Establishing new universities in Ireland

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes for the time allocated to the meeting to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

In the meantime of course, the report on a National Strategy for Higher Education – the Hunt report – set out a framework for converting clusters of institutes of technology (but not individual institutes) into ‘technological universities’ (chapter 8). The report suggested:

‘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.’

The idea behind this therefore is that ‘technological’ universities would be something generically different from ‘normal’ universities, but would also be something different from existing institutes of technology. This would maintain a binary divide in Irish higher education, but apparently one that is qualitatively different, even if that difference is for now somewhat ill defined.

And so the Higher Education Authority has now published a set of possible criteria for this process, prepared by Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne, and on which the HEA is now inviting comments. In looking at these criteria, I am finding it difficult to see how these would clearly identify a university that is different from at least some of those already having that status. Picking up some of the criteria, they include scale (‘an institution large enough to be comparable with existing universities in Ireland’), international standing (‘developed international collaborations such as joint projects, student and staff exchange, and combined provision of programs’), industry links (‘curricula that are developed in close consultation with business, professional and occupational organizations’), research (‘a research strategy that foregrounds [sic] the applied research mission, links to enterprises and the contribution of the TU to innovation and knowledge transfer’), governance (‘a governing body that includes representatives of enterprises, occupations, professions and local communities’), and so on. While all these criteria would not necessarily describe all existing universities, they do cover things that all universities have or do at least some of the time. The difference appears to be mainly that the ‘technological universities’ will also offer programmes that are below honours degree level (as well as honours and postgraduate programmes).

I might stress here that I am not opposed to university status for Waterford. But I do believe that the criteria already contained in the Universities Act 1997 for university status are sufficient, and I don’t see a compelling reason for having different criteria for other institutions also to be called ‘university’. It will be interesting to see what views and opinions are expressed in response to this document by the HEA.

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18 Comments on “Establishing new universities in Ireland”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’ve been reading and hearing about this issue for the better part of twenty years now. And twenty years ago there may have been some validity to having a University in all corners of the Irish State.
    Now, with network links that bring instant communications across the web and physical links that places the regional areas within an hours drive to an existing university center it is a criminal waste of resources establishing new universities when the existing ones could absorb with a bit of creative thinking.
    Further. Melbourne are they having a laugh. I suppose they could have gone as far as Christchurch NZ. But then there might have been some context geographically speaking.

    • no-name Says:

      “…and physical links that places the regional areas within an hours drive to an existing university center…”

      Vincent, where is the university that is within a one hour drive of Waterford? I don’t drive so I’m not sure about those travel times (but I suspect that they far exceed one hour). To travel by train from Waterford to Dublin or Cork takes a minimum of 3.5 hours one way and usually a lot longer (around 5 hours). The lack of an efficient (let’s not start on the comfort factor) public transport infrastructure in Ireland is reason enough in my mind to establish a university in a regional area. Your argument presupposes that all people, living in a regional area who wish to attend university, can drive, can afford a car and wish to use one.

      • Vincent Says:

        UCC. And it’s more or less the same distance to Clonmel,. Even quicker to Cashel. While Kilkenny is now within less than an hour of Dublin. Wexford is a bit more, about an hour and ten.
        But my point is that there should be an annex to TCD or more properly UCC in Waterford. Not that there shouldn’t be one at all. Call it UCS, University College, South. Or NUI, South if you will.
        To my mind the quicker that all Universities and third level are amalgamated into one Jonathan Swift University the better for everyone. Of course, I have to be a realist. What with the half dozen plus one there are just so many options for opening a boiled egg that I’m into the post apocalyptic with that thought ever hatching.

        • Norman Wyse Says:

          Google maps: Waterford – UCC = 1hr 52mins, Wexford – UCD = 1hr 44mins, Kilkenny – DCU = 1hr 29mins, Clonmel – UCC = 1hr 13mins. This is all by car of course, and therefore irrelevant from the point of view of students, unless we want to add ‘cost of car’ to the students’ fees. Even so, just because major town in the south east is within 2hrs of some university, somewhere, by car, doesn’t mean that the region should be denied the cohesive centre of education that every other region has. The fact is, the students have to move to Cork, Limerick and Dublin for ‘university education’. This is leading to a massive transfer of wealth from the south east to other regions.

          Even in your amalgamated university scenario, the south east would still, quite rightly, seek to be a vital node/campus in the overall scheme, and rightly so. The current playing field implies Vital node = university. In the future, it might be ‘top-tier campus’.

