and an international panel … if it’s determined that they reach the standards that are set out in the criteria then a recommendation will come from the panel that the combination would be able to be a technological university.”
The debate on what exactly these criteria will be is ongoing, and rumoured to now be involving various ministers. So far it has been accepted that the new universities would be expected to move away from the arts and humanities courses and focus on technology and the sciences. But what actually is the difference between a university of the type that currently exists, and one that is ‘technological’?
Gerard Casey, UCD Professor of Philosophy, is sceptical of what he says is politically- fuelled “creeping universityitus” and claims there has always been a fundamental gap between the two kinds of institutions. He says that one of the traditional variations has always been in the way a student is trained to think. “The main difference, let’s say in relation to something like engineering, because they both do that, was that the ITs, whether they’re designed to do this or not, were producing people who were employment-fit almost immediately. That is to say they fitted into the existing employment structure, they went out into the job market with the skills they needed for that job market. The difference [with] a university education, however, in engineering is that you’re training people to devise the solutions to problems that don’t yet exist.”
The proposed promotion then seems at variance with a view President Michael Higgins echoed last week when speaking about the “intellectual crisis” he believes Ireland is facing. He spoke about the special role of the university; “And were universities not special places, the citizens of the future may ask, for the generation of alternatives in science, culture and philosophy? The universities have a great challenge in the questions that are posed now, questions that are beyond ones of a narrow utility.”
However Professor Joe Carthy, principle of the UCD College of Science, does not agree that technological university can’t make a contribution to thought and development. “I think there’s a good tradition of technical universities in other countries, in Germany and in the United States, the best known being Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and no one would dispute its contribution to global education so I wouldn’t be too concerned. I think university status would mean that the university academics would have the freedom to do the kind of research that they need to do. I think, and one assumes, that they would be able for excellence in their areas.”
Assurances by Byrne that “the standards that would be expected in academic terms would be the same as any other university” lend weight to this appraisal.
Outside of the debate over educational approach, the way upgraded existing ITs to university status would benefit rural areas is also something that has been highlighted. Irish universities are currently very urban-centric, and there has long been a desire by some to alter this. It is hoped that new university status will promote and develop rural regions, not only by keeping students in the area, but also through the work that they hope to carry out.
“How a BMW Technology University will best serve the needs of this region is at the heart of our discussions,” according to Dundalk Institute of Technology President, Denis Cummins. “Research and innovation that supports indigenous and multinational industry will be central to its operation, which will be a catalyst for job creation. This will build on our substantial track record of supporting enterprise.”
Yet research is another topic that causes controversy. Byrne says that “One of the requirements [to becoming a university] is in the area of research and there is that issue between research and learning, so those criteria are going to have to be set out. I’m not going to pre-empt what the criteria are because they still need publication, but obviously research would be one of them. Clearly anyone who wishes to apply for designation as a technological university would have to reach or exceed the criteria that [is] set out.”
If the extra funding required to research and publish is considered, Casey believes that these reforms don’t make sense right now. He points out the much larger teaching involvement in ITs means that they currently don’t have time to research, and questions whether the new dispensation would result in more staff being required to provide time to do both.“It’s not like waving your magic wand, like Cinderella’s fairy godmother turning the mice into horses, it doesn’t quite work like that. You have to think it through. It’s a change in emphasis, it’s a change in what you do. A significant change. It’s not just a name, it’s a different reality.”
He passionately outlines the real crux of the issue as he sees it. “Has anybody thought this through? We’re being systematically cut in here, right now we literally have an embargo on tea and biscuits … soon they’ll have us out cleaning the floor. The universities in Ireland are plummeting down the rankings for whatever they’re worth, which is not much as far as I’m concerned. The bottom is falling out of the market. There’s an embargo here on buying books for the library. We cannot buy books for our library. This is in a research institution. It’s pathetic.”
Carthy, while supportive of the overall idea, echoes this sentiment. “There’s almost an implicit thing that it’s not going to cost anything, and it’s difficult to believe that that could be the situation … Some people kind of think it’s almost like you’re just changing the name plates, like the current institutes become universities and there’s no cost change. I suspect that’s not the case.” He continued by saying that there was a certain snobbishness associated with gaining university status and that the plan could affect CAO choices, even if no structural or budgetary changes were introduced. University status, even as just a name, can affect an institution’s ability to attract top students.
It is likely that real reform will require investment in existing ITs and the question is, do we need to spend to aid recovery? In a joint press release by the Presidents of DIT, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown it is suggested that perhaps these new institutions would respond to what Ireland is currently lacking, which could in turn aid the economy. “In the context of Ireland’s national recovery plan, we will work towards building a new and exciting civic and technological institution, providing a world-class experience for our students, and developing graduates who will respond to the needs of society.”
However the issue of cost will not simply disappear. The exact criteria for the upgrades will be revealed in February, when we can expect the funding debate to reach a climax. Technological universities exist successfully worldwide, and lend to the production of a more diverse and skilled workforce. The benefit that would be brought to rural areas is also undeniable, but it is a sad fact that in Ireland education cannot function or compete internationally without substantial money coming in. Without funding these new technological universities could not get off the ground and into the rankings. Without substantial funding and genuine re-organisation, a superficial change in label will do little to paper over the cracks emerging across the Irish higher education system.