          But in any case, don’t assume that Ireland would be better off with one big university than a system of universities. Yes, you will make savings; yes, you will have scale. But you will also have a single, central, university bureaucracy overlooking all university administration, and, far more importantly, you will lose all competition within the sector (domestic competition is still very useful) and any notion that competition or collaboration is useful. Far better, in my opinion, to incentivise collaboration and competition by moving more state research funding towards pan-institution collaborative projects. Degree level education and below requires a certain level of physical access. However there is huge scope for creative divisions of labour between centres with differing expertise in research. A lot could be said on this issue, but there are good reasons for why amalgamated universities can be ultimately less than the sum of their parts.

          • Donegal Mick Says:

            Further to the points made by Norman in relation to distances to universities, if we are to suggest that universities should be established on a regional basis, surely the north west of Ireland is in far more need of a ‘local’ university than the south east.

            Two examples of the distances covered by students from north Donegal to attend universities in Galway or Dublin are as follows: (according to Google Maps,)
            Malin, Co. Donegal, to (a) NUI Galway – 312kms (4hrs 31mins) (b) NUI Dublin (UCD) – 279kms (4hrs 5mins) (c) DCU – 269kms (3hrs 50mins.)
            Brinlack, Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal to UCD – 296kms (4hrs 17mins) and to NUIG – 289kms (4hrs 18mins.)

            As Norman rightly points out, these distances and journey times relate to travel by car directly from home to the college, a luxury not available to the many students who travel by public transport. Undoubtedly, many areas of Ireland could point to equally arduous (and longer) journeys for university education.
            However, such debate misses the point completely; the provision of a high quality and challenging university education must be the guiding principle rather than simply having a ‘local’ university. Is it desirable that we should have a country of universities with reduced or no third level opportunities for the cohort of students who traditionally attended RTCs/IoTs? What facility will be in place to offer level 6 qualifications?

    • Norman Wyse Says:

      I’ve been listening to this argument for the better part of ten years now, that we have enough universities as it is, and ‘sorry, you had a good case but you missed the boat’.

      Firstly, whether or not it is sensible to have 7 or 8 universities in a state like Ireland is unclear. Some countries have less some have more. Compare with Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, etc. The point is we do have universities is each (significant) region, with the exception of the south east. If we are saying there shouldn’t be a university in the south east, then we are also talking about shutting down universities such as UL and DCU, at least. The argument that ‘what’s done is done and it is politically expedient to retain universities in every other region whilst denying the south east,’ is outrageous from the point of view of balanced regional development, and from the point of view of any social contract based “fairness” that is embodied in our constitution.

      Rationalisation can still be an instrument for achieving efficiencies and savings. The number and distribution of institutes can change over time. There is huge scope for collaboration in postgraduate research. However, there is no basis for denying Waterford and the south east a vital node in the 3rd and 4th level education system. Currently, the south east is a weak or peripheral player in the system. This need not be the case, even if there is only a single multi-campus university in Ireland in the future.

      People seem to suggest that creating a university in the south east would be a waste of money. On what basis? WIT is already there, operating at a reasonably high level, and is already the size of a number of universities. How much is it costing Ireland and the south east not to upgrade it? Would a university provide better value for money than an IoT? Probably. Even just the act of giving the institute official sanction as a high functioning institute, beyond that of the IoT sector in general, would do a lot for confidence, and would lead to growth in business and collaboration with little or no additional investment. The IDA might then find it within their compass to recommend Waterford and the south east for FDI, something they have felt ill at ease in doing in the recent past.

      There is little sympathy outside of the south east, particularly from respectable “national-minded” individuals (who have no biases at all), for the inflows and outflows of talent, money, opportunity, etc., between Irish regions. But they might try to understand, nonetheless, that there is something profoundly demoralising and corrosive about the population of one region propping up the landlords of another, and exporting talent and opportunity along with it. The south east has become (according to a number of reports) more deprived than the west, and in some cases the border region, in terms of employment and average earnings. The stoney grey soil of Monaghan proving more productive than traditionally wealthy counties like Kilkenny. The lack of a university in the south east has been identified as the core reason for the south east not living up to its potential. I think that most people feel that WIT can grow into this role, and is progressing well in this direction, but it needs to be given official sanction and the roadblocks need to be taken out of its path.

      • Vincent Says:

        How much did Glanbia invest in the USA over the last twenty years. You need to answer that before you call poverty. The southeast is poor in the same way Gloucestershire is poor.

  2. Al Says:

    I understand their ambition, to have what “everyone else” has, but wont giving them their “share” dilute what the share of others.
    Plus if one looks at the development: rtc to iot to tu; where will it end?
    I don’t think that they, in demanding this, are being radical enough. Rather than moving up the ladder that govt has provided them they should be challenging the ladder itself!

  3. Eddie Says:

    Not intruding into local arguments here, is this the case of bridging the binary divide or granting an institute a university status dropping the decades of ethos of an institute? In ether case, one only has to look the status and stature of so called moder universities i Britain-the former polytechnics/institutes. Upgrading so fat in Britain benefitted only the senior management many doubled the size of their paypackets and bonuses!

    • Norman Wyse Says:

      I think the idea is retain mission and ethos but acknowledge/promote quality and a higher level of operation. Arguably the ethos of WIT, more so than other IoTs, is subject to defining itself on the basis of what it isn’t rather than by what it is anyway. A situation probably unavoidable given the lack of a university in the region.

      I think the polytechnic example in the UK is always trotted out as an example of what not to do, but I wonder if those who hold that opinion are fully justified in their assertions. Are the UK, those region, or those institutes actually worse off? In any case, nobody is suggesting that all IoTs be upgraded to technological university. Far from it, the number looks more likely to be 2.

    • Norman Wyse Says:

      And by the way, these are not local arguments. They concern the Irish higher education system as a whole. Defining TCD as a ‘national institution’ and WIT as a ‘local institution’ is part of the problem.

  4. Tim Says:

    Two points to add to the mix of this passionate and prickly debate.
    Interestingly it looks like WIT will have to significantly increase its percentage of level 6&7 activity to meet the Marginson criteria.
    WIT has around 25% of the HE market in the SouthEast; the Universities hold around 40% of SE market. This suggests that the gap in the region is up the NAQI levels rather than down, and one wonders how much of that brain drain from the region (how much of that 40% comes back).

  5. cormac Says:

    On Ferdinand’s opening comments, my experience as a WIT staff member is that the university issue is discussed very little amongst staff within the Institute, and much more in the wider Waterford community.
    This is probably because the regional argument is the stronger of the two; research does suggest that a university could draw international investment to a region of Ireland that badly needs it. It also happens that WIT has become one of the leaders in its sector (as measured by all the usual parameters in countlesss reports), so the two add up to a a fairly strong argument; perhaps this is why the argument will not go away.
    It is no coincidence that WIT was the first college to be upgraded to IoT status – it had established a number of firsts in its sector. Howewer, regional politics then dictated that all institutes would be upgraded. It is my belief that this is the real bloc to any further movement. Could an Irish government resist the inevitable political pressure for all IoTs to be upgraded, giving us far too many universities? No, therefore nothing will happen.

  6. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    Universities do more than give people degrees. In many cases, they supply the attached area with graduates and to some extent a population.

    The perennial problem with Universities in Ireland is that most of them are in or around Dublin City. The effect of this has been to drain undergraduates from all over the country into that city, resulting in many of them staying there indefinitely. This effect has been well document in the UK for the case of London, but is mitigated by the presence of other universities and university towns elsewhere in that country, and indeed by government policy in some cases.

    Ireland meanwhile has only UCC, NUI Galway, and the recent UL situation outside the Dublin region, each the only University in its attached hinterland. The south east and Waterford City has no University and only WIT, and probably loses a thousand or more young people to Dublin each and every year. The boom in fact probably accelerated this process. A reminder is perhaps needed that Waterford is one of the five cities in Ireland.

    The problem is in effect not the lack of Universities in Ireland but rather their geographical distribution. The provinces have effectively subsidised Dublin Universities with undergraduate students since time immemorial, at a huge cost to themselves. The Dublin Universities may be content with this situation, but the creation of the University of Limerick, and agitation for a University of Waterford shows that the provinces are not.

    This is a larger issue than simply the number of universities and goes to the heart of Irelands economic and regional development since about the 1800s. But that’s a discussion for a different thread. Nevertheless, people should be ware of it.

  7. jennydarmody Says:

    Someone argued with me recently over the university status of DCU. He said the old rules stated that a university required a medical degree (not just nursing) in order to gain status. He said that DCU is only now a university because those rules have changed, but it is the only one that still does not offer this. Is any of that true?


    • Jenny, absolutely none of that is true. There was never such a rule, ever, and if there were such a rule it would not just be DCU that would be affected. Two-thirds of UK universities don’t have medical schools.


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